Friday, December 28, 2007

Book Review: When the Game Was Ours

(Written on January 18, 2011)

When the Game Was Ours is a treat for any basketball fan. Apart from the firsthand commentary from both Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, the book is surprisingly personal.  For example, I had no idea Larry Bird's father committed suicide when he was 16 years old, or that Larry Bird almost decided to stay in his small town and get a "normal" job until his mother reminded him of her expectation that he would be the first in the family to graduate college (which Bird did--even after he was drafted by the Celtics while in college).  I don't like to pontificate about my own interpretation of the book, so I'll just share some sections I found interesting:

Larry's teammates were sometimes jealous of the attention he received--back when Magic and Bird played, there were fewer NBA teams, so the talent level was higher across the board.  So-called "sixth men" at that time could have easily started on many NBA teams today.  "Somebody asked me once how I felt about all that [the jealousy from teammates]," Bird said.  "I told them, 'Hell, I'm jealous of them, too.  I'm jealous because I never got to play with a Larry Bird.'" (pp. 47, 2009, hardcover)

On revenues and revenue-sharing: "By 1981...60 percent of the gross revenue, which was hovering at $118 million, was being paid out to the players.  The formula had to change or the league was going to be out of business."  "In March 1983...the salary cap...[paid] the players 53 percent of the league's defined gross revenue (television and radio revenues and gate receipts) and a guaranteed $500,000 a year in licensing."  (pp. 99)

"In 1984 the NBA's retail merchandise generated $44 million.  By 2007 that number had jumped to a staggering $3 billion under [David] Stern's watching eye." (pp. 109)

"In 1979, the league's four-year deal with CBS was worth $74 million.  By 2002 the league had inked a six-year deal with ABC, ESPN, and TNT valued at $4.6 billion." (pp. 110)

"[I]n 2002, the league signed a network contract valued at $4.6 billion, a significant upgrade over the four-year, $74 million pact the NBA inked in Magic's and Larry's rookie season." (pp. 312)

On Isiah Thomas, who ends up looking like the least classy player in the book: "Isiah [Thomas] kept questioning people about it [Magic's sexuality]," Magic said.  "I couldn't believe that.  Everyone else--Byron [Scott], Arsenio [Hall], Michael [Jordan], Larry [Bird]--they were all supporting me.  And the one guy I thought I could count on had all these doubts.  It was like he kicked me in the stomach." [pp. 241]

"I'm sad for Isiah [Thomas].  He has alienated so many people in his life, and he still doesn't get it.  He doesn't understand why he wasn't chosen for that Olympic team, and that's really too bad.  You should aware when you have ticked off more than half the NBA." [pp. 263]

Dennis Rodman's reaction to playing with Magic after the HIV announcement: Rodman eliminated the awkwardness on his very first trip down the floor, when he elbowed Magic in the back, then bodied up on him and bumped him in the post. "C'mon now," Rodman said to Magic. "Show me what you got." ... After a few minutes, the players seemed to relax." [pp. 249]

Bird on tipping and frugality: In his rookie season, the first time Bird went to New York with the Celtics, he and Rick Robey popped into a bar to have a brew. When he saw the prices on the tavern's menu, Larry abruptly stood up and walked out.  Years later, while dining with his teammates in a trendy New York eatery, the players began collecting money for the bill.  Told they were going to give the waiter a 20 percent tip, Bird said, "What for? All he did was deliver the food."  He stood up, grabbed the tip money, and strode unannounced into the kitchen.  He handed the astonished cook a fistful of bills, then walked out. [pp. 270]

Bird's politeness: "Bird...insisted on calling the commissioner Mr. Stern." (pp. 107) (I quote this section because I've been known to do exactly this.) 

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Chuck Thompson's Smile When You're Lying

Thompson's Smile When You're Lying is the funniest book I've read since Sedaris' Me Talk Pretty One Day. Thompson writes travel stories you don't often hear about in the sanitized media, which include paintbrushing with unorthodox body parts, possibly being robbed by seemingly demure religious women, and writing love letters for food--and that's just the first chapter. Thompson knows how to write, is opinionated, and interesting, which usually produces a great book filled with unusual insights:

"[Bruce Lee's] kitty-cat squealing and falsetto yelping always conveyed to me an understanding of just how laughable all that in-your-face showboating is. I'm not sure what sound the koala makes in anger, but if I ever get back into kendo, that's the one I'm going to adopt as my battle cry." (p. 82, Holt Paperback)

Thompson's rants will become legendary in time--here's one on public school teachers:

"And, yes, poor unappreciated teachers. I did say sweet deal. American public school teachers have the world's best PR operation going. Whining every chance they get about how demanding their jobs are, how many 'extra hours' they put in, how little they make, how much of their own money they have to spend just to do their jobs, how noble they are working this job that nobody ever asked them to do--welcome to the f*cking world...

