Excerpt from “Strong Inside: Perry Wallace and the Collision of Race and Sports in the South” by Andrew Maraniss


“We’re not prejudiced,” the men told him, “but we think you’ll understand why we have to do this.”

It was all quite civil. A peaceful August Sunday morning, the men dressed conservatively in dark suits, speaking quietly but firmly, standing in a small room just inside the entrance to the University Church of Christ.

Perry Wallace had arrived on campus several weeks early, before most of his classmates, to get a few math and science courses out of the way in a special summer Engineering School program before his schedule became crowded with basketball practices. He wanted to get a feel for the campus, to slowly test the waters of integration. New faces, new sounds, new smells, new surroundings. And new twists on the familiar. Perry had been a devout churchgoer each Sunday ever since he had been baptized in the tiny pool at the 15th Avenue Church of Christ. He had taught Sunday School classes, endured the taunts of the tough kids who hung out on the porches of the shotgun houses in the Bottoms as he walked by with his Bible. Attending a weekly sermon was as important a routine in his life as any.

That summer, when Sundays came around, Perry had woken up early, put on a coat and tie, and walked over to the church that Clyde Lee had recommended on one of Wallace’s first recruiting visits. The University Church of Christ was not affiliated with Vanderbilt but sat across the street from campus on the school’s southeast side, a few blocks away from Wallace’s dorm room in the Kissam Quadrangle.

Three or four Sundays, Wallace made the short walk to the chapel, quietly taking a seat in the back, the only black person in the place. A few folks would come by and say hello.

I know who you are.

I saw you play at Pearl.

Good luck at Vanderbilt.

Still, the room seemed cold to Wallace, as if the religion had been sucked out. Church of Christ was a conservative denomination whether the congregants were black or white, no instrumental music allowed, but over on the north side of town at least there had been a little more emotion, the teenage Wallace thought, even singing. Here, it seemed, people were just going through the motions. He sat in the back pews and asked himself the same questions over and over: What are these people doing in here? Where was the spirituality? They might as well be across the street at Burger King.

Uncomfortable as he may have been, Wallace knew this was the first of many tests he would be confronted with as a pioneer. He’d give it a go.

“Just a few years earlier, it would have been very clear to me not to go into that white church, because I was a child of segregation. I knew the rules. But in coming to Vanderbilt, part of the idea was that this was a new day,” Wallace recalled. “This was a new set of relations. They let me move onto the campus. [Alabama governor] George Wallace wasn’t standing at the door. So much seemed to be opening, so I went ahead and went to the church. And it was a lot easier to walk across the street to church than to find a way back to my old neighborhood without a car.”

Wallace made the short walk for the fourth or fifth Sunday, prepared to sit quietly in the back, prepared, once again, to try and figure out how these congregants practiced their religion.

Then they stopped him at the door.

Perry, come with us.

He followed a group of church elders into a side room.

We’re not prejudiced.

We think you’ll understand.

Some people in the church don’t like you being here.

They say they’ll write the church out of their wills if you keep coming.

We can’t have that.

You can’t keep coming.

Do you understand?

You need to go.


“OK,” Wallace said, “I understand.”

He walked out the door, past the worshippers on their way in, and continued back to his dorm room, largely emotionless. The old survival mechanisms handed down through generations of segregation kicked in: at once, he later concluded, he was denying his feelings and accepting the cold reality of the situation.

“There was a dangerous automaticity about the responses to exclusion and segregation,” he recalled. “You would try to suppress it or hide from it even as it was happening. Most of us at that point were not brave heroes, so we just said ‘OK’ in those situations. It was a lot easier to do that.”

He entered his dorm room much earlier than planned, loosened his tie, and sat down on his bed, coming to the realization that maybe America wasn’t changing as quickly as he had been led to believe. He was reminded of the first time he had learned about segregation, as a five-year-old boy stepping onto a city bus with his mom. While his mother paid, he took a seat next to a white man. Immediately, Hattie rushed over and lifted Perry up, ushering him to the back of the bus. “While I still didn’t understand what was going on, and it all seemed quite strange,” Wallace recalled, “I did what Mama said. I played by the rules and, in effect, sang the ‘Song of the South.’”

