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We’re living in the age of the superteam in the NBA. While the league has always been star-driven, the necessity of those stars has never been more apparent. If you want to win a ring, you NEED at least two top-tier superstars. These days, assembling those dynamic duos or titanic trios involves players actively recruiting one another, with stars seeking out paths to play with other stars that they like and/or admire.

It wasn’t always that way, though. Two decades ago, we watched the most talented pairing in the league rise to dizzying dynastic heights even as they were engaged in an ongoing and off-putting internal fight.

Jeff Pearlman’s “Three-Ring Circus: Kobe, Shaq, Phil, and the Crazy Years of the Lakers Dynasty” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $30) dives deep into the eight-year stretch – from 1996-2004 – where two of the greatest basketball players of not just their generation but of all time team up to bring a string of titles to the Los Angeles Lakers even as their own interpersonal antipathy rages and boils beneath the surface. All while a renowned and legendary coach largely removes himself from the fray, content to let it work itself out.

It is a magnificently and meticulously detailed work, one featuring deep-dive interviews with all manner of people connected to that tumultuous time in the history of one of the NBA’s most storied franchises. It’s an unflinching and often unflattering portrait of the men who led L.A. to the top of the mountain; frankly, learning the extent of the chaos renders the championship victories all the more impressive.

Published in Sports

What does it mean to be a sports hero? There are so many different arenas in which athletes can excel and become part of the story of their sport, whether we’re talking about professional championships or individual records or Olympic glory or some combination therein. Athletic prowess has been turning ordinary men and women into legends for centuries.

But while some heroes become ensconced, forever part of the story of their sport, others fade into the margins of history. No matter how highly celebrated and decorated in their day, they don’t maintain their spot in the popular imagination. But those athletes and their feats still matter, even if they’ve been forgotten … and their stories still deserve to be told.

Kevin Martin’s “The Irish Whales: Olympians of Old New York” (Rowman & Littlefield, $32) relates the tale of one such group of forgotten heroes. These men, a collection of Irish immigrants to the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, were athletic sensations during that stretch. As a group, these men thoroughly dominated the world of field events through the early days of the modern Olympics, becoming sensations on both sides of the Atlantic and bringing great pride to both their native country and their adopted homeland.

Through a meticulously detailed and researched exploration of these men, a new appreciation can be gained for these athletic marvels who, despite global fame in their day, ultimately faded into relative obscurity. Their greatness is undeniable; this book proves a worthwhile introduction to that greatness.

Published in Sports

Anyone who has been paying attention to baseball over the past half-decade is aware that the game has never seen this many home runs. Single-season records for homers has been broken and broken again, both by individual teams and by the league as a whole. More than ever before, the long ball has become the central part of the game.

There are a number of factors that enter into this. Analytically-inclined executives have made their way into positions of power in front offices all across the sport. Changes to the ball itself have undoubtedly played a significant part. Strikeouts no longer carry the stigma that they once did.

And then, there is the evolution of the swing itself.

It’s that last notion that Jared Diamond, national baseball writer for The Wall Street Journal, addresses in-depth with his new book “Swing Kings: The Inside Story of Baseball’s Home Run Revolution” (William Morrow, $28.99). It’s a deep and broad exploration of those coaches on the fringes whose refusal to be bound by the status quo led to brand-new thinking about how we swing the bat, as well as the players who made (or remade) themselves into explosive hitters by accepting some unconventional wisdom and thinking outside the box.

Published in Sports
Tuesday, 02 July 2019 22:56

A baseball fiction starting nine

Baseball is the most literary of sports.

There are any number of possible reasons – the pastoral origins of the game, the gentle pace, the devotion to history, the lauded figures of the past – but it’s tough to argue that of all our shared athletic endeavors, baseball is the one that has inspired the most ink to be spilled.

Fictional exploration of the game has been going on for decades, with some of the most gifted writers of numerous generations choosing to introduce baseball into their pages. Some use it as a tertiary or tangential element, while others use it as a story’s centralizing, guiding force.

And so, in honor of the upcoming All-Star Game and the full-on onset of summer, here’s a list of a few works of baseball fiction. Some are well-known works, while others are more marginal. It’s far from an exhaustive list – there’s far more great stuff out there – but here’s a lineup’s worth to get you started.

Published in Sports

One of the longest-standing truisms in the athletic realm is that nothing is more important than inborn natural talent; while practice can make you better, there’s no amount of practice that can compensate for a lack of inherent ability.

