Sacred hoops books
By Eric Neel
Page 2 columnist

In the summer of 1976, I carried a paperback copy of "Mr Clutch: The Jerry West Story" everywhere I went. I read it three times. It was a natural part of my basketball devotion, no different than my ball or my shoes or listening to Laker games on the radio.

Good sports books work like that -- they fit into your habits and interests, reinforce the love you've already got going for the game. The best sports books do that and more -- they slip into your life in the same easy kind of way, and then they push you a little bit, show you some new facet of the thing you thought you knew. They're the ones you come back to every couple of years, the ones you scour used book stores for so you can find copies for your friends. Over time, they take on a kind of weight, become your canon of sacred, not-hearing-any-argument-about-'em, must-read texts.

For me, the sacred hoops books, in the order I first read them, are:

John Wooden
"Foul! The Connie Hawkins Story," by David Wolf
The writing is bold, lean and incredibly honest, and the story is the stuff of legend: from playground genius to scandal to the NBA. The world didn't just seem bigger the first time I read "Foul!," it exploded. Basketball was suddenly about race and poverty and greed; it was more beautiful and a whole lot uglier than I'd ever imagined. Want to teach a kid what sports has meant to this country in the 20th Century? Give him this book.

"Practical Modern Basketball," by John Wooden
It's got tons of little diagrams of plays and drills, only half of which I fully understand. They're the work of a man possessed, evidence that the flipside of coaching genius is something like obsessive-compulsive disorder. I love them. Reading this book is like watching "Edge NFL Matchup" -- it tells me that the game is deep and complicated and worthy of all the out-of-proportion zeal I can muster. Confession: I hand-copied a bunch of the diagrams onto little scraps of paper and brought them to the court at school when I was a kid, and did the same thing 25 years later playing in a city rec league in Iowa.

"Life on the Run," by Bill Bradley
He was so damn open -- about the press, the locker room, the road, and about sex, anger and fear. Most of all, he was open about himself and what he was going through. It was intoxicating to get so close. I still carry around with me, whether I'm playing or not, his ideas about being in the moment and his feeling that sometimes, when things are just right, playing can give you a glimpse of a "better world."

"Heaven is a Playground," by Rick Telander
We played pickup ball where I grew up, but not like the guys in Bed-Stuy -- not with the same flair, or the same desire. Reading "Heaven" taught me what want-to was. The best part is that Telander lets the players do most of the talking. Dreams, delusions, bravado, local legends and lingo -- it's all there.

"The Breaks of the Game," by David Halberstam
The kind of writing that made me want to be a writer -- full of careful listening, big-systems thinking and heart. "Breaks" worked when it was published in 1981, and it still works, as a blueprint for how to read what matters in NBA life: money, style, ego, freedom, respect and commitment. Reading it made me feel wiser about sports, and almost everything else, too.

That top five was stable for a long while. I was into Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's autobiography, "Giant Steps," in junior high, and I still love that it got me thinking about jazz and basketball in the same part of my brain -- I don't know, maybe it belongs on the list, too. Bill Russell's "Second Wind" should be in the mix somewhere, but I need to read it again to remember why. Phil Jackson's "Sacred Hoops" made a run at it, but fell short -- it was too affected, I was too much of a Lakers fan, who can say?

People tell me Larry Platt's "Keepin' it Real" is a gem, and I've heard good things about Larry Colton's "Counting Coup," but I'm ashamed to say I haven't read either of them yet.

Last year, I put "Black Planet" by David Shields in the inner circle, because it's brash, and smart as all hell about the hundreds of subterranean roles race plays in sports and American life, and because Shields' obsession with Gary Payton, his willingness to risk himself, and his simple presumption that there are things to be learned from athletes all seem spot-on to me.

The latest addition to my hoop book pantheon, and the real reason for this column, is Alex Wolff's new book, "Big Game, Small World: A Basketball Adventure," which was a lock for membership in my all-time club after I'd read about 25 pages.

Wolff's a lifelong ball hound who once played for Stadtturnverein Luzern in the third division of the Swiss national league, and a longtime Sports Illustrated writer who communicates his feeling for the game in the kind of plainspoken voice that makes other writers jealous.

His idea for "Big Game" was both simple and epic: Tour the world in search of basketball, spend time wherever you find it, discover who plays and why they play, and write about what you learn. The book makes 27 stops, from Springfield, Mass., to Poland to North Carolina to China to Philly to Bhutan, and random points in between.

Each chapter is a postcard from another corner of planet hoops where The Love is working its magic on the local scene. People in Ireland are scraping together money for a proper gym; 11-year-old girls are paying their own way and playing up a flight in the Macker three-on-three tourney in Celebration, Fla.; Bill Bradley's consoling the losers at the Iowa state high school tournament; an old friend of Wolff's is coaching a hapless team for almost no money in the Polish pro league -- a team that includes, when he shows up, former Phoenix Suns burnout Richard Dumas -- because he just can't help himself; teams called "Strength" and "Virtue" are renewing a crazy, carnivalesque rivalry in Bologna, Italy; Serb and Croat players are playing despite and because of the fact their country, and many of their friendships, have been torn apart.

Every piece could be a book or a movie in itself -- poignant and wacky and, like playing on the road, they feel both familiar and new. They're tied together by Wolff's search for the soul of hoops, in himself and in the lives of the people and cultures he meets, and by the happy fact basketball seems to be infecting folks all over the world like a healthy virus.

Wolff's musings about how and why that's the case -- about the basic appeal of hoop virtues like balance and motion, and the endless possibilities in playing with and against other players -- are delivered quickly and with a light touch, like he knows better than to explain something you can feel when you play or sense when you watch.

The stories do their own work, anyway, every one of them a fascinating glimpse into a world where basketball's taken hold of people's hearts and minds. In the end, they're not only a serendipitous sort of map of what turns out to be a far-reaching, hoops-mad world, they also hang together as a comforting idea, the idea that maybe, just by playing, we're somehow connected to players we've never met.

I can't resist that kind of utopian basketball vibe -- this book's a keeper.

Eric Neel reviews sports culture in his regular "Critical Mass" column for Page 2. Drop him an e-mail at and let him know what your favorite basketball book is.



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