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Monday, 13 June 2022 13:30

Respect the ‘Hustle’

It’s kind of incredible to think that Adam Sandler has been a major part of the pop cultural firmament for three decades at this point. Love him or hate him – and it’s likely that you have one of those opinions – you can’t deny the impact that he’s had.

But while many tend to dismiss him out of hand for his (admittedly uneven) filmography – and make no mistake, he’s made more than his share of clunkers over the years – he’s also got a deep well of talent, and when he delves into it, it can be something special.

Sandler’s latest is “Hustle,” an original film streaming on Netflix. Directed by Jeremiah Zagar from a screenplay by Taylor Materne and Will Fetters, the movie stars Sandler as a longtime NBA scout who places everything on the line for a prospect in whose potential he deeply believes. As performances go, it’s one of his best – more Safdie Brothers than Happy Madison – and while it doesn’t quite reach the dramatic heights of his performative apex, it gets awfully close.

It is a film about family, about regret and ambition … and a really good basketball movie, one that offers some surprisingly strong and nuanced performances from unexpected sources; in particular, the turn from NBA player Juancho Hernangomez as the prospect in question is almost shockingly good. The combination of interpersonal relationships and pro basketball nuts-and-bolts turns out to be a winning team.

Published in Sports

It’s no secret that I’m not a particularly close follower of the NBA. I have a decent general understanding of the state of the league just by dint of being a general sports fan, but as far as the vagaries and granular details? Not so much.

However, it’s also no secret that I’ve never let my relative ignorance with regard to a sports-related subject stop me from voicing my opinion.

And so here we are, with my standard underinformed preview of the NBA Finals.

(Note: In the interest of full disclosure, I should note that this year’s Underinformed NBA Finals Preview is somewhat less underinformed than usual this year. As a Boston sports fan, I have maintained slightly greater than usual awareness of the goings-on regarding the Celtics. By no means should you take this as an indicator that I know what I’m talking about – I just thought it important to be transparent.)

The 2022 NBA Finals will see the Eastern Conference champion Boston Celtics take on the Western Conference-winning Golden State Warriors. These are two teams with significant championship history; the Celtics have a chance to retake the all-time lead in titles with a win here, though they haven’t won one since 2008. Meanwhile, the Warriors are in the Finals for the sixth time in the last eight seasons; this is their shot at a fourth title in that stretch and seventh for the franchise overall.

Recent greatness versus an effort to reignite past glory – there’s a lot of fun to be had here. So who will win?

Published in Sports

It’s that time again, that time of year when even the most casual of sports fans (and plenty of non-fans) start paying attention to the wild and wooly world of college hoops.

You guessed it, folks. NCAA tourney time is upon us.

Selection Sunday is on March 13 this year, so I figured I’d try to get some thoughts out there far enough in advance for you fine folks to take advantage when the time comes to fill out your own brackets.

(Please bear in mind - I’m no expert when it comes to the college hardwood. At all. I have the basic knowledge of the general sports fan and that’s it. However, I do have a touch of the degenerate gambler about me, so … take that for whatever you like.)

We all know the drill at this point: you pony up some cash or sign up for a contest and fill out your own copy of the bracket, picking winners all the way through the tournament, up to and including the 2022 champion. If you make the best picks, you win the pot.

Of course, with over 9 quintillion ways to fill out a bracket, the odds are not in your favor. But hey - there’s always a chance.

Here are a few of my (very basic) observations with regards to the sweet science of bracketology.

Published in Sports

He’s the winningest Division I men’s basketball coach in NCAA history. He’s won multiple national titles and been to even more Final Fours. He’s been in charge of USA Basketball and led the national team to gold medals more than once. He is an iconic figure, one of the titans of the game’s last half-century.

You know who he is … even if you might not know how to spell his name.

Ian O’Connor’s “Coach K: The Rise and Reign of Mike Krzyzewski” (Mariner Books, $28) purports to be the definitive biography of the man who is arguably the definitive figure in college basketball in the past 50 years. From his early days growing up in Chicago to his time as West Point – first as a player, then as a coach – to his ascension to the top job at Duke, where he turned a decent ACC team into one of the greatest college basketball programs ever.

O’Connor dives deep, digging through extant sources as well as conducting his own interviews with scores upon scores of people with close connections to Coach K. The result is a fascinating portrait of sporting greatness, a long look at a man who ascended to the heights of his profession. A man who, for all his flaws, would prove to be a beloved figure in the history of his sport.

Published in Sports

Sports biographies tend to be a mixed bag. Sometimes, you get flowery hagiographies, other times, straight-up hit pieces. It all comes down to a confluence of circumstances – the author, the subject and the audience – and how they come together.

Take a figure like Kobe Bryant. Considered one of the greatest basketball players of all time, Bryant’s career featured plenty of controversies – his Colorado rape trial foremost among them – and he was in many ways a love him or loathe him figure, both in the context of his sport and in the greater celebrity sphere. Add to that his tragic and too-soon passing in a helicopter crash in early 2020 and his legacy only grows more complicated.

How do you tell this story?

With “The Rise: Kobe Bryant and the Pursuit of Immortality” (St. Martin’s Press, $29.99), longtime Philadelphia basketball writer Mike Sielski takes an altogether different tactic. This isn’t the story of Kobe’s life in the league, the tale of his successes and failures. No, this is an origin story. “The Rise” isn’t about Kobe the NBA baller, but rather, it’s about the journey that got him there.

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The Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame has begun the process of finding their Class of 2022.

