Summer reading list covers all the bases
My latest sports book reviews, just in time for your summer reading ...
"University of Nike: How Corporate Cash Bought American Higher Education"
By Joshua Hunt
Melville House Printing
The University of Oregon and the "owner" of its athletic teams, Phil Knight, don't come out well in this behind-the-scenes look and wrap-up of the undue influence of Knight and Nike.
The author, then working as a writer for The New York Times, is a Portland State grad who spent his early years in Eugene but had no affiliation with the university.
Full disclosure: Hunt used multiple references to a book I wrote, "Civil War Rivalry: Oregon vs. Oregon State," mostly in regard to Knight and his background. Unfortunately, Hunt wound up getting much of his information secondhand, because those involved at Nike and the UO wouldn't talk to him.
He did a nice job, however, of piecing together the facts and organizing the timeline to show the reader how Oregon went from an also-ran in college athletics to a heavy hitter with world-class branding and perhaps the most resources and best facilities in the land.
With those gains came a toll — Knight wanted not just to be consulted on important decisions, but to make them. UO presidents and athletic directors acquiesed to gain the "outside money" provided by Knight to get things accomplished.
Knight, Hunt writes, made seven-figure annual contributions to the Fanconi Anemia Research Fund until UO President Dave Frohnmayer — whose three daughters had the disease — signed off on the school's membership with Worker Rights Consortium, which opposed Nike's use of sweatshops in Third World countries to produce shoes and apparel. An incensed Knight chose to contribute nothing to the FAR fund that year. When Frohnmayer relented a year later, it was clear the tail was wagging the dog.
Writes Hunt: "What kinds of promises or compromises might a school be willing to make under such circumstances? Frohnmayer's various concessions to Knight set a worrying precedent that may pale in comparison to the potential for corruption that surrounds the Knight Campus."
Hunt also details the misdeeds with the football program (Willie Lyles' "scouting service"), which led coach Chip Kelly to the NFL to stay one step ahead of the NCAA posse. And seven football players in 2016 being accused of some kind of sexual misconduct or gender-based violence under Mark Helfrich.
And Dana Altman and the basketball program (three players accused of rape, one who had previously been suspended from another school after allegations of participation in a gang rape, and another playing 37 games with a rape allegation hanging over his head), with the school's public relations department doing all it could to sweep things under the rug and keep information from the media.
Writes Hunt: "Over the years, Knight's increasingly generous gifts brought athletic acclaim, brand recognition and lucrative television and licensing deals to the University of Oregon. But they failed to bring a sense of stability to the school, and in some ways obscured the fraught reality of an institution constantly on the brink of peril."
Fascinating read; disturbing stuff.
"The Last Pass"
By Gary Pomerantz
Much like Corvallis' Reser Stadium — a great half stadium — this look at the Bob Cousy/Bill Russell Boston Celtics was a great half book: Absolutely terrific on Cousy, with whom the author said he conducted 53 separate interviews. Not nearly enough on Russell, who did not cooperate with the book.
That's too bad, because Pomerantz might have been able to provide the kind of insight on the reclusive Russell, now retired in Seattle, that he was able to glean from Cousy.
There is still good background on Russell, based on previous interviews and information gained from many of the Celtic teammates through the years when they won a remarkable 11 NBA championships in 13 years.
The Cousy stuff, though, is priceless. Now in his late '80's, the former passing and dribbling whiz is in a reflective mood in his 11th hour of life as he laments decisions he made through his career in terms of his relationship with Russell and the race issue. The pair worked well together but had little personal relationship, and Cousy was all but impervious to the discrimination Russell and the NBA's other black pioneers faced in the late 1950's and early '60's, a truth that Cousy now greatly regrets.
Pomerantz paints a vivid portrait of Cousy as a player ("He rarely smiled on the court. His demeanor spoke for him: This is who I am, this how I play, and we will win") and also as a super senior in self-analysis ("I wish I had a better relationship with Russell") and personal reckoning before he meets his Maker.
It's worth a read, even if Oregon State never gets around to finishing the southwest grandstand.
"Basketball: A Love Story"
By Jackie MacMullan, Rafe Bartholomew and Dan Klores
I figured I would enjoy this book, if for no other reason that it was co-written by MacMullan, an old friend and one of the best in the sportswriting business. It stemmed from a documentary film directed by Klores and distributed by ESPN Films. MacMullan and Bartholomew provided the extra interviews to flesh out a book that touches nearly every aspect of NBA history, from the pioneers to today's stars.