Excerpt from Strong Inside: Perry Wallace and the Collision of Race and Sports in the South by Andrew Maraniss (Vanderbilt University Press). © Andrew Maraniss, 2014.

For more on Strong Inside, visit www.andrewmaraniss.com. The book is available from bookstores and online at Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Follow Andrew on Twitter @trublu24 and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/andrewmaranissauthor.com.

Pete Strobl Talks About “Backspin”


Pete Strobl, author of “Backspin,” talked about playing nearly a decade in Europe, what motivated him to write his book, the impact his book has already had and he gave Jack Armstrong some props.

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Book Excerpt From “Backspin” By Pete Strobl


My new head coach was Jack Armstrong. He was proof that you can take the guy out of Brooklyn but you can’t get the Brooklyn out of the guy. Keep in mind that my only exposure to the East Coast mannerisms had come through the Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro films I had watched late at night. Keeping up with Coach Armstrong’s speech cadence was tough at first because it was so entertaining. I felt my mellow West Coast vibe slowly dissolving and knew it would be a challenge to keep up with his pace mentally, as well, as physically.

Armstrong was a hard-working guy and a real throwback to what I imagined a barnstorming coach in the fifties might have been like. The one thing about him I learned to count on was his consistency. Well, okay, two things: his consistency, and his extraordinary flair for showmanship. Before we had played half of my first season I realized that he was on a first name basis with every other referee in our conference. The way they went at each other, I got the impression they had all grown up on the same block and had been arguing streetball calls since they were kids.

During the very first game of the year, an official made a call that rubbed Armstrong the wrong way. He executed a move worthy of an Olympic shot putter. No, to be precise, it was much more like an expert hammer throw. He exploded out of his chair, spun around, tore off his suit jacket in mid swing, and before he came around again, the jacket had landed in the third row behind the bench. It’s a good thing Armstrong wore slick-soled dress shoes on game days, because if he had tried that move in sneakers he would have torn his ankles out at the roots. The referee walked over, soothingly put his hand on Jack’s shoulder and explained the call from his vantage point. Armstrong, accepting his jacket from the outstretched hand of a beaming Niagara fan, penitently nodded and patted the ref on the back as if to say, “Oh yeah, well when you explain it like that I can see how you could have blown the call.” I’d seen coaches lose their cool trying to play to the refs many times, but they were just as likely to cross the line and end up listening to the rest of the game from the locker room. My new coach had a real knack for timing his outbursts. And I had never seen anyone with Armstrong’s astounding recovery time.

Later in the season we found ourselves fighting to win a close game that would keep us on pace to have Niagara’s first winning record in nine seasons. With less than a minute left on the clock, Coach Armstrong called our last timeout and we huddled around him to get instructions for what would be our final offensive possession. One of the assistants shoved the dry erase board into his impatient grasp and he was practically writing up a play before the marker touched the board. The marker darted furiously back and forth across the board as he improvised our first, second, and third options on the fly. It was remarkable the way Coach Armstrong’s mind worked. Even more remarkable, all of us, to a man, stood and nodded as if we had a full and complete understanding of this amazing play that not one of us could actually see. In the excitement and gravity of the moment, Jack had scribbled away the entire timeout without realizing he was using a dried out marker. But a small detail like that wasn’t going to prevent us – all of us – from pretending we knew exactly what we wanted us to do. With fire in his eyes and his mouth foaming at the corners, he screamed, “Are you ready?” We answered with a resounding “Let’s go!”

We went on to win that game in the final moments. I don’t know if the play we ran had anything to do with Jack’s invisible ink act but I’m certain his intensity in the timeout is what got us the win. And it’s a good thing it did, because I wouldn’t have envied the person that put the spent marker into Armstrong’s hand if we had run out the final seconds of the game bumping into each other and acting like Jack had just drawn up an invisible play.