As often happens with sports Halls of Fame, there’s an ebb and flow regarding the influx of new candidates. Just a couple of years ago, we saw perhaps the biggest powerhouse collection of first-timers in Hall history – Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett and Chris Bosh all hit the ballot at the same time.

Obviously, you’re not going to get multiple no-doubters on every ballot. And this year, we’re looking at a much different group of debuts.

Published in Sports

It’s easy to forget, in this world of commonplace multimillion-dollar contracts across the professional sports landscape, that it wasn’t always about the money. Well, not entirely about the money anyway.

Take the NBA, for example. Today, the league is a global powerhouse, a corporate machine featuring massive television contracts and marketing deals and individual teams worth literal billions of dollars. But it wasn’t so long ago that pro basketball was a good living, but far from providing the generational wealth it does today.

It was a different time. A time worth remembering.

“Wish It Lasted Forever: Life with the Larry Bird Celtics” (Scribner, $28) takes a look at an iconic team in the days just before everything changed. Written by Dan Shaughnessy about his time covering the Celtics beat for the Boston Globe (1982-86), it’s an up-close-and-personal look at a time that simply doesn’t exist anymore. It’s a book packed with the sorts of stories that could never happen today, tales from the road when everyone – players, coaches and media – traveled together and dined together, staying in the same hotels and generally being a constant presence in one another’s lives.

These stories – stories about what the players were really like in the locker room and at the bar after the game as well as about their performance on the court – are a fascinating snapshot of a bygone era, featuring compelling and thoughtful looks at some of the greatest to ever play the game. Rendered with the standard self-deprecatory wit and good humor by Shaughnessy, it’s a book that any Celtics fan – any NBA fan, really – will find to be fascinating reading.

Published in Sports

I’m a sucker for sports history. It doesn’t even really matter the sport – I generally lean toward the Big Four, but honestly, any discussion of the athletic past will work. I have my sporting foci – baseball and football foremost among them – but as a general fan, I can derive joy from coverage of just about any athletic endeavor.

The moral to the story is simple: With the right pairing of subject matter and author, a work of sports nonfiction can really sing.

Longtime Boston sports journalist Leigh Montville is one of the best to ever do the gig, with a decades-long body of work covering some of the most iconic moments in American sports. His latest book is “Tall Men, Short Shorts – The 1969 NBA Finals: Wilt, Russ, Lakers, Celtics, and a Very Young Sports Reporter” (Doubleday, $29), a look back at the series that would ultimately mark the ending of the lengthy Celtics NBA dynasty of the 1950s and 1960s. A series that saw a certain bright young man – just 24 years of age and setting out on what would become an iconic career as an ink-stained wretch – crisscrossing the country as part of the now-legendary NBA Finals matchup between the Boston Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers in 1969.

It’s also a wonderful bit of autobiographical writing, a reflection on the beginnings of a storied career. Those moments of memory and memoir are what elevate this book from what would be a perfectly adequate work of sports history into something more, a wry look back from someone who understands that the person he once was had a lot to learn.

Published in Sports

The great internet arbiter Judge John Hodgman has a saying: “Nostalgia is a toxic impulse.” While I don’t necessarily fully agree with that sentiment – I think there can be real value in reengaging with aspects of our past that we remember fondly – I also acknowledge that the tendency to get lost in our own personal pop culture ephemera-strewn memory palaces can result in some dark turns.

All this is to say that while I understand why “Space Jam: A New Legacy” was made and the thoughts and desires that led to that outcome, enabling the nostalgic impulse without any critical regard to the reasons behind the memory can result in something hollow and ultimately unsatisfactory.

As a late Gen-Xer, I’m a hair too old to have the same fondness for 1996’s “Space Jam” that many millennials carry. However, I do still carry a soft spot for the film – I mean, Michael Jordan, the Looney Tunes and a pre-folk hero Bill Murray? What’s not to like?

That said, the sequel – this one starring LeBron James – fails to achieve even the modicum of loose charm that surrounded the original, exchanging the winking self-awareness and quirkiness of the original for a seemingly unending cavalcade of product placement and self-celebratory IP exploitation.

Directed by Malcolm D. Lee (who replaced original director Terrence Nance a few weeks into filming) from a screenplay with no less than six credited writers, “Space Jam: A New Legacy” is the unfortunate result when you attempt to recreate something whose appeal you don’t fully understand; there’s a goofball kitschiness to the original film that is lost here, the lunacy (sorry – “Loon-acy”) replaced by an overstuffed commitment to the idea that instead of using references to make jokes, the jokes ARE the references.

Published in Sports

Sports biographies are tricky things.

The history of professional sports in this country is built on a foundation of legacy. The lionization of athletic giants is an underlying tenet of pro sports, with the games in a constant conversation with their own history. Protecting that history – that legacy – is paramount to many if not most pro athletes.

At the same time, leaving that history unexamined does a disservice to the reader. A simple and glowing account of an athlete’s feats, all buffed glossiness, is nothing more than hagiography – overly simplistic, unchallenging … and incredibly dull.

And it only gets trickier when the subject isn’t directly involved.

That’s the juggling act Scott Howard-Cooper has undertaken with his new book “Steve Kerr: A Life” (William Morrow, $28.99). It’s the story of the rich and fascinating life lived by Steve Kerr. From his globetrotting boyhood to an underdog basketball journey to the pinnacle of his profession, Kerr’s is a tale almost too interesting to be real, marked by triumph and tragedy.

Published in Sports
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