There is very little prose in this book. The story is mostly told by quotes stacked upon quotes from almost all of the greats of the game — some of them no longer with us.
The book touches on issues — racial inequality in the early years to the women's game to Magic Johnson's HIV revelation — as well as the individual personalities. I greatly enjoyed the "ancient" history on subjects from the 1960s and '70s. Not so much the parts toward the end of the book. Guess I've read all I want to read about guys like Kobe Bryant and LeBron James.
"Elevated: The Global Rise of the NBA"
By Harvey Araton
Long-time New York sportswriter Araton edited this book, an accumulation of New York Times articles about the NBA over the years, with occasional postscripts from the authors about what they had penned.
Some of the earlier stories are written in the Times' stiff, stilted style ("N.B.A." instead of NBA, "Mr. Cousy" instead of Cousy), though thankfully the newspaper has relaxed its style in the 21st century.
There are some yawners, but also some excellent stuff by contributors such as Selena Roberts, Howard Beck, Scott Cacciola, Lee Jenkins, Marc Stein and Mike Wise.
I especially enjoyed Sam Borden's look at German 7-footer Frederic Weis, a former New York Knicks first-round draft pick (one of the worst ever) who never played a second in the NBA and dealt with depression and a suicide attempt. Also, Alex Williams' piece on former coach Don Nelson, now getting stoned with Willie Nelson and cracking on Chris Webber from his retirement place in Maui.
"Boise State of Mind"
By Joel Gunderson
Boise State football has not always been so big. Local author Gunderson takes us through the history of the program, beginning with Boise Junior College in the 1930s to its current status as the pride of the Mountain West Conference and the most successful sustained program in the Northwest.
This is a primer on the school's great coaches — from Lyle Smith to Tony Knap to Jim Criner to Pokey Allen to Dirk Koetter to Dan Hawkins to Chris Petersen to the current mentor, Bryan Harsin.
We read in depth about Boise State's impressive run of quarterbacks, which included Harsin, Bart Hendricks, Ryan Dinwiddie and Kellen Moore, along with a pair of Eastern Oregon products, Tony Hilde (Pendleton) and Jared Zabransky (Hermiston).
Full disclosure: My interest in Boise State football is limited. Bronco believers, however, will eat this up.
"Sweetness: The Enigmatic Life of Walter Payton"
By Jeff Pearlman
Penguin Random House
This is an oldie but a goody, a book written in 2011 that I recently bought in paperback. It's an unauthorized biography by former Sports Illustrated scribe Pearlman that made The New York Times' best-seller list.
It's a long, in-depth, thorough look at a complex character who was at once lovable and despicable.
"Was Walter Payton perfect?" Pearlman writes in the afterword. "Far from it. He was flawed, as all of us are."
It's a critical but also sympathetic view of one of the NFL's greatest running backs, who died of bile duct cancer in 1999 at age 45. Payton was philandering with women, quirky with teammates, accommodating with fans and wonderful with children, though indifferent at times with his own. Pearlman takes us through Payton's humble beginnings in Mississippi to his salad years with the Chicago Bears in the late 1970s and early '80s.
It's a beautifully crafted book in which Pearlman lays out both sides and lets the readers make their own judgment. In mine, "Sweetness" prevailed over the negative aspects of Payton's life and personality.
"7 Foot Man-Eating Chicken: An NBA Odyssey"
By Keith Glass
After more than three decades working the NBA — me as a sportswriter, he as a player agent — our paths have crossed only once or twice. But after reading this, his second book, I feel as if I know Glass pretty well.
He likes people. He hates disloyalty. He's old-school. He knows the agent business like the back of his hand. He's not afraid to speak his mind.
All of these traits come out in this collection of stories and anecdotes through a career representing more than 200 NBA players. He writes in a conversational tone. He displays a dry wit. He rants.
We find out a lot about Larry Brown, whom I've always liked and respected, whom Glass used to like and respect. We learn a lot about all the things that go into being an agent and the intricacies of the NBA's collective-bargaining agreement.
"I'm not really a writer or an author," he writes. "I'm a storyteller."
And a pretty good one at that.
A 7-foot man-eating chicken? You'll have to get the book to find out what that's all about.