Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Review: In the Hornets' Nest - Joe Drape

The sheer sweaty bodyweight of beat writers attached to American sports teams makes books which chronicle one team's journey over an entire season relatively commonplace. It's not an original concept, and basketball teams lend themselves to these diaries more than most. The Jordan Rules, A Season on the Brink (by John Feinstein) and The Breaks of the Game are required reading for hoops fans.

In 1988-89, two season chronicles emerged simultaneously about compelling storylines at opposite ends of the NBA. The Franchise examined Jack McCloskey, the General Manager of the Championship-winning Detroit Pistons; the other, by Atlanta Journal-Constitution journalist Joe Drape, detailed the Charlotte Hornets' first NBA season. The result is In the Hornets' Nest.

Expansion is a gripping hook. There aren't many stories written about lousy teams, especially smaller-market ones. How often do you get a dynamic and in-depth record of building a franchise from the ground up?  In the Hornets' Nest should be a work of historical significance simply by existing; unfortunately it becomes a collection of beat-writer standards which don't do full justice to a fascinating period in the NBA's history.

New teams inherently offer plenty of angles, partly because the cast of characters is hungry and disparate, but also because – by design – they stink. Each member of an expansion team, administrator or player, has one goal: to do well enough to make money. When twenty characters all attempting to secure their individual futures are combined, an intriguing and rare set of pressures evolve; cataloguing individual and collective responses makes for fascinating reading.

This human element sells sports books.  Unfortunately, apart from boardroom machinations early and late, the personal element rarely comes through in Drape's book; this makes it feel insubstantial and perfunctory.  Watching an expansion team for the results is nonsensical; what matters are the foundations put in place for future success.  Perhaps because Charlotte's player base was so obviously transient it became difficult to see any individual improvement coming from any of their established players.

Photo courtesy: amazon.com
When a nascent organisation develops, a maturity story can be attached both to individual elements and the structure as a whole – there's always interest (and a market) for coming of age tales. This aspect is also disappointingly downplayed; the only figure to be treated to three full dimensions is George Shinn, the man least acquainted with pro basketball and also the man with the most to learn.

When executed poorly, attempts at documenting eight months of human interaction can become a series of individual portraits rather than a slow crystallisation of overall character. Unfortunately, rather than opting to "grow" the Hornets' staff over the course of the season, Drape inserted WYSIWYG potted character studies which are rarely referred to later. Despite their fascinating roles, GM Carl Scheer and coach Dick Harter are treated to the same three page allottment as backup point guard Muggsy Bogues.

While lightweight, the book rams home a few crucial differences between The Leagues of then and now. The typical late-80s pursuit of size – any size – is highlighted, resulting in career third-stringer Stuart Gray being written about more than even his Mum thinks he deserves. Also, there is an obvious lack of process and method about both coaching and personnel decisions. Harter's coaching philosophy often suggested that improvement couldn't come from within but from outside; oddly, but understandably, Drape's writing reflects the same tenor when it comes to individual and collective maturity.

There are frequent gaps. Three quarters of the book has passed before Drape mentions who the team's starting point guard was (it was the immortal Michael Holton) and what should have been the most interesting sections of all – the 1988 expansion draft and the 1988 NBA draft – barely rate a mention.

There's a beat-writer's style to Drape's writing. He is even-handed so much so that it could be mistaken for a lack of joy; the same could be said of the players and administrators: the only people to see the season as an experience rather than something to be endured before they could draft again. It's easy fodder for basketball fans.  Tennis Balls.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Review: Elisabeth Sladen - An autobiography

When Elisabeth Sladen passed away in April 2011, I was shocked and upset than at the death of any other of my childhood fiction stalwarts.  She consistent, intriguing and still on TV, but her death shook me up more so than even that of her co-star (and my then-hero) Jon Pertwee in 1996, despite that occurring in the midst of my teen-angsty-crying-at-the-drop-of-a-hat phase.

Her most notable role by far was as Doctor Who's best ever companion, Sarah Jane Smith, a role she played, on-and-off for nearly forty years. Her autobiography, released posthumously, is an interesting work which speaks volumes - in hushed tones - about the woman who would have preferred to be known as Elisabeth Miller.  Of course due to the vagaries of Equity, the UK actor's guild, that wasn't ever a possibility but contributes to the defining theme of her memoir, of someone utterly at home in family settings.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Review: The Twelve Caesars - Michael Grant

Michael Grant was a noted twentieth century historian who focused predominantly upon the early Roman empire.  He published several well-regarded works on that culture in that period, including perhaps his seminal piece The Twelve Caesars.

