I've read about David Halberstam more than I've read him. He represented something in my mind that only became stronger after his death a few years ago: a Greatest Generation type making his name in the era of New Journalism, a hard-ass, gutsy workaholic who took vacations from his serious books by writing only slightly less serious books on sports instead of war and politics, and a reporter whose radical conclusions were only made more convincing by his disinterest in radicalism for its own sake. He chose to write about some of the subjects I've been circling around as a reader my whole life (the civil rights movement, baseball, Vietnam, the New York Times, and, my god, the Portland Trail Blazers), and some of his books on those subjects (The Best and the Brightest, The Powers That Be, The Breaks of the Game) have loomed so large for me--as they do, or did, for the larger culture--that I feel like I've digested them already. But only now, that I've just finished the latter, did I realize that it's the first book of his I've actually read.
My mouth has always watered at the idea of The Breaks of the Game, rumored to be one of the great sports books and about what to me is a great subject: the late '70s Blazers. (The Blazers became my favorite team for a while a decade or so later, but late '70s NBA, like late '70s anything, is more or less catnip to me.) It sounded so good I had been saving it for a time when I could inhale it without interruption, and I finally found that time on vacation last week. And how was it? Good and fascinating, though my guess is that it was so influential that the ground it broke, both in form and argument, has come to seem less earthshaking to a later reader than it did at the time. Blunt about race in a way that seems very much of its time (we're more delicate now, or maybe just exhausted by the persistence of the subject), and thoroughly and intimately reported in a way that the carapaces of modern athletic celebrity would likely prevent now (and were just beginning to then), it's a complex and smart story of sports and society (a little stronger on the latter than the former), and an excellent collection of personal portraits of figures I remember like Kermit Washington, Bill Walton, Maurice Lucas, and Jack Ramsay, and forgotten names like Tom Owens, Billy Ray Bates, Stu Inman, and Blazers then-owner Larry Weinberg. For a season-long locker-room portrait, I still prefer Ken Dryden's The Game, both for style and insight and for his undeniable advantage of being inside the uniform himself, but I feel like a world I only half knew is now thickly populated thanks to Halberstam. (Note: only after writing this did I run across this piece by Ramsay explaining how the book grew out of his friendship with Halberstam, which itself grew out of Ramsay's regular tennis matches with Gay Talese.)
I could natter on about details large and small (for a Maryland Terrapins fan, his short, wry history of Lefty Driesell's nearly successful wooing of Moses Malone, though painful, is worth the price of admission alone), but I'll just note a few here. One is how fascinating it is to me that this is Bill Simmons's all-time favorite sports book, the one he says woke him up to the adult world of sports as a kid and that he rereads every couple of years to keep his own writing on the straight and narrow. Because Bill Simmons, as a writer, is almost nothing like David Halberstam. You could, in fact, easily imagine old-school Halberstam, were he still alive, waxing crotchety at the new wave of sports journalism that Simmons represents: the standup comedy tweeting, the celebrityhood embracing, the fanboy rooting, the WWF loving. Halberstam was humorless, Simmons is hilarious. Halberstam reported, Simmons reacts. The only saving grace he might have found is that Simmons does do the work: he knows the game, he thinks things through, and he writes his ass off. And Halberstam respected nothing more than someone who worked hard and was good and serious about his job.
And meanwhile, knowing how much Halberstam means to Simmons tells you a bit about Simmons. For all his gags and his frat-boy sensibilities, Simmons is surprisingly tuned in to the sociology of sports, especially the racial complexities that play out there more overtly than anywhere else in America, and I imagine a lot of that stems from the wakeup call The Breaks of the Game gave him back in 1982. When Simmons writes about Halberstam you get the feeling I used to get when Mary Tyler Moore would come on Letterman and he would drop his winking schtick and just get reverent in the presence of one of his idols. I'm even tempted to say that if you subtracted Halberstam from Simmons's development, you would have ended up with, I don't know, Jim Rome or Jimmy Kimmell--the bombast or the gags--not the writer who is, warts and all, the best sportswriter of his (and my) generation.
And then via that Simmons tribute, I found some of the pieces that Halberstam wrote for espn.com's Page 2 in the years before he died. (Halberstam on Page 2? Maybe he would have been more open to Simmons than I give him credit for.) And the most fascinating to me, on the heels of reading The Breaks of the Game, was his appreciation of Allen Iverson, after AI willed his overmatched Sixers to a Game 1 finals win against the Shaq-Kobe Lakers in 2001 (they lost the next four, by the way). In some ways it's an update, in capsule form, of his ideas on race and the modern celebrity athlete twenty years after The Breaks (fun, by the way, to abbreviate the title to echo fellow basketball fan Kurtis Blow, since in the piece Halberstam notes his ignorance of hip-hop culture). If anything, it's more blunt on those subjects than that blunt book, certainly personally so, as Halberstam confesses his initial old-white-man distaste for Iverson's thug-life persona and then explains how either he or AI (or both) have changed enough so that Halberstam can appreciate him now within his traditional ideals of manliness and honor. It's also an interesting reporter's window on the perception of "good guys" and "bad guys" among athletes (and a chance for another cameo by one of his favorite characters in The Breaks, Steve Kelley, then a young Portland reporter and now a senior columnist for the Seattle Times, as he has been ever since I've lived here). Here's one glimpse into the Halberstam ethic:
The early afros of the 1960s didn't bother me. Athletes at the 1968 Olympics raising their hands in black power didn't bother me. But I feel that whatever your beliefs, you have to prove yourself, first and foremost, by what you do, and how good you are at your profession, and your alienation better not interfere with your job.
Allen Iverson, at that moment at least, was very good at his job.
And finally, speaking of measurements of character among celebrity athletes, reading the epigraph Halberstam chose for The Breaks of the Game (which is unchanged in my reprint edition from the original published in 1982, as far as I can tell) will bring any current reader up short, with layers of irony and tragedy--right down to the man O.J. is talking to--that need no explaining:
"Fame," O.J. said, walking along, "is a vapor, popularity is an accident, and money takes wings. The only thing that endures is character."
"Where'd you get that from?" Cowlings asked.
"Heard it one night on TV in Buffalo," O.J. said. "I was watching a late hockey game on Canadian TV and all of a sudden a guy just said it. Brought me right up out of my chair. I never forgot it."
--From an article by Paul Zimmerman, Sports Illustrated, November 26, 1979, on O.J. Simpson