Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Review: Man in the Middle, by John Amaechi

John Amaechi's NBA career comprised a series of "What if" moments. What if he hadn't been spotted in the street by a basketball talent scout? What if he went to a different college? What if he hadn't turned down $17 million guaranteed from the Lakers to stay in Orlando for one thirtieth the salary?

In his memoir "Man in the Middle", he adds one more: what if he had stepped out of the closet during his basketball career?

When England wicketkeeper Steven Davies came out this year, his actions were seen as heroic and a positive step in the battle to fight bigotry in the testosterone-fuelled major leagues.

When Amaechi published his autobiography in 2007, it was met with disdain from Tim Hardaway and comments from stars like Charles Barkley and LeBron James which were equal parts helpful and harmful. The truth is that no matter how much it may have helped others, John Amaechi would have been seriously disadvantaged - or unable even to play in the League - by admitting his sexuality. Telling a teammate would almost certainly result in pariah status and significantly lessen his chances of making a difference in the world.

courtesy: barnesandnoble.com
Where some deny themselves snacks, business opportunities or even a normal social life to play in the NBA, Amaechi denied himself so much more.

A nerdy kid encouraged to take up basketball in his late teens, Amaechi worked hard to go from Manchester to the NBA via high school in Ohio and a couple of colleges (Vanderbilt and Penn State). First discovering his true sexual orientation at Penn State, he kept it a secret for nearly a decade before coming out to a counsellor from his alma mater while struggling to live with crippling loneliness playing in Greece.

His book isn't a tale of victories, stats or achievements. He was good player in certain situations, but not a star; his book is a tale of a man who enjoyed basketball, but found it a means to an end. He seems more settled and comfortable now, excised from a me-first environment and running his business, Animus Consulting.

There's a certain amount of egotism - but surely Amaechi has more to be proud of than the average basketball star. His most telling statistical indicator is not a matter of average, but of luck - he scored the first basket of the year 2000. While at college, he was active in the Big Brothers, Big Sisters program and basically adopted a bunch of kids coming from unfortunate backgrounds. He did likewise in Orlando - leading, along with a bunch of enjoyable teammates, to his infamous rejection of the Lakers' millions.

Basketball autobiographies are often a glimpse into the psyche of the athlete, no matter how flat-batted they attempt to be. For example, Larry Bird's Drive is without question the most boring autobiography I've ever read - but this indicates much of the man. He is boringly obsessed with basketball. Bird the player was admirable - Bird the man, not so much. Drive, like Bird on anything other than hoops, never says anything worth reading. Amaechi is the polar opposite - basketball provides a background to which he nods occasionally, but his life seems so much broader.

You never get away from Amaechi's sensitive - and frequently pretentious - nature. But to deny either would bear false witness of the man. Any pretentiousness isn't overpowering - just his manner. But certainly, you can see how he wasn't universally liked (especially by Utah Jazz coach Jerry Sloan) simply because he refused to adhere to the overwhelming jock mentality of regular basketball stars. Where others pay lip service to the importance of basketball, Amaechi does not.

Man in the Middle is an easy read. It's rewarding, as well. Like many sports stars, his perspective has become his reality - events large for him sometimes not seen as such by others - but his perspective is panoramic, rather than focused intently on basketball. In fact, Man in the Middle is one of the first books in a long while that I've made time to read. Footballs.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Review: How The Mighty Fall – Jim Collins

I am a big fan of the work that Jim Collins and his colleagues have done over an extended period up until now. This more recent work, 'How the Mighty Fall' (HTMF), is an extension of what was delivered in their previous work 'Good to Great' (GTG), which itself was an extension of the even earlier work 'Built to Last' (BTL). In reviewing HTMF I am torn between awarding it the extreme rating at either end of the Books with Balls scale, therefore with brazen cheek I am going to award it both 'Basketballs' and 'No Balls' at the same time. I will begin with the negative take on the book.

Cover image thanks to bookdepository.co.uk
No Balls – As I mentioned earlier HTMF is a further extension on previous research published by Collins. Collins is a self titled 'student of companies' seeking to truly understand what makes them tick. BTL began by asking the question for the reader 'why is it that some companies have been around for such extended periods?' Post this GTG extended the analysis by asking 'what is the difference between a good company (that still may be a household name), and a truly great one?' Now lately the question of HTMF was 'why is it that the seemingly infallible company can actually fail?'

This was a piece of research begun prior to 2008 global economic struggles, yet by the time it was published (in 2008) actually spoke with seeming clarity on the state of the world economy at the time. My criticism of HTMF is simple, having read both BTL and GTG previously I am unsure of what is actually different in the conclusions drawn between books.

