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By Bill Simmons
They were my friends. I grew up with them. They may have lived within 362 pages of a hardcover book, but I grew up with them.
The coach spent his life waiting for the perfect team. He walked the streets for hours after tough losses, frightened players with his passion, challenged them to fistfights in the locker room, never wavered in his belief that basketball should be played a certain way. Deep down, he worried his career could pass without ever finding the right blend of players. When he finally won a championship, it happened in the blink of an eye—a young group peaking at the right time, a beautiful mix of speed and teamwork, his vision come to life, a dream finally realized. Within a year they imploded, ravaged by injuries and jealousy and money and everything else that was ruining the NBA at the time. The coach would spend the next two years thinking about that perfect team. He'd had it, he'd had it… and then it was gone. You could say he was haunted.
The big redhead anchored the perfect team in college, then spent his professional career wondering if it would ever happen again. Slowly, he watched the right nucleus form around him, quick guards and heady players who intrinsically understood where to go and what to do. The entire team became an extension of him—his mind, his skills, his passing, his rebounding, his unselfishness, his enthusiasm, his everything. When his fragile feet betrayed him while they were defending their first title, a member of the team's medical staff convinced him to try a painkiller injection for the playoffs. Didn't work. He blamed the organization and signed with another franchise for a ton of money, obliterating the perfect team and suffering an especially painful divorce with his coach. What he didn't know was that basketball wouldn't make him happy again for another seven years. Eventually, you could say he was haunted.
The pariah wanted some peace. He wanted to stop moving around. He wanted to rebound and run the floor and not think of anything else, but a single moment of weakness trailed him everywhere he went, an angry punch that never should have been thrown. The world judged him by that roundhouse right, by the famous picture of the victim with blackened eyes and a bandaged nose. They didn't care about the circumstances, that the puncher was a soft-spoken man who came from nothing and willed himself into becoming an NBA player. They didn't care about his story and definitely didn't want to hear it. They wanted him to be the black player who nearly killed the white player with one punch. And that's who he was. You could definitely say he was haunted.
The rebounder grew up in the worst part of Pittsburgh, had his life saved by basketball, then spent much of his professional career hoping to extricate himself from bad contracts and bad advice. He just wanted to get paid. He deserved to get paid. Instead of feeling fortunate for playing with the big redhead—they were perfect together, just like everything else about that team—he never forgot for a second that the big redhead was making four times as much money. He couldn't get past it. When the team fell apart, so did he. Eventually, they traded him for forty cents on the dollar and he finally got paid, only he never played for another great team. You could say he got what he deserved. Or you could say he was justified all along.
The underdog grew up on a cotton farm. He could barely read. He could barely stay in school. A freelancing guard with powerful legs, he was just like dozens of prospects, players with more than enough talent who fell through the cracks for whatever reason. When he landed on the team that wasn't so perfect anymore, he saved a wasted season playing the exact one-on-one style that the coach despised. By the time the playoffs rolled around, fans knew his name and announcers breathlessly pumped him up in pregame shows. During the final few minutes of the Seattle series, teammates cleared out for him and stood around as the underdog tried to beat three guys off the dribble at once. Sometimes, he even did. The perfect team had become something else, just another screwed-up team in a screwed-up league.
Dr. Jack Ramsay. Bill Walton. Kermit Washington. Maurice Lucas. Billy Ray Bates. I grew up with them.
You know who else lived in that book? Lionel Hollins and Geoff Petrie and Bobby Gross. I grew up with them, too. I grew up with Dave Twardzik's old-school crew cut and Jim Brewer checking the latest NBA transactions over breakfast. I grew up with Lloyd Neal jumping up during a Lakers game and screaming at Jack Nicholson, "Take that motherf***ing cuckoo!" I grew up with Steve Jones telling Marvin Barnes stories, like the time Marvin showed up right before tipoff of an ABA game holding a bag of McDonald's and wearing a mink coat with his uniform underneath it. I grew up with the story of Kareem making the sky hook in Magic's first game, then Magic hugging him and hugging him and not letting him go. I grew up with Bobby Knight calling his friend Stu Inman, the guy who built the '77 Blazers—the perfect team—right after Walton bolted for San Diego. Knight was so crushed that he asked Inman, "Is there any way to keep a perfect team together? Can it be done anymore?"