This was an excerpt from Backspin by Pete Strobl. Copyright 2013 by Pete Strobl. Reprinted with permission from The Scoring Factory.

Rus Bradburd Talks About “Make It, Take It”

Rus Bradburd talked with me about his new book, “Make It, Take It” and why he hung onto this book idea despite having to put this book idea on hold while writing his first two books. He talked about how this book was a way for him to reflect on his experience coaching college basketball, the recent problems involving Rutgers and what it was like to construct a character with serious character flaws but one that you couldn’t help but root for.

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Aaron Torres On “The Unlikeliest Champion”

This evening I had the chance to chat with Aaron Torres about his new book “The Unlikeliest Champion.” We talked about the writing process, the challenges he faced during the writing process, what parts of the process have been rewarding , and he gave his case as to why this book would make a great Christmas gift.

Here’s the link to order the book. You can also contact Aaron directly via email (atorres00@gmail.com) if you want a signed copy of the book at no additional charge.

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Filippi Talks About “Shoot Like The Pros”

I’ve been playing basketball since I was in elementary school and coaching since I was in high school, so it’s tough to find a book on coaching or skill development that catches my attention.

I usually dig through a handful of books each year with the hope that I can add a new drill or improve my coaching in some way but there are times when this becomes a tedious routine. Adam Filippi’s new book “Shoot Like The Pros” managed to capture my attention while providing me with a handful of drills that I’ll use while coaching my team next season. He was able to use his 10 years as a scout for the Los Angeles Lakers and funnel all of that information into a book that is easy to read for everybody from coaches to players just starting to play the game.

After reading his book, I was able to reach out to Adam and talk with him about Jerry West writing the foreword to his book, the importance of the mental aspect when developing your shooting technique, he explained how he would improve the free throw shooting of Dwight Howard and Shaquille O’Neal and a wide range of other topics from his book.

What did it mean to you when Jerry West agreed to write the foreword to your book?

Jerry West is no doubt the greatest basketball personality in the history of the game. His opinion is the most influential of anyone’s in the NBA…. and it’s always his honest opinion. It was the biggest honor to have one of the people I admire the most write the foreword.

But, it also meant that the book was that good, as Jerry, being the ultimate perfectionist, would’ve been honest and critical enough to tell me if it was not worthy.

When Phil Jackson is quoted as saying, “The best book on this topic I have ever read,” what does that mean to you?

I was kind of surprised! I had never had long conversations with Phil during my 10 years with the Lakers, so I didn’t even know how he would react to me sending him a copy of the manuscript. When I received his testimonial via email I was driving…. I had to pull off the road and it took me a few moments to realize how powerful his words were and how they would boost the book’s credibility. He is the greatest sports coach of all time… and I am grateful for his contribution.

A lot of times the mental aspect is neglected so I loved how you wrote an entire chapter on this. Besides mental visualization, what are some of the mental aspects of shooting that players can work on?

I believe that proper practice will lead to developing a “shooter’s mentality” and confidence. After you build proper technique, you will instill muscle memory in the motion through constant repetition: the more automatic your shot is, the least you will need to “think.” Over-thinking while shooting is often what distracts or inhibits players during games, so you want to avoid that mental frame.

Also, young players need to realize and accept the fact that even great shooters miss nearly half of their shots! If it’s a good shot and within your range, you should take it!

Speaking of the mental aspect of shooting, why do big men like Dwight Howard and Shaquille O’Neal struggle shooting free throw? is it a physical or mental thing? If you were there shooting coach, what tweaks would you make to their free throw shooting?

It would be unfair to “rip” some of the bigger players for their struggles at the foul line. We have to remember that their larger hand size makes them grip the ball different. Just try shooting a volleyball!!! In addition their wider shoulders, especially in Dwight’s case, may not allow them to have an ideal alignment with the rim. They need to make some “natural adaptations” to their shooting techniques. Whoever is coaching these type players has to understand how to “personalize” a shooting technique that fits each athlete. Improper mechanics will lead to poor results, which then will affect the mental approach and confidence.