Collins could no doubt point to extensive extra research that identifies clearly that the conclusions drawn in HTMF are very much their own. However Collins' works great marketable strength is also its great weakness. What Collins is able to effectively do is communicate clearly the conclusions of extensive and detailed academic research to an audience not taken to reading long journal articles, or pouring over endless statistical analysis. Though Collins never can be accused of 'dumbing down' his work, eventually while reading HTMF I felt as though I had read it all before and the conclusions were not only obvious but very familiar.

Based upon this I cast my mind back to the previous two works, stacked them up against HTMF and asked the question, which of them is the most useful? For mine it clearly is GTG for two reasons. Firstly it, like BTL, has a positive disposition that HTMF does not. GTG is a presentation of evidence backed 'should do' behaviours that lead to positive results. In terms of leading a reader on a journey to betterment telling them what they should do is in my opinion more effective than only telling them what they should not do.

Secondly, I believe it has far greater application than just Collins area of research companies. The research presented in all books has wider application yet the method of presentation in GTG makes it easier to apply to other organisations, and critically for individuals. Its promotion of what Collins calls 'Level 5' leadership is an excellent read for application in more facets of life than just business.

To conclude in this section if you had to select just one of Collins works to read, go with GTG.

Basketballs – That all being said, if circumstance arose whereupon you were thrust with the opportunity to read HTMF without that which to read GTG, you will not be disappointed. HTMF presents in clear prose and example what the research believe to be the five cascading stages in decline for a company. At each stage the contention made is fully explored along multiple lines and backed up with choice data from the academic research. You will read through this book and be amazed by its depth yet simplicity of outcomes.

Although the basis for each of the books questions is the performance of companies, the answers are never a reflection on company behaviour or corporate decision making. As with all their work, Collins and his team allow their research to guide, and as always it is more a comment on human behaviour. What should shock you is just how obvious the conclusions are, in hindsight.

There is great benefit to be obtained through reading HTMF and entering into self-reflection based on Collins' principles. While they may not fully suit every situation in our minds at the very least they should encourage thought, discussion and hopefully growth both corporately and personally. 

Friday, September 16, 2011

Review: In Defence of Food – Michael Pollan

The key for whether this book was going to be rated a success or failure lay in the authors willingness post all of the criticism of his readerships diet to provide genuine responsive actions that one can take. In this Pollan can be said to be a resounding success.

Cover image thanks to bookdepository.co.uk
Pollan's contention is that the West became throughout the the 20th century so focussed on the individual nutrients and other bits and pieces that made up food that it lost sight of the reality that food is more than the sum of all its parts. In the West's quest to understand every little part of every food not only have we (I am a Westerner myself) lost the vast majority of the physiological benefits of food, but also the cultural, sociological and spiritual benefits that for thousands of years humans have derived.

The author, Michael Pollan, is a vehement critic of the western diet. An American, he believes that it has solely been the influence of economics, and the selfish quest for more, that has led to the West now facing a problem of over-nourishment (obesity) than the malnourishment that has more often been humankind's problem for centuries.

For those of us not from the USA we need to read the criticism with a grain of salt. The problems still do exist in our societies, however they will be to differing degrees. The greatest learning I gained from the book was a view of just how far culturally we neglect some of the greatest purposes of eating. Meals and food for thousands of years have been cultural centrepieces through which we interacted with each each other. In a time when mental health is deteriorating it may be worthwhile for us to consider the changes made to the human condition from its natural state rather than seek an answer in medicine.

The responses Pollan gives to the problem of poor diet are well thought through, and very practical. They are difficult to read for us as society who have previously placed so much faith in what we thought was correct, but they are not without basis. Pollan does not shy away from the fact that change is hard, and there are sacrifices to be made, and this is commendable as even the thought that a set of recommendations might make our lives more difficult can dramatically affect book sales (the more preferred option often is 'Lose Weight in just 5 minutes a day!').

Give this book a read and ask yourself the hard questions about diet and society. Not only may you improve your health physically, but your life will probably be fuller also. Basketballs.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Review: Chocolate Thunder, by Darryl Dawkins and Charley Rosen

Darryl Dawkins is nothing if not an entertainer.  The names he gave his dunks were awesome, his proclamations about coming from the planet Lovetron were - and still are - amazing, and he was an effective NBA center for a decade before succumbing to injury.  He broke two plexiglass backboards during his days in the League and another one when playing for Torino of the Italian League - dude was a beast.

His book, penned alongside experienced basketball ghost-writer and free spirit Charley Rosen, is therefore a very entertaining read.  In fact, it's one of the books I've most enjoyed going back to pick up in recent times.  It's lightweight, honest, good for a chuckle and well worth a read.