When the book was released in 1982, I had spent my formative years attending Celtics games, falling in love with basketball and wondering why more people didn't love my league. I didn't understand that the general public was turned off by drug issues and out-of-whack salaries. I didn't understand the difficulties of selling a mostly black league to a mostly white audience. I didn't understand the traumatic side effects of Kermit's punch, the damage it inflicted, the ugly racial scabs that had been opened. I didn't understand how television had changed the framework of the game. I didn't understand what made those Blazer teams so great, just that they blew through Boston one time, crushed us by something like forty points and looked like the most unbeatable group on the planet. I didn't understand that my favorite league had been on life support in the late-'70s, that Bird and Magic saved the day, that those two players came along at such a pivotal time.
More important, I didn't understand how to write. I had written short stories as a little kid, read every book in sight, even finished every Hardy Boys book before I turned ten. But I didn't know how to write. The Breaks of the Game was the first big-boy book I ever loved. Within a few pages, I came to believe that he wrote the book just for me. I plowed through it in one weekend. A few months later, I read it again. Eventually, I read the book so many times that the spine of the book crumbled, so I bought the paperback version to replace it.
Through college and grad school, as I was slowly deciding on a career, I read it every year to remind myself how to write—how to save words, how to construct a sentence, how to tell someone's life story without relying on quotes, how to make anecdotes come alive. It was my own personal writing seminar. When the paperback suffered a tragic beach accident from an unexpected wave, I bought a third copy at the used books store on Newbury Street for $5.95. Best deal of my life. Every two years, I read that book again to make sure that my writing hasn't slipped too much. Like a golfer visiting his old instructor to check on his swing.
The last time I read Breaks was the summer of 2005. We were due for another reunion when the author suddenly passed away in April 2007. He was seventy-three years old, a Pulitzer winner, the first respected journalist to question the war in Vietnam. I'm not sure what made him decide to tackle the NBA, but there hasn't been a better basketball book before or since. He nailed everything. He picked the perfect season for the perfect league—Magic and Bird's rookie year—and took a 362-page snapshot of a professional sport right as it was shifting from a downtrodden era to a lucrative one. Maybe the timing was incredible, but so was the work itself. And it changed my life for the better.
Just know that I have tons and tons of sports books: three overflowing bookcases in my house, more in my garage, even more at my father's house and my mother's house. The one that matters most? The Breaks of the Game, the perfect book about the perfect team. If Dr. Jack, Kermit, Mo, Walton, and Billy Ray were my friends, then David Halberstam was definitely my friend. I miss him.
Bill Simmons is the editor-in-chief of Grantland. This introduction was adapted from a piece originally published on ESPN.com and is reprinted with permission.
The Portland Trail Blazers
National Basketball Association franchise established in Portland, Oregon, in the fall of 1970, principal owner Herman Sarkowsky, minority owners Bob Schmertz and Larry Weinberg.