What tweaks would I make with Howard and Shaq? Well, unless you have the player in front of you, you may not get the full picture, and may think you have the obvious solution….but from what I see with Dwight – First, I would try rotating his body and feet very slightly (something that I do not recommend for most players although many pros have developed this method) to find a better alignment; then I’d force him to extend his feet more and extend elbow at eye level, and finish with his chest, head and shoulders slightly forward…even if he has plenty of strength in his upper body, his rhythm is out of synch and very stiff, so focusing on extending his entire body smoothly is key. I also would like to evaluate how well he sees the rim, as I always see him tilt his head slightly to his left which could affect his release. In addition I’d quicken his routine, as he does too much thinking which just increases the mental pressure on each shot.

Shaq actually has a little touch and you can see it on his turnaround. His hands are huge, but he also has a flexibility problem with his right wrist so he can’t cock it back at all as he grips the ball… this forces him “throw” the ball without any arc, so it has poor chances of dropping even if he is focused. I would definitely decrease the space between his fingers a bit in order to make his hand smaller on the ball and determine how he can “feel” it better. His foul shooting will always be deficient, but no doubt if he had been committed to practice he could’ve reached an acceptable percentage despite his limitations.

How have you used your years or being a scout and coach to write this book?

I love the combination of scouting and skill development. They complement each other great. This approach has led me to personal improvements in both fields. Scouting is the BLUEPRINT to player development: you evaluate the athlete inside out, find his strengths and weaknesses, so you know what to work on and what to perfect. My formation as a professional scout and just being a good observer has been a huge reason for me developing into a skills coach… All the knowledge that I acquired during this entire process led me to writing the book.

Even with your vast knowledge of the game, what are some things you learned while writing this book?

Great question and point. When I finished the book, even before approaching a publisher, I told my wife. “Even if the book doesn’t get picked up or just becomes a guide for my players, I feel that I have improved my knowledge and methodology so much….so it’s already been helpful.”

The project took me exactly two years (from my first words until seeing it released) and during that time I continuously came up with new ideas, concepts, progressions and drills… but also changed my mind a few times regarding some aspects of the skill.

Writing the book was like getting my Master’s in “shooting development”. A great learning experience, that also boosted my confidence in what I am doing.

What was the most challenging aspect of writing this book? What was the most rewarding aspect?

It has been the most challenging project I’ve ever had for sure. The easiest part was what I had anticipated being the hardest: finding a publisher. It was picked up on its first attempt, which automatically told me that it was a good book!

Organizing the content, and then paging the diagrams and photos for my 1st official rough copy to present to people was hard work, but overall writing the book came easy to me. I really felt I was very prepared while I was putting it down on paper (initially I just thought I was writing an article for a coaches magazine… but just couldn’t stop!).

The last couple months before going to print was very stressful: choosing the right NBA photos, getting the players’ quotes, making final corrections and most of all reviewing the proof pages over and over with the editor, maybe finding a new little mistake or phrase that suddenly didn’t make sense.

I am hoping the rewards are still in front of me. I didn’t start this project for a monetary reward, I just saw it as an opportunity to better myself and to put myself in a position to be able to be even more involved with the game I love…. Camps, clinics, more visibility.

When famous NBA people or even friends praise your job it is nice, but even more when you receive emails or calls from total strangers that have enjoyed your work and want to tell you. All these aspects have been already rewarding… but when I opened my mail, and had the published copy finally in my hands …. It was a great satisfaction!

Good luck to everyone, enjoy the book!

Ira Berkow Talks About “Rockin’ Steady: A Guide To Basketball & Cool”

I get bombarded with requests from publishers to review books so over the past few years I’ve gotten kind of “numb” to the process and it takes a lot for a basketball book to grab my attention.

The reissued of edition “Rockin’ Steady: A Guide To Basketball & Cool” was able to grab my attention and I spent an entire evening reading through the book. Between anecdotes from Walt “Clyde” Frazier regarding his NBA career, the great voice the book was written with and some fantastic advice on dealing with women, it made for a captivating read that I had a hard time putting down.