You think you got it tough? You don't got it tough. American teachers would crumble if they ever had to work the real hours of a cabbie, doctor, bartender, fisherman, truck driver, small-business owner, hotel clerk, mechanic, architect, janitor, musician, surveyor, accountant, or the million other jobs that don't observe weekends, much less every city, county, state, and federal holiday on the docket, almost three months' paid vacation a year, and pension programs funded out of the public trough. How is it we go through school painfully aware that half our teachers are lazy or incompetent or pathological control freaks, then turn around and let them convince us what a bunch of saints they are as soon as we become taxpayers?" (p. 100)

Thompson's views on Americans' general fear of traveling to South America are just as pellucid as his other opinions:

"Despite being home to Angel Falls, the Gran Sabana wilderness, and parts of the the Andes, Amazon River, and Carribbean coastline, fewer than half a million international visitors venture into the majestic Venezuelan countryside... This is in large part due to the fact that, fear being the lietmotif of all good propaganda, about 75 percent of Americans are convinced that any trip south of Texas will involve some combination of bribery, kidnapping, armed revolt, the most toxic GI diseases this side of the Congo, knives pulled in macho bar duels, and a probable colonoscopy at the border." (p. 118)

Thompson's ability to use sharp humor to defuse common misconceptions about travel and the world is unparalleled. One gets the feeling that he's kept all of his non-politically-correct secrets hidden to appease the gods of corporate fealty and finally decided to unleash his wisdom on all of us, decorum be damned. For example, we've all seen the alcohol ads go from Swedish bikini team to "drink responsibly" slogans. But after Thompson writes, "When the beer companies start running ads lecturing the public about responsible behavior, you sense a civilization in decline" (p. 129), you realize beer companies advocating responsibility does appear, on second glance, to be a strange combination. Those "a-ha" moments come regularly and wrapped in laugh-out-loud lines throughout the book. You owe it to yourself to read Smile When You're Lying, especially if you're looking for a good laugh.

(One point I feel compelled to make, in an act of true lawyer-ly nitpicking: Thompson bemoans traveolcity.com's attempt to increase sales using sexy women on its magazine cover, but his own book features a picture of a blonde woman in a bikini holding a margarita, beckoning readers with her pneumatic charms.)

Bonus (added on August 31, 2015): "If there were a fundamental principle that once separated America from the rest of the world, I'd nominate institutional integrity.  More simply, public honesty.  I'm not suggesting that dishonesty isn't readily found in every civilization, that a Golden Age of American honor ever existed...Nor am I parading myself as a paragon of virtue.  We all lie, to some degree, usually in petty ways, for the sake of discretion or keeping the peace or perhaps on occasion simply because it's the most expedient means available to get what we want.  Still, lying and cheating--perhaps other than to avoid hurting someone's feelings--has never been openly accepted or condoned in the United States, much less celebrated as a 'genius' operational tactic (when done with Rovian finesse) from the boardroom to the courtroom.  At least, not until recently....Worse, Americans seem to be reveling the descent...American society is no accident; it didn't evolve by providential decree; its success wasn't inevitable...Americans have historically understood that to create a country in which half the world aspires to live, the first prerequisite is the integrity of its public and private institutions.  That's the foundation upon which the country was assembled and its illustrious future once determined...What's being overlooked in the rush to save the planet, however, is that we're also pissing away a social gift as great as any people in history have been bequeathed.  And if we don't resist the seduction of the seemingly inevitable road in front of us, it won't matter how much fossil fuel we stop burning, we'll fail to preserve the part of us that mattered most in the first place." -- Chuck Thompson, To HellHoles and Back, pp. 309 et al, paperback, Henry Holt and Company. 

Friday, December 7, 2007

The Age of Turbulence, by Alan Greenspan

Greenspan's new book is the opposite of his opaque speeches to Congress; here, he's remarkably human and clear. There are several funny tidbits about his life, including a very obtuse, meandering dedication to him in his father's book when he was young, which may have influenced Greenspan more than he may want to admit. His love for his wife comes through loud and clear, and the book includes a delightful picture of him at the piano with her.

However, Greenspan offers nothing new or insightful in his book other than a life-changing interaction with Ayn Rand, which led him inexorably down the path of libertarianism. (And yes, that's a contradiction for a government economist, if you're keeping score.) His comments on over-dependence on foreign oil, "creative destruction" causing U.S. citizens to become concerned about their quality of life, corn-based ethanol being a boondoggle, warnings against protectionism and economic populism, etc.--this has all been said before, by someone else, somewhere else. Greenspan does advocate a higher tax on gasoline to reduce consumption, which is surprising for a libertarian, but again, not a new idea.

Greenspan also compares the U.S.'s main competitors, especially the U.K., Russia, Japan, France, Italy, and India. He concludes that India needs to overthrow its labyrinth bureaucracy to be competitive, France needs to reform its union-based employment system, Italy made a wise decision to join the EU, and Japan's emphasis on saving face may harm its future growth. He also contends, without saying so directly, that Russia may be the next rising power due to its natural resources and military strength.

Greenspan mentions that the currency markets are more difficult to manipulate than one might think, and points out that Japan bought 20 billion U.S. dollars in one day in 2004, and the dollar-yen exchange rate barely moved. On the other side of the currency divide is Argentina, and Greenspan briefly discusses Argentina's pegging of its currency to the dollar, which led to a financial restructuring. Again, nothing new is said, but Greenspan did have access to many high level politicians and economists, so he is able to discuss, for example, Gerald Ford's "ordinary Joe" persona with more credibility. (For the record, Greenspan did not like Nixon, but found him to be very intelligent, and mentions later in the book that until Clinton, he did not meet anyone as intelligent as Nixon in the White House.)

Although he offers nothing profoundly new (except for perhaps the role liquified natural gas might play in our future energy plans), Greenspan's book is pleasant to read and gives the reader an insight into his sense of humor and tastes. Greenspan's overall message seems to be that the U.S. owes the Constitution much credit as its backbone of stability; citizens should be careful not to revert to the old ideas of centralized government; and the Federal Reserve should maintain an environment of controlled optimism.