It’s not easy to write about sports. Especially in a book. We are used to seeing matches and competitions live, suffering instantly, and then at most relive them the next morning, reading the news in the newspaper. But they last a moment because on the following weekend (and sometimes even before) there is already another race, there is already another challenge that is ready to attract our attention.
Those reckless sports journalists who have tried to venture into writing a book have therefore had to deal with the risk that the fruit of their efforts would pay the price for the speed to which the enthusiast is now accustomed. A speed that admits exceptions only in very particular circumstances, which in a certain sense must be deserved. This is why a book dedicated to a sport is a lottery game: it requires great talent, but also the ability to grasp the right story, to frame the phenomenon that is destined to last. And a bit of luck.
EUROPEAN BASKETBALL AND NBA BASKETBALL
If among all the books of this genre, we orient ourselves towards those dedicated to basketball, the discussion becomes perhaps even more complex. Because basketball, in Italy and in Europe, lives on a sort of double track. On the one hand, there are the national championships and the European cups, which the true fan follows with the vigor of a fan, hoping that the Italian teams can return to the glories of the past. On the other hand, there is the NBA and more generally American basketball, which represent another planet.
The comparison between US and local basketball is similar to what can be done for cinema: on the one hand Hollywood, with its stars and the stories that keep us glued to the screen, and on the other, the Italian production, which has a great tradition behind it and from time to time still today manages to pull something really interesting out of the hat, but which lacks continuity.
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The book market has tried, over time, to devote itself to both of these worlds, even if it is undeniable that the American landscape has more charm and often attracts the best pens. If you have never read any of this or your readings have so far been poorly organized, and you want to get closer to the classics of the genre, we offer you a list of five books on basketball that we think are particularly important.
They are all about the NBA because you have to start from there. Four are written by Americans, one by an Italian. In the future, perhaps, we will dedicate another such article to books dedicated to the heroes and teams of our league. In the meantime, for the moment, let’s start from here.
Larry Bird and Magic Johnson – We were Basketball
A journey into the greatest rivalry of the 80s
Let’s start our journey with a memoir signed by Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, two of the best players who have ever walked a court. In truth, they are just witnesses of a bygone era, but it was Jackie MacMullan, a journalist for ESPN and the Boston Globe, who wrote down their memories. She was chosen by the two former stars because she had already helped Bird write her autobiography – Bird Watching, released in 1999 – and then she had also successfully dedicated herself to the story of Geno Auriemma.
The book is an account of the long and interminable duel between the two stars that marked the NBA of the ’80s. On the one hand, Earvin Johnson known as Magic, the highest point guard in the history of the league, is capable of winning 5 NBA titles with his Los Angeles Lakers between 1980 and 1988, 3 MVP titles, as many Finals MVPs, and an NCAA title.
8 OF 9 TITLES AVAILABLE
On the other hand, there is Larry Bird, former Boston Celtics winger, also elected three times MVP of the regular season (plus twice of the finals), three times winner of the NBA championship, and winner once again on three occasions of the race of the three-point shot during the All-Star Weekend. The two challenged each other countless times, dividing 8 of the 9 titles awarded between 1980 and 1988, creating one of the most beautiful rivalries in the history of the sport.
In reality, however, behind the antagonism on the basketball court, there was deep esteem and a great friendship. The book traces precisely these backstories, making us breathe the air of a world now past but which is the basis of today’s one. A world where the Lakers were a spectacular team of blacks trained by a white and the Celtics were a sober team of whites trained by a black. And to embellish everything there is also an interesting introduction by Flavio Tranquillo, the main voice of the NBA in Italy.
Roland Lazenby – Michael Jordan, life
The monumental biography of MJ
If Larry Bird and Magic Johnson were the faces of the NBA in the 1980s, Michael Jordan certainly was the face of the 1990s. We were basketball, which we have just talked about, indeed presents a very significant scene, which can be read as a sort of handover between the two now in decline champions and the new rising star. It is set in Barcelona, during the days of the Olympics in which the Dream Team put its indelible mark on the world.
In that phase, in reality, Michael Jordan was not so young, but already a champion arrived, who had perhaps still collected little in relation to his potential. As you know, Jordan’s basketball career began in North Carolina, where he won the NCAA title in 1982. Then the arrival in the NBA two years later and the enormous skills which, however, could not lead the team to important goals, given that on his path first the Boston Celtics and then the Detroit Pistons were placed. At least until the explosion of the 90s.
Michael Jordan’s life was all of this and more. It is a life that is still read, studied, and pointed out as an example today. And so to tell it you need time, commitment, and dedication. Also because Michael is certainly not an easy character to manage, with his competitiveness not yet subsided, his dreams and his strength. The American journalist Roland Lazenby tried it with a monumental work, which exceeds 700 pages.