After finishing the book I was able to chat with its co-author, Ira Berkow, about:

* His thoughts when he heard they were going to reissue “Rockin’ Steady”
* How it went from being a basketball instructional book to being an instructional book for life
* Woody Allen had a great response after reading the book when the book was initially released. Ira talked about this and how it gave him a glimpse into how basketball fans would embrace the book
* He explained how he was able to transfer the unique rhythm and style in which Walt “Clyde” Frazier talks into the book

The audio clip below is our quick chat about the book. Enjoy!

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Catching Up With Buzz Bissinger

Earlier this month I had a chance to read an advance copy of Buzz Bissinger’s book “LeBron’s Dream Team” that he co-wrote with LeBron James. After reading through the book I had a couple of questions and Bissinger was gracious enough to grant me some of his time last week.

Once he got my list of questions he told me my questions were “smart and intriguing.” A compliment that gave my ego a huge boost.

During our Q+A we were able to chat about how the writing process unfolded, what impressed him the most about LeBron James while spending time with him, the most rewarding part of writing this book and he gave his thoughts on whether LeBron will be playing in Cleveland past this season.

Ryan McNeill: How did the writing process unfold? Did you and LeBron James have a lot of face-to-face chats or were most of your chats over the phone while he was on the road with the Cavs?
Buzz Bissinger: In terms of LeBron, all the interviewing was done face to face in Akron. We had four or five lengthy sessions together. In addition I met dozens of times with the other key characters of the book–the other members of the Fab Five and their Coach Dru Joyce. I also did dozens of other interviews to make the record was as factual as possible, particularly when LeBron was suspended by the Ohio High School Athletic Association for the acceptance of two “retro” jerseys when he was a senior. I probably was in Akron a dozen times for three or four days at a stretch. And there were close to a hundred phone calls and e-mails in the name of being as accurate as possible.

McNeill: Was it tough to not change parts of how this story was written so that it would fit your “voice” as a writer? How close is this book to being verbatim what LeBron James told you?
Bissinger: The book is a complete and total reflection of LeBron’s thoughts and feelings. Make no mistake–it is his book. But it is not written in “verbatim” style and there was frankly no attempt to do so. LeBron was attracted to me as a writer because of my voice so I was encouraged to use it. Half the reviews said my voice was too strong in the book. Half said the book was too restrained and unemotional and my voice was not in it enough. Which says to me that the proper amount of voice was used. And we wanted to use voice. We wanted to make the book as elegant as possible. That was a deliberate decision.

McNeill: What was the toughest part of writing this book?
Bissinger: The toughest part was the decision not to do a memoir or but to stick to the story of the book as much as possible, which is basically a coming of age tale involving LeBron and his four closest friends. I thought it was incredibly moving, which is why I entered into the project knowing that the book would be told in the first person and LeBron would have full control. This was never intended to be a memoir and is not a memoir. LeBron is too young, has many years ahead of him and the time will come for him to write the definitive memoir after his career is over. But not now. In some cases, I think critics completely misunderstood that. But it isn’t the first time nor will it be the last. The only people who count of course are readers. And many many many have either told me or sent emails saying how they found the book wonderfully inspirational. Because it is wonderfully inspirational.

McNeill: What was the most rewarding part of writing this book?
Bissinger: To see the obvious bond of love between LeBron and the other members of the Fab Five–Little Dru Joyce, Willie McGee, Sian Cotton and Romeo Travis–both as young kids and when they were in high school. They truly did adore each other and supported each other through thick and thin and became brothers to one another. I also think the role that coach Dru Joyce played, both as an AAU coach for these kids and as the head coach at St. Vincent St. Mary, was truly inspirational. I have met many coaches who beneath the charm are manipulative and only interested in their own goals of winning and moving on. Coach Dru is an amazing man, a true mentor in a world where there are fewer and fewer left. To meet not only LeBron but Coach Dru and the other members of the Fab Five and their families was an experience I will never forget.

