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'A Season on the Brink'
Davis’s favorite book is not a controversial choice. ‘A Season on the Brink‘ is John Feinstein’s magnum opus about the Indiana University basketball program’s 1985–86 season and a psychological profile of controversial coach Bobby Knight. The book created a new genre: fly-on-the-wall descriptions of a single team’s campaigns.
“He had the foresight and the ability to recognize that he had unique access to a unique human being,” Davis says. “To me, that book is a textbook on the power of access, which you don’t always get.”
The book became a teaching tool to Davis – literally. Davis took a course at Duke taught by Feinstein in which the author assigned his own bestseller. Davis adds that although the book became popular in large part for detailing Knight’s provocative coaching approach – “there was so much profanity” – Feinstein masterfully revealed “the man’s humanity and his good sides, too. He really presented Knight in full.”
'Basketball: Its Origin and Development'
“In researching my John Wooden biography, part of what I did was just sort of research the history of basketball,” Davis explains. The most obvious place to start was with the founding text by James Naismith, who invented the game in 1891 with two peach half-bushel baskets. Part basketball bible – outlining the game’s rules and purpose – and part autobiography, the book is essential for aspiring historians of the game.
“It’s not a real long book, but it’s just really fascinating,” Davis says. “You know, in his original 13 rules, there was nothing in there about the dribble. Basketball more than any of the other major sports has continually evolved in terms of its dimensions and how it’s played and the rules.”
'The City Game'
Before the arenas, the big crowds, the stadium lighting, and the hardwood, basketball was often played on concrete slabs in questionable urban areas. In this book, Pete Axthelm follows the New York Knicks’ 1969–1970 season while also looking back on the period when the game was played mostly in the black neighborhoods of New York City by small-scale street stars like Earl “The Goat” Manigault.
“The story of street basketball is of guys who had the talent to make it big as players, but didn’t have the discipline or the wherewithal or they got sidetracked by whatever distractions,” Davis says. “This is all they had left: Dominating pickup basketball.”
Second-hand accounts of Manigault, like “The City Game,” are all the world has to gauge The Goat’s prowess. There is no footage of him as a young player. He never played in the NBA and only briefly played in college, leaving room for artistic license in terms of his legendary leaping ability: He allegedly pulled a dollar bill off the top of the backboard and left change. Believed to be between 5-foot-11 and 6-foot-1, Manigault would have had to jump at least 60 inches to reach the 13-foot-high top of the backboard.
'Heaven is a Playground'
Although Davis compliments “Heaven Is a Playground” as “very historically significant” and a “really fun read,” he undersells the reverence basketball fans still have for this nonfiction account of street basketball in 1974. Written before cell phones, disposable cameras, and cable television, ‘Heaven is a Playground’ captures the timeless romance felt by anyone who has ever played basketball.
Telander experiences the emotional pulls of the game firsthand, thrusting himself into the pickup scene and the story. In 1974, he intended to spend a few days reporting a magazine piece on the court wizards of Brooklyn’s Foster Park. He ended up staying the entire summer, becoming part of the players’ lives and eventually the coach of a ragtag bunch known as the Subway Stars. Telander offers dazzling descriptions of the on-court play and reveals the tireless efforts of one promoter-hustler-benefactor to get these kids a chance at a college education.
Davis admires the way Telander gets readers to identify with the players. “Why do some guys who have talent to go far in the game don’t make it and then others do? ” he asks rhetorically. “That’s not just a basketball question. . . . I think he just really caught the zeitgeist.”
'Pistol: The Life of Pete Maravich'
Davis calls Kriegel “my biography coach” for good reason. Kriegel has authored three acclaimed ones, the first about Joe Namath and the most recent about Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini. But “Pistol” is a tale of obsession and basketball, of fathers and sons, that weaves several archetypal characters in a way more reminiscent of a Faulkner novel than of a sports biography.
“A vibrant character bought to life by an enormously, enormously gifted writer,” Davis says of Maravich. “He was more of an almost Globetrotter type guy. He never played in the NCAA tournament, never won big, and then died young. He just fuckin‘ dropped dead on the basketball court playing pickup. I mean, it’s really odd.”
Maravich revolutionized the game in the 1960s, wearing floppy socks and shaggy hair and playing with a showy, quick-dribbling and unorthodox style. In averaging 44.2 points a game at Louisiana State University, he established records that are unlikely to ever be broken. He was basketball’s answer to Elvis, a white Southerner who sold Middle America on a black man’s game. And like Elvis, he paid a terrible price, becoming a prisoner of his own fame. Tortured by an embattled relationship with his father, Maravich was, in retrospect, trotted out more as a circus act than a great player.
Davis is part of a prestigious pack of basketball writers at ‘Sports Illustrated,’ but no one has produced more high-profile stories than Jack McCallum, a three-decade veteran of the magazine and member of the NBA Hall of Fame. He famously chronicled the Celtics-Lakers battles of Eighties for the magazine, but the most recent of his 10 books revisited the greatest grouping of NBA legends ever assembled: The 1992 Olympic gold medal team, better known as the “Dream Team.”
“First of all, again, access,” Davis says, emphasizing the toughest part of the sports writing gig. “He got everybody, including Jordan and Bird and Magic.”
McCallum even managed to dig up new information on Jordan, perhaps the most exhausted subject in the history of sports writing.
“The guy’s basically a complete asshole,” Davis says. “It makes him a striking character. I remember McCallum talking about his energy, where he would stay up all night and play cards till three, four in the morning with his guys, gambling. He would get up in the morning and play 36 holes of golf and then they’d have a game that night.”
'Sacred Hoops: Spiritual Lessons of a Hardwood Warrior'
The only book on Davis’s list authored by a non-writer is by the greatest basketball coach in history. Phil Jackson had only won the first three of his record 11 NBA titles when he wrote ‘Sacred Hoops,’ a book that is part biography and part coaching bible.
“Phil Jackson came from a . . . unique environment,” Davis says. “He grew up in North Dakota and Montana, and was around Native American culture, and both of his parents were Presbyterian ministers, so it’s just a unique starting point for somebody who became, you know, the most decorated coach in basketball history.”
Famous for his unorthodox coaching methods, Jackson explains how he adapts the precepts of Zen Buddhism, the ways of the Lakota Sioux, and other alternative styles to the task of coaching the Chicago Bulls. They range from group meditation sessions, to hanging Lakota warrior items on the locker room shelf, to splicing segments of the movie ‘Wizard of Oz’ into game films to make a point.
Davis suggests that ‘Sacred Hoops’ is like the beginner’s class into the Tao of Phil Jackson and that his most recent book, ‘Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success,’ which examines his entire career from a Knicks forward to the best coach in history, is the graduate course.
“He’s got 11 titles as a coach and also two as a player – I said to him, shouldn’t it be 13 rings?”
The swindling, rule-bending, and backdoor-dealing in college sports is taken for granted these days, but it was a far less scrutinized ecosystem before Alexander Wolff and Armen Keteyian wrote ‘Raw Recruits,’ an exposé if there ever was one.
“It was the first to really talk about grassroots basketball and the nefarious influence of sneaker companies on that scene and how everything goes down in that world,” Davis says. “It’s supposed to repulse us, all these characters, all these leeches. It’s repulsive, right? Let me tell you the dirty little secret. It’s fascinating. I love it.”
Davis is also quick to admit that he’s just another guy making a buck off athletes. It is what it is.
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