On the other hand, a character like Jordan deserved nothing less. And Lazenby, a passionate fan of the Chicago Bulls who were dragged to the altar by what would become a legend, tells it with admiration but also honesty. In fact, there is no lack of descriptions of the star’s excesses, from the adrenaline unable to slip away to the relationship with teammates. In the journalist’s career, on the other hand, there are biographies of other “uncomfortable” characters such as Kobe Bryant and Phil Jackson, which we will talk about shortly.
Jack McCallum – Dream Team
In the locker room in Barcelona
Let’s stay for a moment on the legendary players we have presented so far. As we wrote, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, and Michael Jordan not only met on the basketball court or in the various All-Star Games, but they shared a team experience, along with other great champions of their time. In 1992, in fact, for the first time, the American representative at the Olympics was not formed by university students but by NBA professionals. And some of the best players of all ages went to Barcelona.
The 12 called up were athletes that would shake the wrists of any opponent. In addition to the aforementioned, there were Charles Barkley, Clyde Drexler, Patrick Ewing, Karl Malone, John Stockton, Chris Mullin, Scottie Pippen, David Robinson, and – the only university – Christian Laettner. The team got rid of all the formations that got in their way very easily, taking gold in the final against Croatia.
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But the feats in the field did matter up to a point. Never before had such a large number of champions shared a dressing room, a hotel, a fortnight together. And Jack McCallum, a Sports Illustrated historian, was there with them, jotting everything down in his notebook. Dream Team is the story of that experience, with a lot of background that allows us to understand a little better the personality of those champions and the mechanisms of professional sport at the highest level.
Among other things, McCallum is also the author of Seven Seconds or Less, a book on the Phoenix Suns by Steve Nash and Mike D’Antoni which is a classic for understanding the mechanisms of contemporary basketball. Unavailable in Italian, it can still be read in English, given the clarity of McCallum’s prose and the notoriety of several of the technical terms, also passed into Italian thanks to television broadcasts.
Federico Buffa – Black Jesus
US basketball told by an Italian
So far we have presented books written by American journalists and strongly focused on the life of great athletes, and champions who have made the history of this sport. But the beauty of the NBA and American basketball, in general, is that it’s a world that oozes stories from every pore. And that it is interesting not only to know the life of the great champion but also of the mid-level player, who made a thousand sacrifices just to be able to play a few minutes on the stage that matters to him.
Even these stories, in America, are told in books, but they rarely manage to cross national borders and be translated abroad, because the lack of a name of appeal distances possible publishers. Fortunately, in Italy, a journalist who can use his own as a calling name has somehow remedied the question: Federico Buffa.
A TV NARRATOR TOO
A long-time commentator on Sky, for years he formed a magical couple with Flavio Tranquillo, who is still the main voice of satellite TV today. Buffa, on the other hand, has put aside the world of basketball, in recent years, to devote herself to sport in the round, creating television shows and specials dedicated to major events or great personalities that have characterized the history of the twentieth century. With an enviable style, he told us about the World Cup and Muhammad Ali, also thrilling those who are not normally interested in the sport.
But Federico Buffa has formed the skills he is showing to ever-larger audiences by writing and telling about basketball. Black Jesus is an anthology of writings that collects a decade of anecdotes, stories, insights, in which the lawyer – as he is nicknamed, due to his studies of him – pours out all his knowledge of American basketball. An agile book, which can be read quickly, but all to be savored.
Phil Jackson – Eleven Rings
Spotlight on the most successful coach of the last decades
As we have just written, basketball is not just made up of great champions. It is also made up of coaches, on which the spotlight usually does not dwell too much. Yet someone who deserves attention, for one reason or another, is there. One of these is Phil Jackson, one of the most successful coaches ever in American professional sport and at the same time an ambiguous, charismatic but also strange character, who has repeatedly surprised journalists and fans.
His philosophy of play and life, the background of his exploits, and some tasty anecdotes about the great players he has coached are told in Eleven Rings, a book that despite the title in English is also available in Italian, published by Libreria Dello Sport. A title that was kept in the original language perhaps to emphasize even more the scope of that curriculum: because Jackson actually won 11 NBA titles as a manager (to which 2 should be added as a player), 6 with the Chicago Bulls, and 5 with the Los Angeles Lakers.
THE PERSONALITY MANAGER
The history of those successes is partly known, but it is an undertaking that deserves to be studied within universities. As he tells in the book with the help of Hugh Delehanty, Jackson has in fact not only been able to field his players and provide them with schemes and solutions both in attack and defense, but he has known first of all to be able to make them play as a team. . The secret of his success was in fact the ability to handle bulky personalities such as those of Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant or Shaquille O’Neal.
It is not the first time that Jackson has tried to pass down his beliefs to posterity. In recent years, Basket & Zen and Più di un Gioco were also released in Italy. However, several years have passed since then, and Eleven Rings allow us to take stock of the “second Jackson”, who went through the full maturity of Kobe and the further experiences of his life. An interesting read.