|1970–71:||Won 29, lost 53. Coach: Rolland Todd. Geoff Petrie is first-round draft choice. Season ticketholders: 1,095.|
|1971–72:||Won 18, lost 64. Coach: Rolland Todd (fired in midseason) 12–44; then Stu Inman (who finishes season) 6–20. Sidney Wicks is first-round draft choice, Larry Steele third-round. Season ticketholders: 2,227.|
|1972–73:||Won 21, lost 61. Coach: Jack McCloskey. LaRue Martin first-round draft choice, Lloyd Neal third-round. Season ticketholders: 2,410.|
|1973–74:||Won 27, lost 55. Coach: Jack McCloskey (let go at end of season). No important draft choices. Season ticketholders: 2,971.|
|1974–75:||Won 38, lost 44. Coach: Lenny Wilkens. Assistant coach: Tom Meschery. Bill Walton first-round draft choice. Season ticketholders: 6,218.|
|1975–76:||Won 37, lost 45. Coach: Lenny Wilkens. Draft choices: Lionel Hollins (first-round), Bobby Gross (second-round). Larry Weinberg becomes principal owner. Season ticketholders: 6,561.|
|1976–77:||Won 49, lost 33. Coach: Jack Ramsay. Assistant coach: Jack McKinney. Maurice Lucas, David Twardzik arrive from ABA. Herm Gilliam arrives in trade. Trail Blazers win NBA championship in six games with Philadelphia. Season ticketholders: 8,103.|
|1977–78:||Won 58, lost 24. Coach: Jack Ramsay. Playing the best basketball in their history, the Blazers are 50–10 when Bill Walton is injured. Partially recovered, he subsequently breaks his foot in the second playoff game with Seattle. Walton then asks to be traded. Tom Owens joins team after trade with Houston Rockets. T. R. Dunn, second-round draft choice, replaces Herm Gilliam. Season ticketholders: 11,500 (ceiling set by club).|
|1978–79:||Won 45, lost 37. Coach: Jack Ramsay. Walton sits out entire season with injured foot. Draft choices: Mychal Thompson and Ron Brewer (both first-round). Season ticketholders: 11,500.|
IN THE WEEK BEFORE THE FIRST PRACTICE THEY BEGAN CHECKING into the small motel near the base of Mount Hood in the small suburban community of Gresham, Oregon. They were rookies and free agents, and the odds were already against them; their motel rooms were paid for, and there was daily meal money, but in a profession where more and more things were guaranteed, they were still at the point in their careers where the only thing guaranteed was a return airplane ticket back home in the likely event they were cut. The veterans, the young princes of the sport, who all owned homes in the swank upper-middle-class sections of Portland, were not required to arrive until the last moment, as befit their superior status. In contrast to the rookies and the free agents, the anxiety level of the veterans was relatively low; they had made the team before, many had even played on a championship team, and most important of all, the money in their contracts was guaranteed. For the rookies and the free agents it was another thing. Now, in the fall of 1979, they were at the very brink of their dreams, which was to play under contract in the National Basketball Association.
IT WAS AN odd and unlikely collection. Steve Hayes was white and very tall, 6′11″. He also shot well, and once upon a time in this game that had been enough, to be tall and have a light shooting touch; but the game had now become one of speed and muscle, and Steve Hayes was lacking in both categories. He knew the coaches thought he was slow (intelligent but very slow was in fact their precise definition of him) and that in contrast to many of the muscular young blacks with whom he would be competing, his body lacked muscle tone. What he did not know and what would have given him some momentary cause for optimism, was the fact that the team's consulting psychologist, who had just tested him, was very impressed, not by Hayes's jump shot or court intelligence but by his psychological coherence. The shrink had become, because of that, a secret Steve Hayes booster, mentioning Hayes's name frequently to the coaches, prefacing his remarks with the disclaimer that he of course did not know basketball, but then adding very quickly that psychologically Hayes was sturdy, very sturdy indeed, a good bet for the NBA, psychologically speaking.
STEVE HAYES HAD been through all this once before, in 1977, at a preseason camp run by the New York Knicks. Arriving as a fourth-round draft choice, he had been judged too slow and had gone on to play for two years in Italy. He believed he had now spent enough time in the minor leagues. He also knew just how many players there were ahead of him on the Portland roster, and which of them had guaranteed money, and understood that the odds against him were already immense. Coaches who had once coveted bodies like his no longer did. All that made him feel slightly less than sturdy just then.
HAYES'S FEELINGS WERE a good deal more tranquil, however, than those of another free agent named Greg Bunch. Bunch, who was black and quick while Hayes was white and slow, was at the moment still in a rage over what had been done to him earlier in the day. Greg Bunch had undergone the same battery of psychological exams that illuminated Steve Hayes's coherence, but, by mistake, had been required to undergo them a second time. That had convinced Bunch, who mistrusted professional basketball management anyway, that they were trying to mess with his head. He had exploded and started screaming at the team trainer, who was administering the test, to leave his head alone. Bunch had some reason for grievance in his professional career; a year earlier, as a second-round draft choice with the New York Knicks, he had played well in the preseason camp, had made the team, had even played in twelve regular-season games (averaging roughly eight minutes and two points a game) before being released in what was widely regarded as a racial decision. The Knicks, it appeared, wanted to keep the tail end of their bench a little whiter. Greg Bunch, bruised many times in his brief professional career, was duly sensitive and duly wary of the great white they who controlled his athletic destiny.
