Monday, December 29, 2014

The Breaks of the Game - David Halberstam

The Breaks of the Game is generally regarded as one of the best books about pro basketball, as Halberstam followed the Portland Trail Blazers through the entire 1979-1980 season, having numerous interviews with the players, coaches, the GM, some scouts.

This was only a few seasons removed from Portland winning the championship with a healthy Bill Walton, and Halberstam charts the way things gradually shifted and fell apart for the team after. Injuries, age catching up with guys, players feeling they ought to be earning more money. As they go through the season, he also checks in on players and coaches who were key parts of the team in the past. By 1979, Walton has gotten himself traded to the San Diego Clippers, but his feet are falling apart. Lenny Wilkens was the coach of Portland before Jack Ramsay (who was the coach when they won the title), and as Portland declines, Seattle, with Wilkens as coach, rises, winning a title of their own. And then you see the same sorts of problems beginning to set in there as well.

It's impressive how expansive the book is. He covers the shift in style of play with the increasing number of African-American players (I was slightly jarred by the fact Halberstam frequently uses the term "blacks". He also used "whites", so maybe it was just a way to keep things simple, or it was terminology the players themselves used, but I was always a little uneasy about it), the rise of television as a way to expand the game, and how that both helped and hurt it. It increased the audience, and the money, but it also encouraged expansion, which diluted the talent pool, weakened the existing rivalries that make great games, increased travel, which helped wear down the players, and then people watching see players going through the motions, because they're too tired, which hurts the game's image. He looks at the formation of the players' union, how that shifted things for them, helped them to get their piece of that TV pie, something that will likely come up in the next CBA negotiation. The owners locked the players out a couple of years ago, under some bullshit claim that 22 of 30 teams were losing money. They just signed a huge new TV contract a couple of months ago, so we'll see how that goes. Halberstam mentions some of the accounting tricks teams used even back then. A player making $90,000 a year could be listed as a depreciating asset costing the team $200,000, which is something teams still do today, and is still ridiculous. That's how 22 teams can claim they're losing money.

It's a little sad how little certain things have changed. The schedule is still 82 games, which most people agree is too long if you want high-quality play every night. People in the owner's boxes are still fretting about how to get money from white folks to pay to watch mostly black players. One of the Atlanta Hawks' principal owners had to sell his stake (at a handsome profit I'm sure) because a series of e-mails were leaked that showed he was at least considering ways they might entice more white people to attend games, since apparently either enough African-American customers weren't showing up, or weren't spending enough money when they did. There are still a lot of people trying to buy in as owners because sports franchises look like a good investment. Look at racist, sexually harassing slumlord and former Clippers' owner Donald Sterling (who didn't own the team yet in 79-80). He bought it for about $13 million, and when he was forced to sell this year, it went for $2 billion. Even the Bucks, stationed in Milwaukee and rarely relevant, went for like half a billion this year. Halberstam notes a lot of the new owners just want to make a quick buck if they can (or get a nice tax deduction), but if they do stay, they assume that because they are successful in other enterprises, they are automatically experts at constructing a successful basketball team. The Blazers' owner, Larry Weinberg, actually had assembled a successful team, largely by staying out of the way of the people he hired, but even he caused problems. He refused to renegotiate contracts, believing it was important to hold to principles, but failing to recognize the discord it created amongst the players. It's a common thing in sports for teams to try and get players signed when they have all the leverage and the players have none, and the Blazers did that frequently. Sign a young guy to a cheap, non-guaranteed contract, so that if he turns out to be good, the team has a bargain, and if he's bad, they can just cut him and wash their hands of the deal.

One thing that surprised me was Halberstam noted that most of the older, now retired players at that time believed the new guys were better than they were, which is unusual. It seems like almost any time old former players are interviewed, they scoff at the current players, arguing they aren't shit compared to the guys from the old days (sportswriters, especially baseball writers, are also fond of this.) The new guys are more athletic, and take better care of themselves (in the '50s and '60s, it was common for the players to smoke, and go get hammered after games). Yet they felt these guys enjoyed the game less, because the money was so much greater. It forced the players to treat it as a business, but then a guy looks around, and notices someone on another team is half the player he is, but is making more. So he wants a new contract, or a trade to a place where he can get a new contract. But getting the contract doesn't make things better, because it increases the pressure. People look at him more, so he has to up his game even more, but if he does that, then he ought to get more cash.

It just reduces the overall enjoyment, and Halberstam does well at conveying the sense that Blazers' championship team was special, because for one year everything worked. They had a bunch of guys whose skills complimented each other, and they had a defined system where each guy knew his role and was happy enough in it. Everyone stayed healthy, everyone was reasonable happy with their contracts. And then Bill Walton's feet disintegrate, and Maurice Lucas feels like he deserves more money, because he does a lot of the heavy lifting to help Walton. Larry Steele and Jack Twardzik's bodies fall apart from too many years taking charges and diving for loose balls. The promising draft pick Mychal Thompson breaks his leg suddenly. The team shifts, the pieces don't fit as well, guys are thinking about getting their own stats to bolster their contract negotiations, or they're maybe milking an injury longer than normal to force a trade. It's a lot of different pieces of human nature that begin to clash.

The book emphasizes some of the things I've grown to like about basketball over the last half-dozen or so years. It's a sport where I don't have a particular team the way I do in baseball or football. I was a Timberwolves fan for about a decade, but eventually it became clear the front office was incompetent near the end of KG's time there, and I wasn't rooting for two hopeless franchises (though the Arizona Cardinals have since shown flashes of being good). But because basketball goes back and forth between offense and defense so often and so quickly, it's fun to watch those teams that are together. Everybody knows what they're doing, and it works. The coach knows his stuff, but is flexible enough to build something that works with who he's got. That was one thing about Jack Ramsay, I wasn't sure he could bend enough as key guys aged and got hurt, and he needed to turn to new players. Part of that was loyalty to guys who had helped him win in the past, and I can't fault that, but some of it felt rigid. He wanted them to play a certain way, but as the roster shifted, the players, though good, didn't match that style. He adjusts as needed, out of desperation, but reverts when he can.

Anyway, it's a fascinating book, and Halberstam really gets into the backgrounds of a lot of the players, the different circumstances they came from, the different philosophies they brought to how they regarded basketball, the bonds and the problems that sometimes created.

'Not everyone in the Portland organization felt as he did about loyalty. Jack Ramsay had come to Portland a year after Culp and Ramsay argued constantly with Culp that there was absolutely no loyalty in sports, that any management would inevitably let go of a once popular player the minute it thought he was fading, that it would fire a coach even more quickly and that the only change in the equation was that the new generation of players, unlike the old, understood this and now had the means and power to retaliate. Ramsay and Culp argued about this constantly, and Culp was sure that while Ramsay was generally right, there were exceptions to the rule; the Portland team, he felt, was such an exception, especially in the championship season.'

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