But in baseball’s brave new world, with reams of data available at the press of a button, perhaps that truism isn’t quite so true after all.

“The MVP Machine: How Baseball’s New Nonconformists are Using Data to Build Better Ballplayers (Basic, $30), by Ben Lindbergh and Travis Sawchik, is an exploration of the rapidly-blossoming notion that there’s more to it than that. Teams are turning their vast data-collecting capabilities toward the field of player development, trying to find ways to maximize the talent of their players in new and sometimes unconventional ways.

It’s a new frontier, one awash in high-speed cameras and swing gurus. It’s all about spin rates and launch angles and elevating the velocity of the ball, be it thrown or batted. And the people who are the earliest adopters, from the front offices to the fields, are reaping the rewards.

Published in Sports

Baseball is a team game made up of individual battles, a series of one-on-one confrontations where one man throws a ball and the other attempts to hit it. Yes, the action evolves after that, but at its heart, baseball is about pitcher versus hitter.

The man at the plate has a weapon – his bat – and protection in the form of gloves, a helmet, perhaps some armor in the form of an arm guard or shin guard. The man on the mound has none of that. But he is not unarmed – he has the ball. And the ball can be a formidable weapon indeed.

That weapon is the focus of Tyler Kepner’s new book “K: A History of Baseball in Ten Pitches” (Doubleday, $28.95). In it, the New York Times baseball writer digs deep into the myriad ways that players have tried to put the ball over the plate over the course of the game’s long history. It’s an exploration of one-half of that ever-present central conceit of hurler against striker.

Published in Sports

It’s safe to say that the Boston Celtics of the 1950s and 1960s were the greatest dynasty in American professional sports. One could try to make arguments for other teams in other sports, but in terms of pure extended dominance, it’s tough to argue against eight consecutive championships and 11 titles in 13 seasons.

It’s also tough to argue against any two players being more vital to those victories than Bill Russell and Bob Cousy. But despite their brilliant dynamic on the court, their relationship beyond basketball is something a little more complicated.

Both aspects of the Cousy/Russell link are explored in Gary Pomerantz’s new book “The Last Pass: Cousy, Russell, and What Matters in the End” (Penguin Press, $28). Built around a years-long series of interviews with Cousy, the book explores the history of that dynastic time in Celtics history and examines an NBA that might have disappeared forever had Cousy and Russell not come along, all while also looking at issues of race in a particularly tumultuous time in our society.

Published in Sports

There’s no denying that Bill Walsh and Bill Belichick are among the greatest coaches in the history of football. One can argue about their relative placements in the pantheon, but it’s difficult to dispute either’s placement among the greatest of the greats. Meanwhile, Raiders owner Al Davis spent decades as the free-wheeling outlaw of the NFL’s leadership class, bringing his own unique ideas and passions to the game.

And Michael Lombardi worked under all of them.

Those relationships form the basis for Lombardi’s new book “Gridiron Genius: A Master Class in Winning Championships and Building Dynasties in the NFL” (Crown Archetype, $27). It’s a chance for Lombardi to impart the myriad lessons he has gleaned over his decades of working with some of the finest football minds in history.

Published in Sports

Sports fandom is a funny thing. Not only do we love talking about what happened in a given game or season or career, but we also love asking questions about all those things. Specifically … what if? What if something changed fundamentally about the games that we love? And what if those changes resulted in more changes and those changes led to still more changes and so on?

That’s the guiding force behind “Upon Further Review: The Greatest What-Ifs in Sports History” (Twelve Books, $28). Assembled and curated by Mike Pesca, this collection of essays takes a look at what might have happened if certain aspects of the sports world had played out differently. Some of them address the topic at hand with scholarly seriousness, while others work with tongue planted firmly in cheek, but all of them are engaging looks at diverging potential paths through sports history.

Published in Sports

What is it that truly defines athletic genius?

While there’s no doubt that physique and physicality play massive roles in what makes a successful athlete, there’s more to it than that. True sporting greatness springs from not just one’s body, but also that body’s connection with the brain.

In his new book “The Performance Cortex: How Neuroscience is Redefining Athletic Genius” (Dutton, $28), Zach Schonbrun attempts to explore that connection; it’s a deep dive into the neuroscience behind movement that attempts to develop an understanding of the body-brain relationship and determining how the relationship impacts those performing at an elite athletic level.

Published in Sports
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