Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Two sports books for your summer reading list

Overdosed on cricket books? McEnroe's riveting autobiography and an insightful chronicle of an NBA game will make for a welcome change

One complaint about bookstores I have visited in this country is that the sports sections are dominated by books on cricket. (Full disclosure: I have written one myself.) No doubt, there’s plenty of good writing on cricket—I will forever regret the time I didn’t pick up an autobiography of Australian all-rounder Keith Miller from a pavement bookseller—but I’d also like to read about tennis, or basketball, or surfing.

Yet, too often, the pickings in those directions are slim indeed: a Rules of the Game here and a How to Play Better Tennis there. In other words, really just more titles in those terminally stultifying how-to and self-help genres. And even those are stuck in between far too many books on some World Cup or another, or on Sachin Tendulkar as god, or even one on, of all things, Tendulkar’s Final Test.

In a cricket-obsessed country, none of this is surprising. Still, sports is so filled with drama—almost by definition—that it has always produced splendid writing. Too bad that so much of it can be so hard to find. But nevertheless, here are capsule reviews, if you like, of two of my favourites. (More of my favourites in a future column.)

You Cannot Be Serious by John McEnroe

I wrote about McEnroe in this space a couple of weeks ago, mentioning this autobiography. There’s never enough I can say about it. It’s possible that I like this book so much because I found McEnroe such a riveting, remarkable talent on the tennis court. But I’d like to think that it also appeals to people who aren’t tennis fans—or for that matter, who aren’t McEnroe fans, and there are plenty of those.

Let me explain. McEnroe was a rare tennis talent. Nobody in the game, before him or after, has had hands quite as quick as his at the net.

At his best, he could be impossible to pass: whatever an opponent fired at him would be met with a firm punch into the opposite corner, or an exquisitely soft touch that dropped the ball just over the net. He combined this with a kicker of a left-handed serve and an unequalled sense of the geometry of the court: he could take your breath away with the angles he found for his shots.

But just as much part of his game were the famous tantrums. He yelled at umpires, at ball boys, even at photographers—so much so that many fans still think of him as an uncouth brat. The title of his book is itself from his most famous rant, at Wimbledon. Throughout his career, he embodied that sporting cliché: he was one tortured genius.

You read the book for clues to the man: what drove him, what demons was he fighting, what happened to him once he reached the top of the tennis world?

And it doesn’t disappoint. This is an intense, complex man, and he is astonishingly introspective about what that meant to him and his game. His resplendent tennis came from a tightly wound core—so tightly wound that, often enough, it would erupt out of him in other ways too. But there are so many more layers to him and the book.

McEnroe also explores the deep loneliness of being the best player in the world, and the torments that followed as he struggled to find new motivation. This told on his relationships with contemporaries such as Ivan Lendl, Jimmy Connors and Bjorn Borg.

Borg’s excellence, in particular, drove him to become a better player, and McEnroe knows it. So, when Borg suddenly retired at 26, McEnroe writes of feeling a profound loss, almost as if this was a loved one gone forever. It’s a sad, revealing and yet somehow uplifting moment in the book.

And yes, he also tells us about the angles: “I began to look at the court differently—as a mathematical equation, almost. The angles were everything. It wasn’t about just hitting a slice and approaching the net. Sometimes you should slice it deep, but sometimes you could come in and slice it off the court—use the angles."

With this book—for his frankness, the quality of the writing and his ability to make you think—McEnroe set a high bar indeed. Tendulkar’s autobiography, for one, is not even in the same ballpark. Such a pity, really.

Forty-Eight Minutes by Bob Ryan and Terry Pluto

OK, I love basketball. Even so, I would hardly have thought a book like this—a play-by-play account of one pro basketball game—would grab me. But it did, and that’s because this is so much more than just that account. Ryan and Pluto use that one game—a January 1987 meeting between the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Boston Celtics—as a vehicle to examine professional basketball.

The Celtics were the defending league champions, a star team led by the magnificent Larry Bird, but beginning to age and probably just slightly past their peak. The Cavaliers, on the other hand, were a young team yearning to make their mark, to prove themselves against the best in the game. The ingredients for an intriguing contest, right there.

Which the game turns out to be—a hard-fought game that the Celtics won in overtime. But that’s only partly why Forty-Eight Minutes is so compelling. It is a vivid picture of professional basketball: the game, the personalities, the money, the techniques, the training, the very business of it all.

The book starts with the negotiations for a journeyman pro, Craig Ehlo, to join the Cavaliers on a 10-day contract because another player is injured. Now, Ehlo had found fame of sorts at the end of the previous season, for he scored the final inconsequential points for the Houston Rockets as the Celtics beat them for the NBA title. But the Rockets cut him from their roster, and he now had to search for opportunities like this in the take-no-prisoners world of pro basketball.

And yet, it’s the average Ehlos, rather than the star Birds, who embody the reality of the league. So, how will Ehlo fit immediately into this new team? What will his role be? How will he learn their style of play? What happens after the 10 days? How should the Cavaliers’ coach use his new player?

Naturally, I had never seriously thought about questions like these when I used to play the game with friends. But they are vital in the pro game. Just as vital, in fact, as shooting, passing and rebounding—precisely because basketball is such a consummate team game. And if you want to play as a team, that means everyone on the team, not least players like Ehlo, must feel like they belong and can contribute.

How Ryan and Pluto paint the relationship between what happens on court and what happens unseen is what makes this such a gripping book.

And it must resonate with almost anyone who has played the game, even at the strictly amateur level that I managed. You get a sense of how much the greats value the basics: running the floor, rebounding, passing. You begin to understand strategy, how plays are constructed and then are actually executed—successfully or not. It came alive for me because I saw it happen, both at the pro level and in my own pick-up hoops sessions.

Full disclosure: It also was the inspiration for me to write my own sports book. You know, that same Final Test.

Once a computer scientist, Dilip D’Souza now lives in Mumbai and writes for his dinners. His latest book is Final Test: Exit Sachin Tendulkar.

His Twitter handle is @DeathEndsFun

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