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.