While waiting for the regular season to conclude, we take a good look at the NBA’s colorful history, with its esteemed coaches, hall-of-fame players, and turning points of the game. Here is just a sampling of books that might pique your interest.
1. The Last Season: A Team in Search of Its Soul by Phil Jackson and Michael Arkush (Penguin Books, 304 pages)
The LA Lakers of the 2003-2004 NBA season was probably the only super-team whose players were only together for a single season. The team had no less than four future (4) Hall of Fame inductees in the persons of Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant, Karl Malone, and Gary Payton. Not surprisingly, the team finished with 56 regular season wins, and was a number 2 seed in the Western Conference. In the NBA Finals of that year, however, the team bowed to the Detroit Pistons, and the following summer saw O’Neal being traded, Malone retiring, and a new coach for the Lakers.
This book documents Phil Jackson’s problems with the team. It is very candid from the very start: We see Jackson expressing his thought that Karl “The Mailman” Malone was a player who had peaked in the early ’90s. Jackson also thought that Malone would only pile up the points to make him the NBA scoring champion. We also see Jackson getting fed up with Kobe, wanting to have him traded only to be overruled by Lakers owner Jeanie Buss. Readers will become sympathetic to Jackson, when he considers how he should have done this or done that before and during the NBA Finals. The book becomes an illustrative example of how coaches lose games, and players win them.
2. The Punch: One Night, Two Lives, and the Fight That Changed Basketball Forever by John Feinstein (Little, Brown and Company, 384 pages)
The first time I saw him on TV, I always thought there was something not quite right about Rudy Tomjanovich’s face. It was as if someone messed with his face – and then tried to drown him in a toilet bowl afterwards. The truth is documented in this book, which even horror author Stephen King once recommended. Tomjanovich, best known for coaching the ’90s Houston Rockets championship team as well as an NBA team that won in the Olympics, was also once a player himself. It was when he was a player that Rudy ran and tried to stop a fight during a game, running smack dab into the fist of opposing player Kermit Washington. The video of the incident is still on Youtube. Rudy had to undergo facial surgery, shouting while on a stretcher, “What did you do to my face?!” He would recover, but would not sue the player who punched him in the face. Rather, he would sue the opposing team for failing to control its players – and win the lawsuit.
The book is accurately subtitled as “The fight that changed basketball forever” because until then, the NBA had never seen a brawl of that magnitude. It was like a precursor of even more out-of-control brawls like the well-known “Malice in the Palace” incident, where Ron Artest is pushed by Ben Wallace, and then Artest goes after fans in the stands.
3. Drive: The Story of My Life by Larry Bird with Bob Ryan (Bantam, 304 pages)
It was Dennis Rodman who once said that Larry Bird was overrated because he’s white. Rodman, however, failed to explain how Bird led the Celtics to three championships in the 80s, and how he won the NBA three-point shootout three times. With many childhood photos, this book shows us what made Bird develop his work ethic: He came from a financially troubled family that experienced an unnecessary death.
There are a lot of anecdotes in this book: from Bird getting accused of doing drugs by a fan to the horsing around done by Celtics players even during games. The foreword is by Magic Johnson.
4. Seven Seconds or Less: My Season on the Bench with the Runnin’ and Gunnin’ Phoenix Suns by Jack McCallum (Touchstone, 320 pages)
Why would anyone write a book on the Phoenix Suns, which has never won an NBA championship? Because the Phoenix Suns during the Steve Nash era was an exciting team. They nearly made it if not for the Tim Duncan-led San Antonio Spurs in the 2005-2006 season.
Mike D’Antoni was the coach of that team, and the “seven seconds or less” title pertains to his kind of fast-paced, run-and-gun offense. Current Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr became Suns general manager in 2007, and he acknowledges what D’Antoni brought to the game. D’Antoni, of course, is the current coach of the Houston Rockets, whom many consider as the most likely contender to dislodge the Warriors from the top spot in the NBA western conference.
The books are no longer available at your local bookstore, but there’s always www.amazon.com, or bookdepository. You can even try downloading them.