BUNCH'S ROOMMATE, A young black man from Racine, Wisconsin, named Abdul Jeelani, thought he had never seen anyone so tight. They were competing for the same job, small forward, on a team that already had two small forwards, both white; and it was a mistake, Jeelani thought, for the club to make them roommates. Jeelani had been at rookie camp earlier in the summer with Bunch and Bunch had refused to talk to him; then they had both been in the Los Angeles summer league for a month, and again Bunch had made a point of not speaking to Jeelani. Now here they were on the eve of the start of fall camp, with the veterans arriving the next morning, and they were rooming together. For the first time, Bunch was willing to say a few guarded words to Jeelani, a very few words indeed. They did not go out to eat together; there was too much tension in the air for that. Jeelani preferred in any case to eat out with Steve Hayes, whom he had known and played against in Italy. But he worried about Bunch, who was so tight that he could not sleep at night, always tossing and turning in bed. Jeelani in one sense wanted to befriend Greg Bunch, but he was aware, in the most primitive way possible, that everything good which happened to Bunch was bad for Abdul Jeelani. It was terrible to think that way. So he kept his distance from Bunch. At the same time he couldn't help realizing that the fear and tension in the face of his roommate was the same fear and tension he had seen on his own face during his three previous NBA tryouts, in Detroit, in Cleveland, in New Orleans, when he had looked around him and become convinced that everyone there, rookies, veterans, coaches, scouts, wanted him to fail. At this camp Jeelani felt more confident, more mature. He had three years of European ball behind him and he knew that only one player—Jimmy Paxson, a guard and thus not a competitor—had guaranteed money.
The rookies and free agents were all there; no one had missed his flight to Portland. The coaches were pleased by that. Worn-out by the increasing volatility of the league, they felt as little affection for rookies who missed planes as for rookies who missed jump shots, possibly less. They were exhausted from dealing with talented players of rare skills who were tied up in their own emotional problems—head cases, these players were called. Big talent, the coaches often said of a player like this, bad head. That night, awaiting the start of a new season (Though in fact in the new industrialization of American sports, the season never stopped. It ran from camp in September to playoff games in June, and in the summer there were rookie camps and summer leagues to watch.), the coaches were at once excited and anxious about the new season. The rookies and the free agents looked on the coaches as secure and powerful, men who held the keys to the league in their hands and made the final decisions on their careers. But the coaches and the scouts had their own anxieties and vulnerabilities. It was not a profession or a league to breed confidence in anyone, be he player or coach. The coaches' jobs were never secure. What went up in this league went up very quickly, and often came down just as quickly. Power was for the coaches an illusory thing; the only players to whom they appeared powerful were in fact marginal players, players over whom they could indeed exercise power, but to little purpose. The players over whom they would like to exercise their power—that is, the talented players flawed either by attitude or a specific major weakness in their game—more likely than not were completely protected, given the contemporary nature of the league, by no-cut contracts far larger than those of the coaches. It was these players who could, if they listened and obeyed, make the coaches seem more successful and thus more effective, yet it was these players over whom it was impossible to exercise authority directly; instead, unlike players of the past, they had to be stroked and cajoled into doing what the coaches wanted.
That first night the rookies and the free agents straggled into the dining room of the restaurant next to the motel. They were still somewhat wary of each other; for the moment there was too much tension and rivalry for there to be very much friendship.
While the players ate singly, the coaches went out in a group to a fancier restaurant a few miles away. They were all middle-class men, all white, all devoted fathers, but suddenly they had left their civilian incarnations behind. Now they were professionals, among their own kind once again, in a world without women, talking their own special shoptalk. Though the season had not even started, already in the forefront of their minds were the pressures of their game, the difficulties of the year ahead, the injuries and the salary problems.