This narrative, which leans heavily upon the usual suspects (Suetonius, Pliny and Tacitus) is a conversational textbook - a popular version of a book of learning, much like I, Claudius - very much in vogue throughout the latter half of last century.  It delivers a potted biography of Julius Caesar and his eleven direct replacements - from Augustus to Domitian.

As a work, it delivers simply what it suggests on the packet: small bios, pieced together from influential - but hardly neutral - sources.  Grant time and again points out that Suetonius tended to highlight the sexual depravities of his subjects, while Tactitus' words showed contempt for each of the three Caesars who rose to their position via civil war (Galba, Otho and Vitellius).  

He delivers simple, effective portraits of highly complex men - figures simplified by period literature through rumour and suggestions being made out as fact.  He is even-handed and resists editorialising, except for during the last chapter where he tries unsuccessfully to "sum up" and only manages to confuse himself and his readers.

Unfortunately, there really is very little else to say.  Grant writes as an academic, with economy of emotion, as if just putting words down on paper for future generations.  If you're interested in the period or a history buff, then it's certainly worth a look - otherwise the source material may prove a little dry.  Tennis balls.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Review: Over Time - Frank Deford

courtesy: livetalksla.or
Frank Deford talks of his work Over Time not as a memoir but a we-moir, a collation of transient connections with figures more famous than himself. When asked to write a piece for alma mater Sports Illustrated about his early days at the United States' foremost sports magazine, he initially resisted; but as it became obvious there was a desire for a Mad Men style homage to the golden age of US magazines, no-one was in a better position to detail those salad days of the sixties.

Were you to boil down Deford's style to a single adjective, it would be wry. He is observant yet economical, distilling major events and people into their vital alchemy and transmitting what he absorbs with a pleasant mix of good humour and gravitas. He has used the same affable style for fifty years, through books, editorials and myriad essays; the result is four-hundred-odd pages of brilliant simple statements. In fact, Deford writes with vision and simplicity that makes readers often think “Why didn't I see it that way before?”

This geniality is only magnfied by an attitude of supreme moderation. Deford is a sporting centreist – as he proves with his weekly NPR commentaries – well aware of the unique position sport occupies in our cultural landscape. At a recent speech at the Seattle Public Library, he suggested both the import and triviality of sport by announcing the only two unnecessary cultural phenomena developed individually by every people have been sport and religion.

Acutely aware of his position as an observer rather than newsmaker, he presents his life journey quite superficially and bases his experiences around those in public life who were attracting the same attention. Where he writes about personal matters, it is almost entirely in regard to his artisanship, or concerning the athletes were the root source of his material and observations. A perfect example comes from one of the work's final chapters where he talks with shark Jimmy the Greek about their shared loss – children lost to Cystic Fibrosis.

This isn't your typical me-me-me book, detailing “my struggle against the odds” or a list of accomplishments made more impressive when taken out of context. Deford freely admits to benefiting from luck and the era in which he got his start. His writing is about his profession, rather than himself and as such you find yourself knowing less of the man than you would choose; no doubt Deford prefers this way. He revels in what he has seen throughout his career, being able to witness the triumph and despair that's inherent at any sport; at the same time however the career is obviously only part of the man.

However, because his scope spans five decades, he really does no more than touch upon so many of the topics that could conceivably sell Over Time: these are anecdotes of his time observing sport, rather than his opinions. The stories are personal and not hearsay; a particular example being when he caught a train with a young Muhammad Ali and found him searching for spiritual and emotional understanding, exploring that which would make him controversial. In this manner, his writing on Arthur Ashe is sad but upbeat and the reader absorbs Deford's patent respect for the great tennis player.

As a text for aspiring sportswriters it has no definite teaching points, or at least very few. Deford's lack of personal conceit contributes to this somewhat; his belief is that writing is something you can or can't do, something rarely learned well. This seems partially a cover for such a humble man about whom his craft agrees that he is the patrician.

While there are few absolute commandments, the aspiring blogosphere would do well to heed his obvious breadth of vision. The value of a broad intake of news and views is tacitly suggested, as being well-rounded provides writers with the ability to place sport and the context from which stories emerge into a more global spectrum.

It's a wonderful piece of writing. But from Frank Deford, would you expect anything else?


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