I’m not a huge sports fan, but growing up in the Midwest sports were big and I enjoyed them. My Dad loved the Chicago Bears and if they weren’t on t.v. then it was the Green Bay Packers or the Minnesota Vikings or….well, whoever. Baseball was both grandfathers’ sport of choice–one a White Sox fan, the other a Cubs fan. I purchased my own Cubs baseball glove (still have it) and my own football uniform!! Yes, my Mom was a saint.
Our extended family was divided along college rivalry lines: My Grandfather, Uncle & Aunt, Mom & Dad all went to Purdue. My grandmother, her cousin, her sister, her nephew all went to Indiana University. Once we all went to the Oaken Bucket game–the annual football game between I.U. and Purdue when it was in Bloomington. It helped that my Great-Aunt and Uncle were residents of Bloomington and life-long I.U. Booster Club members. When my great-aunt died her tickets for Assembly Hall were distributed as carefully and with as much planning as the assets of her personal estate!
From 5th grade thru high school I loved to shoot baskets, but couldn’t run enough to even hope of trying out for the team. Most of my early adolescence was spent on the Raleigh 10-speed I saved up and bought for myself. I was a “free-range” kid back when that was perfectly normal.
One of my reasons for choosing I.U. as my college was that back in 1980 they were among the tiny handful of colleges with a women’s rugby club! I ended up being too shy and socially unsure (aka “awkward”) to even go to the sign-up meeting. I still find it a great game. (Aside: My mom’s cousin played rugby at IU back int he 60s when only men were allowed to play.) Ironically I.U. is know as much today for soccer as for any other sport, but back in my day it was basketball, Bobby Knight and Assembly Hall that dominated the campus–though I never went to a single game. The library was wonderfully deserted then! Ha! As for football, they let you in free to football games sometimes, that’s how bad the team was. The only time a Big 10 (and it was still only 10 in the Big 10) football stadium had seats begging.
The I.U. game I remember most was the day John Hinkley shot President Reagan. Not only were “Luke and Laura” on General Hospital interrupted, but there was talk that the Big Dance would not conclude due to the assassination attempt. They didn’t know Bobby Knight. Game on! [Sidebar: I later served in Peace Corps with a doctor who had been in the operating room when they saved President Reagan. Second Sidebar: That doctor was the most handsome guy in my group. Just sayin–it’s called “color.” It adds a little something to this story if you see….] My only other colorful I.U. sports memories were of Uwe Blab scrunched into a phone booth [any one remember those??] and of later working at IUPUI in the same building with the tragically injured Landon Turner. So, back to our story…Sports Books.
In spite of or because of all of this, over the years I have read a few excellent sports books. Here are my favorites. And since it is the 25th Anniversary of one of my favorites–a book non-fiction book so popular it became not only a bestseller, but an equally popular t.v. show. Not many nonfiction books have that happen. I’ll start with it.
Back before Amazon, before Al Gore had even invented the internet, I would browse bookstores looking for something new to read. This book–as much a social history and sociology book as a sports one–caught my eye. I couldn’t put it down. The story is that well told. Racism, pampered athletes, small town life–it’s all there. (And it’s set near where president G.W. Bush grew up.) I passed it on to a friend and he and his teenage football player son read it and had the same reaction–they couldn’t put it down. Not surprising then that’s its 25th Anniversary is being hearlded in all manner of book lists this year. Friday Night Lights by H.G. Bissinger.
Did anyone follow golf before Tiger Woods? Well, yes they did! John Feinstein, the only author who appears twice in this list, covers sports for a variety of media outlets, but I know him from his weekly commentary on NPR. (And I once sat in front of him on a plane–how cool is that?) I love his style. He makes even me love sports. This book tells what players go thru to make the PGA tour. Sorry for the pun, but its no walk in the park. And certainly no picnic. I worked for the most golf-obsessed lawyers in the state for several years so they men in this book were well known to me. I was then catching the golf bug myself so this book helped fuel my desire to find out just how bad a golfer I am (really bad, if you care to know–I can never find my own ball). A Good Walk Spoiled by John Feinstein.
