I’ve wanted to read The Breaks of the Game for a long while. It’s about the NBA (one of my few obsessions), written by the always good David Halberstam and is touted as the best sports book by Bill Simmons.
Now that it’s finally back in print, I got a chance to read it and found it to be both better and worse than I expected.
Breaks is one of the many pieces of sportswriting in the “season in the life” genre (think Friday Night Lights). It’s an angle that’s a fairly obvious grasp at making sports journalism more literary, and it’s been overused beyond the point of cliche.
Breaks follows the 1979-80 Portland Trailblazers, a team not long removed from an NBA championship, but more recently removed from an acrimonious split with Bill Walton, of great talent and frail feet.
The book isn’t really about the Blazers at all, though. Halberstam—perhaps realizing the squad was destined for mediocrity (which is not as interesting as greatness or failure)—spends most of the 300+ pages on digressions. Digressions into the league’s financial structure, into coach Jack Ramsey’s college days, into Walton’s childhood, into Kermit Washington’s childhood, into race.
Halberstam pings around wildly, bouncing from one idea to another, one anecdote to another, backward in time, forward in time, leaping from city to city. The “season in the life” books offer an obvious narrative backbone, but Halberstam mostly avoids it, only occasionally checking in with the Blazers as they suffer another injury and another defeat. It’s a chaotic, rambling book, and not an easy read.
That said, if you love the NBA, you absolutely should read it. Halberstam enjoyed a level of access that’s unimaginable today. Reading Breaks, you feel like you’re at the dinner table with coaches or players as they talk honestly about the league and life and whatever. And because the book ventures so broadly, it offers a substantial portrait of the league at that time and the personalities who shaped it. Players I’d never heard of—Billy Ray Bates!—become fascinating.
Halberstam also is just a hell of a good writer with a remarkable ability to encapsulate someone’s personality and career in only a small piece of text. His section on Kermit Washington (a good person and quality player sadly remembered mostly for nearly killing Rudy Tomjanovich on the court) is more insightful (and far better written) than The Punch, John Feinstein’s hugely disappointing book on the Kermit-Rudy brawl.
I wish a book like this had been written for every decade or so of the NBA’s existence. At the very least, I wish something like it would be written now. Sadly, the league is never again going to give a writer that type of access. And even more certainly, there never will be another David Halberstam.
Interesting piece on a day of NBA infamy over at Grantland, with Jonathan Abrams compiling an oral history on the Artest melee (which submarined a Pacers team that had a serious shot at a title and set off a chain of reactions that changed the league in far-ranging ways). Of course, the piece is missing Artest himself, which is disappointing.
It’s also missing another critical component of the melee: The watermelon-smashing “comedian” Gallagher.
What, Gallagher? What the hell did Gallagher have to do with an NBA game that devolved into a fight between players and fans? Good question. I’ll let Gallagher himself explain (quotes from a 2009 Onion AV Club interview):
So of course when [Lakers player Ron] Artest lies on the timer’s table, the audience is confused as to whether you can throw a beer. Then Artest is confused as to whether if someone throws a beer at you, you can enter the stands and have fisticuffs. The only real leader in America was, I guess his name is David Stern? The head of the NBA? Who finally said, “No! There are standards of behavior.” And you know why he said it? It wasn’t because he was concerned about behavior—he was concerned about money. The NBA cannot ask a family man to bring his children to an NBA game where a fight might erupt.
But the whole thing, basketball, is way too close. The audience is too close to the players. Something’s going to happen. Some player is going to be seriously injured falling on a tripod or a large lens of a camera. These celebrities that are placed extra-close on folding chairs—the players have to run for a ball and then jump two or three rows of people—who said that was okay? …
You see, we’ve even blurred—where’s the stage? Is the audience the entertainer? Can I yell out? Can I be funny if I’m in the audience? Can I interrupt the comedian? Can I disrespect the rest of the people in the audience? What do I give a fuck about their right to have a show, as long as I’m having fun? Spoiled brats. We have a country… you know, people can’t handle alcohol. There’s no clear line as to what you can and can’t do. Nobody wants to be responsible for their actions.