At the same stage, it's also hardly a work which will truly describe the NBA's Dark Times to younger generations with the appropriate reality.  While it ploughs head-on into drug use - especially the casual stuff of Dawkins and the sadness of teammate Micheal Ray Richardson's addiction - it also presents most authority figures as broken men trying to compensate for a lack of control. 

In fact in places, it appears as if Dawkins - always the most likeable of souls - is simply unencumbered with an accurate version of reality.  The rate at which he bitches about referees and - without the same malice - most of his NBA coaches enlightens the reader as to why he wasn't the All-World player his talent said he should have been.  While refs did perhaps victimise DD (kiiiiind of), he was a notoriously bad defender and bought up-fakes like they were Internet futures in 1996.

courtesy: sportclassicbooks.com
We've been writing at Books with Balls for a while.  Chocolate Thunder is also the first book I've ever read where I've bookmarked certain pages for either being so deluded they're worth mentioning in and of themselves.  Examples?  How about when he suggests Phoenix Suns coach Alvin Gentry is so bad "he must have a photo of an NBA GM f***ing a goat or something"(pg 135).  Or when he says he "practically won Game 5 [of the 1980 NBA Finals] on my own".  In reality, Kareem led the Lakers to a huge win after really badly spraining an ankle and Magic Johnson jumped center in the decisive Game 6.  Maybe that's what he meant by "practically".

Some inaccuracies, like "Fast" Eddie Johnson being dead, or Micheal Ray Richardson embarrassing white Point guards like Mark Price (whose NBA career only barely overlapped "Sugar's") can be put down to poor editing.  Others can only be thought of as fallacies brought about by a combination of ego and a grasp on reality which perhaps occasionally slips, unhelped by the cocaine he freely admits to taking during his playing days.

Despite the obvious ego, there's a real sense that Darryl Dawkins loves life, no matter how hard it has occasionally gotten for him.  In fact, he comes off as a really admirable guy, which in itself is testament to his likeability.  For his words to burst off the page as they do, the reader is left not only with a sense of DD's conviction, but also of his irrepressible joy.  Naming dunks, sleeping with maybe 1000 women and enjoying coaching as much as he does are all signs of la joie de vivre.  And Chocolate Thunder's got that in spades.

Darryl Dawkins is a fascinating man and in some ways it's a pity he's chosen to deliver such a lightweight memoir.  In other ways, however, apart from his physical size, Dawkins is a man driven by levity.  That in itself makes this book about a "coodabeen" well worth the 220-page read.  Recommended, but only if your knowledge of basketball history doesn't object to occasional inaccuracies.  Tennis balls.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Review: The Once and Future King by T.H. White

You know what?  It's hard to review this work for what it really is.  What it is - four books written over two decades - is overshadowed by its status as the "ultimate" Arthurian novel, the definitive fantasy novel instrumental to the characterisations in everything from Excalibur to Doctor Who and Harry Potter (but everything has influenced both Who and Potter).

Each book of the quadrilogy is markedly different both in tone and style to its brethren.  The first sees King Arthur as a boy, the second as a young leader and introduces the Orkney clan, the third almost entirely deals with Lancelot and the final with the war which eventually rent Camelot in two.

courtesy: indiebound.org
As White moves from the optimism of youth into the darkness of a young leader, it's obvious that this chapter of the narrative was penned during the early years of World War II.  As he ages - to all accounts, becoming quite a bitter older man - he retains the uncanny ability to dispense chunks of wisdom in bite size pieces; this allows the reader discomfiting glances at the state of the world during that war and it's chilly successor.  On the other hand, however, the tale of friends Lancelot, Arthur and Guinevere in wrapped in a sadness not felt in almost any Arthurian sequences.

As is now the norm - but TOAFK begets - only the man whose ambition destroys all that Arthur - who in the end loses faith in justice - had judicially achieved, is portrayed as evil and motivated by hate.  His brothers - a few of them co-conspirators - are unlikeable or selfish, but none so evil as Mordred.

White's obvious gift was in taking an idea and running with it - The Sword in the Stone could praecied as two hundred pages of one boy's experiences as a pike, hawk, goose and frog.  That Merlyn, a proto-Who/Dumbledore, lives backwards in time only serves to highlight an almost futile existence.

It's certainly languid, expansive and a little self-indulgent, but enjoyable nonetheless.  It'll take you a fair amount to get through, but this isn't a typical light-hearted swords-n-sorcery epic.  This is big, sad and will always be theArthurian novel against which all are judged.  Footballs - but I preferred The Winter King.