Bob Greene was a legend of a journalist back in the 80s and 90s known for uncovering horrific child abuse and for his bromance [back before the word was coined] with now iconic basketball star Michael Jordan. The Michael Jordan for whom “Air Jordan” became a synonym. (I had the pleasure of buying a friend’s young son his first ever pair–of the very first incarnation–of Air Jordan shoes by Nike). “Just Do it” and “Be Like Mike” were in the air when this book came out. Michael Jordan, having helped the Chicago Bulls become the nation’s most celebrated NBA team, had just “retired” for the first time and was trying to become, wait for it…, a pro baseball player! Yes, Michael Jordan was in the minor leagues playing baseball for the Birmingham Barons. And Bob Greene followed devotedly in his wake chronically his life. What set Michael Jordan apart from other players wasn’t just his breath-taking talent on a basketball court, but his very Middle Class background–a revelation to the white suburbanites who bought Bulls Tickets. Oprah Winfrey loved Michael Jordan’s mother and had her on her show. Bob Green though wrote this book to tell us why we she love Michael. And we did. And in spite of all that’s happened since–and Green’s follow ups and other author’s biographies of His Airness, we still do. Hang Time by Bob Greene
Jim McMahon was the bad-boy quarterback of the “Super Bowl Shuffle” Chicago Bears and darling of the 80s. He was about my age, and did I have a crush on this bad-good boy! I actually WATCHED football sometimes!! Enough said. He’s the kid who actually did fulfill his Mom’s worst fears and “put an eye out” while using a fork to loosen the laces on a a toy gun holster (we all had those back in the 1960s–cowboys were everywhere on t.v.). Now this one never won any prizes for literature, but Jim was so dog-gone cute I just had to buy it. I did actually read it, too, but beyond the eye incident I recall nothing. He’s just adorable on the cover so that’s why it’s here. McMahon!
Now I’d hardly be an 80’s graduate of I.U. worth my salt if I didn’t include John Feinstein’s legendary portrayal of Bobby Knight! In A Season On the Brink, he follows the Hoosiers on the trip to the Big Dance–the NCAA Championship. Steve Alford was doing the shorts–socks–one, two, three, score thing at the free-throw line every time with never a hair out of place. And the press had a field day with Bobby going to Bedford Indiana to see an 8th grade phenom named Damon Bailey (an IU star so beloved that at least one Hoosier is said to have named his son “Damon” and his daughter “Bailey” in the guy’s honor). This book shows Bobby Knight at his peak, before the politically correct police took over, before he was either “caught” or “set-up” and fired. All those parent out there pushing their 3 year olds into sports to get a “free ride” to college with sports “scholarship” need to review this book and the punishing, near-slavery schedules such big-time players endure only to emerge under educated, if not UN-educated. And, as both Steve Alford and Damon Bailey showed, the pro’s are just not within the grasp of every Division I player. The book shows the complex man–Bobby Knight who also sent more money to the IU libraries than just about any other donor. The Bobby Knight who coached the 1984 Olympic team to a gold medal using college boys against pro athletes. College boys with names like Alford to be sure, but also a young man from North Carolina named Mike Jordan and big guy from Georgetown named Patrick Ewing among others. Its the Bobby Knight who hurled chairs and swore and either gave “tough love” or “crossed the line” with his players. Season on the Brink.
This book told the story of Milan–the little team that could who were immortalized in the great sports movie Hoosiers. But, like Friday Night Lights, it is equal parts social history and sociology. It tells of basketball in Speedway, Indiana and at Crispus Attucks High School in Indianapolis and the desegregation of the schools brought on in no small part by basketball. Oscar Robertson and the Crispus Attucks team helped bring about the desegregation of the Indianapolis schools as well as further the careers of African American basketball playes–many of whom had to build careers not in the NBA or CBA but with teams like the Harlem Globetrotters.
Much of this story takes place in my Dad’s Indianapolis–he attended Tech High School, once profiles in Life Magazine as one of the largest high schools in America. It is the story, too, of my favorite Middle School teacher, Muncie Central and Purdue’s Danny Thornburg. Basketball, until the state “ruined” or “equalized” basketball by having a one-class high school state basketball tournament, was a religion in Indiana. When I moved to the state for 5th grade the biggest event of the year at my elementary school was the visit of the high school basketball team–who had just seen a loss of a player to graduation and a scholarship to Purdue. This book is the story of all of that. The story of a society heading for change, of small town life that would all but cease to be and or dreams–mostly the dreams of fans. It give a glimpse of what came after as well. Hoosiers: The Fabulous Basketball Life of Indiana by Phillip M. Hoose.
Rest in Peace Andrew. We Will Miss You. Andrew died January 12, 2016. Thank you all for praying.
This post was written in support of Indiana’s own Andrew Smith–former center for the Butler University Bulldogs and recently a player in Lithuania. Andrew is battling cancer.
Please click this link to read CBS New’s story on the return of Andrew’s cancer. His parents, whom I knew in another stage of my life (his father baptized my son and was my co-worker, his Mom lead a Bible Study I once attended and his sister babysat for my kids) are asking for prayers from anyone. You can follow Andrew’s journey on Twitter or on his wife, Sam’s, blog. Both are linked in the news story.