The game is professional basketball, as represented by the Portland Trail Blazers' 1979-80 season—a microcosm, in Halberstam's wide-angle rendering, of the commercialization of all that was once genuine in American life. . . at the cost, often, of human lives. (In pro basketball, of some of the best and brightest black lives.) The book has a problem with sprawl—not only because the central chapter, "The Season," goes on for 300 pages. Halberstam has contrived a narrative as seamless and fluid and intermeshed as basketball itself—with the result, in the first half at least, that lines of development don't stand out (and much has to be reiterated). But in time all the interesting things Halberstam learned about new-breed-millionaire owner Larry Weinberg, personnel manager Stu Inman ("Are you really telling me"—to Weinberg—"that you know more than us?"), coach Jack Ramsay ("the system came first"—and the blacks craved more freedom), about Blazer superstars and comers and might-have-beens, do add up—intellectually and emotionally. And what appear first as insights—the shifting of franchises from blue-collar basketball cities to white-collar market-places, the physically-punishing, career-shortening longer seasons, the frequent shuffling of players (college basketball, now, has more continuity), their overnight rise from ghetto or shack to (dissatisfied) superstardom—become episodes in an ongoing, unfinished drama. Among the highlights: maverick great Bill Walton has defected to San Diego, charging medical maltreatment—on the part of two of his closest associates, the Blazer doctor and trainer. (The issue is painkillers: he had compromised his principles so that, like his teammates, he could "play hurt"—and like others, injured himself further.) To compensate the Blazers for his loss, NBA commissioner O'Brien assigns Kermit Washington to Portland—despite Washington's handwritten plea to be allowed to stay in San Diego. (It would be his fourth city in three years—worse, it would mean, after a freak fistfight, "proving myself again.") Maurice "Luke" Lucas, the Blazers' remaining star and most intimidating presence, wants to be traded—with a no-cut contract, he'll sit out most of the season. "Unabashed square" and unexceptional player Larry Steele is going into a ninth, record Blazer season—before it's over, he'll have six knee operations to try to hold onto his job. Billy Ray Bates—"a child of the feudal South," now a Maine Lumberjacks guard (one of the great personal stories)—will join the Blazers and become NBA Player of the Week. And ABC's Roone Arledge, stung by the NBA switch to CBS into building up rival attractions, will have his revenge: the last championship playoff game will be shown on TV at midnight. Says Luke: "Can you imagine Kareem and Magic and Julius, and we're still second-class citizens?" No, you don't need to be a fan to start with—but you might be before you finish.

Pub Date: Nov. 16, 1981

ISBN: 1401309720

Page Count: 416

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Oct. 11, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 1981


An absorbing, wide-ranging story of humans’ relationship with the water.

A study of swimming as sport, survival method, basis for community, and route to physical and mental well-being.

For Bay Area writer Tsui (American Chinatown: A People's History of Five Neighborhoods, 2009), swimming is in her blood. As she recounts, her parents met in a Hong Kong swimming pool, and she often visited the beach as a child and competed on a swim team in high school. Midway through the engaging narrative, the author explains how she rejoined the team at age 40, just as her 6-year-old was signing up for the first time. Chronicling her interviews with scientists and swimmers alike, Tsui notes the many health benefits of swimming, some of which are mental. Swimmers often achieve the “flow” state and get their best ideas while in the water. Her travels took her from the California coast, where she dove for abalone and swam from Alcatraz back to San Francisco, to Tokyo, where she heard about the “samurai swimming” martial arts tradition. In Iceland, she met Guðlaugur Friðþórsson, a local celebrity who, in 1984, survived six hours in a winter sea after his fishing vessel capsized, earning him the nickname “the human seal.” Although humans are generally adapted to life on land, the author discovered that some have extra advantages in the water. The Bajau people of Indonesia, for instance, can do 10-minute free dives while hunting because their spleens are 50% larger than average. For most, though, it’s simply a matter of practice. Tsui discussed swimming with Dara Torres, who became the oldest Olympic swimmer at age 41, and swam with Kim Chambers, one of the few people to complete the daunting Oceans Seven marathon swim challenge. Drawing on personal experience, history, biology, and social science, the author conveys the appeal of “an unflinching giving-over to an element” and makes a convincing case for broader access to swimming education (372,000 people still drown annually).

An absorbing, wide-ranging story of humans’ relationship with the water.

Pub Date: April 14, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-61620-786-1

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Algonquin

Review Posted Online: Jan. 4, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2020


Effectively sobering. Suffice it to say that Pop Warner parents will want to armor their kids from head to toe upon reading...

A maddening, well-constructed tale of medical discovery and corporate coverup, set in morgues, laboratories, courtrooms, and football fields.

Nigeria-born Bennet Omalu is perhaps an unlikely hero, a medical doctor board-certified in four areas of pathology, “anatomic, clinical, forensic, and neuropathology,” and a well-rounded specialist in death. When his boss, celebrity examiner Cyril Wecht (“in the autopsy business, Wecht was a rock star”), got into trouble for various specimens of publicity-hound overreach, Omalu was there to offer patient, stoical support. The student did not surpass the teacher in flashiness, but Omalu was a rock star all his own in studying the brain to determine a cause of death. Laskas’ (Creative Writing/Univ. of Pittsburgh; Hidden America, 2012, etc.) main topic is the horrific injuries wrought to the brains and bodies of football players on the field. Omalu’s study of the unfortunate brain of Pittsburgh Steeler Mike Webster, who died in 2002 at 50 of a supposed heart attack, brought new attention to the trauma of concussion. Laskas trades in sportwriter-ese, all staccato delivery full of tough guyisms and sports clichés: “He had played for fifteen seasons, a warrior’s warrior; he played in more games—two hundred twenty—than any other player in Steelers history. Undersized, tough, a big, burly white guy—a Pittsburgh kind of guy—the heart of the best team in history.” A little of that goes a long way, but Laskas, a Pittsburgher who first wrote of Omalu and his studies in a story in GQ, does sturdy work in keeping up with a grim story that the NFL most definitely did not want to see aired—not in Omalu’s professional publications in medical journals, nor, reportedly, on the big screen in the Will Smith vehicle based on this book.

Effectively sobering. Suffice it to say that Pop Warner parents will want to armor their kids from head to toe upon reading it.

Pub Date: Nov. 24, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-8129-8757-7

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: Sept. 14, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 2015

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