The conversations between coaches, here in Portland and elsewhere, often possessed a certain melancholy tone these days. Basketball was their lives, they were men still doing what they had done as boys and for that other men envied them, but there was a consensus among them that their game was in trouble, that the real world had invaded their smaller world. There was today too much emphasis on money, on salaries and negotiations and renegotiations. Money now clouded not only the relationships between management and player, but between player and player. One player obsessed with his contract, Stu Inman was sure, inevitably caused all his teammates to be obsessed with theirs. Jack Ramsay tended to agree; when he arrived in Portland as coach three years earlier, the first thing he said was that he wanted no players who were in the option year of their contracts, or involved in any other kind of contractual dispute. This year he had two such players—Maurice Lucas and Lionel Hollins—and possibly a third, Tom Owens.
Inman, the Portland vice president and personnel manager, was depressed by the changes money had wrought, worried about what they meant to his team. His highest enthusiasm was reserved for young, still-innocent college players, preferably from a small college and never before visited by professional scouts; his greatest disdain was for almost any agent or lawyer. He talked a lot these days in an almost mystical way about what was good for basketball and what was bad for basketball, and when he explained why he so greatly admired his colleague Pete Newell, once a preeminent coach and now a scout for Golden State, and a senior statesman of the profession, he used an odd and slightly sad phrase: "Because the game has never ground him down." He spoke as a man who knew and loved basketball, but whose pleasant and private and somewhat sheltered world had been invaded and corrupted by beings from some other planet, richer and more powerful than he. Some fifteen years before, these other beings, powerful and far more commercially minded than the Inmans and Newells, had hit upon basketball as a means for selling. Their commercialism now ran through every aspect of the sport, from college to the pros, infecting everyone. One network, showcasing the college games, now competed for national ratings against the pro games on another network. The money pervaded everything: colleges now contended against one another not because they were traditional rivals, but in hopes of getting on national television and making $50,000 for a game. That changed the basketball people, Inman thought; they became salesmen themselves, recruiters and not coaches. They sold, in his friend Newell's contemptuous phrase, the sizzle not the steak. The mood inevitably affected the players, who arrived at Inman's door complete with agents and lawyers and, he believed, both an exaggerated impression of their own worth and a distorted sense of why they were actually playing the game. Someone suggested to Inman that the answer was to draft in the coming year not the best player from UCLA, but the number one students in their classes from Harvard, Yale and Stanford law schools. Stu Inman was not amused.
Jack Ramsay, the coach, was more accepting of the changes that had taken place, more accepting of the fact that a coach now dealt primarily with spoiled, almost delicate athletes protected by no-cut clauses in their contracts. It was not a state of affairs he wanted, or sought, but he accepted it. After all, as the rewards had become so much larger for the players—not just in terms of salary, but in glory—so too were they larger for the coach; the television eye during playoffs caught not just Bill Walton rebounding, but also Ramsay kneeling, intense, talking to the players during time-outs. As a professional coach, possibly the best professional coach in the country, he had been able to rationalize his own conversion from a successful college coach, working in a world governed by old-fashioned sturdy loyalties, to a big league coach whose world was, in his own description, utterly without loyalty. A college coach, Ramsay believed, was granted authority almost automatically by virtue of his position; a professional coach gained what authority he could by exercise of his intelligence, his subtlety, his very being. He was on his own and Ramsay believed as an article of faith that no loyalty, either from those above who employed you, or those below who played for you, could be expected. Ramsay believed an owner would always fire a coach if he was perceived to be slipping; the players, if it served their purpose, would just as willingly withhold part of their game from a coach. Therefore a coach must learn that loyalty was valueless, and might even work against him, as for example when it encouraged him to keep on an older player, whose skills were diminishing, but whose past heroics he was still grateful for, instead of coldly picking a younger player with potential for the future. For this reason Ramsay rationed his emotions in his personal relations with his players. They might produce this year; he might still have to let them go next year; life was hard. Ramsay devoted his most intense emotion to winning, and his connection to the players seemed to end at the locker room door each night; when he and the players departed that room, they departed into very separate lives. Professional basketball was, he thought, a very tough world, a world that by its nature allowed for very few illusions. The question remained whether it was possible to survive and even triumph in such a world, and still exist outside it. Ramsay indeed seemed to be a man within whom the needs of his job and the needs of his humanity were constantly wrestling. "When you are discussing a successful coach," sports psychologist Bruce Ogilvie once said, not of Ramsay but of the entire profession, "you are not necessarily drawing the profile of an entirely healthy person."
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