It is also wonderful to see how well everyone in the book has done after high school. Yes, they played great basketball in high school and won the mythical national championship. But all the members of the Fab Five went on to do terrific things. With the exception of LeBron of course, they all went to college. Little Dru and Romeo, after great careers at the University of Akron, play overseas. Sian played football at Ohio State and Walsh. Willie McGee is pursuing his master’s in sports management at the University of Akron. To see five African-American kids thrive like this, several who came from very difficult backgrounds, is as good as it gets. And coach Dru is still at St. Vincent St. Mary, still inspiring kids and still winning state championships.

McNeill: During your time working with LeBron, what about him impressed you the most?
Bissinger: How incredibly grounded and decent he is. LeBron has been under a national microscope since he was sixteen. And he has handled himself with incredible maturity and dignity. Many kids would have cracked under the weight of the exposure LeBron got in high school; it was a surreal amount but he went about his life on and off the court without missing a beat. He has continued that conduct in the NBA. Many people have asked me if LeBron as is as nice and accessible and mature as he seems and the answer is yes. He does not travel with a huge posse. He is very careful about who is in his inner circle. He has a sixth sense when it comes to knowing who to trust. He is wonderful with kids. He believes in giving back.

I am biased, but he is to me the most amazing figure in all of sports. There is no one like him both in terms of astounding talent and being a great ambassador for the game he plays. The only one who comes close is Derek Jeter and I love Jeter but he is no LeBron in terms of sheer talent.

McNeill: LeBron’s love for Ohio shone through in this book. If you were a gambling man, where would you put the odds of him re-signing with Cleveland?
Bissinger: LeBron does love Ohio. He loves playing in Cleveland and he loves Akron. Like everyone else, I have asked LeBron what he is going to do and he has flashed me that exquisite smile. I am not privy to any special information, but my gut tells me he will leave the Cavaliers whether they win the NBA championship or not. He has aspirations beyond basketball. He wants to be a billion dollar athlete. He likes challenges and bright lights. There is nothing like New York and the goal of making the Knicks champions again is an incredible one. So I say he goes to the Knicks, IF THEY GET THE RIGHT SUPPORTING CAST. And as you know that’s a big “if” when it comes to the Knicks. LeBron would own New York in a way that no athlete has ever owned it, except maybe for Reggie Jackson after game six of the 1977 World Series when he hit three home runs, and as we know the love affair did not last forever. It would be exciting as hell to watch and I think LeBron would luxuriate in it. But as you say he also loves Ohio, so it is going to be a very difficult decision and I don’t think he has come close to making it yet. And remember, the most important value in LeBron’s life is loyalty. Still, I say he goes. But once again, if anybody out there is a betting man, bet against me.

Bradburd Talks About “40 Minutes Of Hell”

This past week has been a complete blur for me between covering Raptors’ games, finishing off report cards and starting up the Junior basketball team at my school. Despite it being a hectic week I was still able to read through Rus Bradburd’s latest book “40 Minutes of Hell” because I had a tough time putting it down whenever I picked it up. Between learning about Nolan Richardson’s coaching philosophies, the issues he’s dealt with regarding race, what people served to inspire him and his strong family ties, this is a book that both inspired me as a coach and as a person.

Trust me, if you’re a fan of college basketball this is a book you’ll want to read.

On the weekend I was able to chat with Bradburd about a wide range of topics including what inspired him to write a book about Richardson, the constant tension Richardson had with Frank Broyles during his time at Arkansas, why Richardson had a dislike for “book coaches” and the unique situation Richardson had in Tulsa where players frequently came over for dinner or to spend time with his family.

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Book Excerpt: The Art Of A Beautiful Game

Some years ago I had the unenviable task of guarding Mark Aguirre in a pickup game. I’d like to say I held my ground as he posted me up, absorbing each of the bargelike blows he delivered with his hips and prodigious backside, holding strong against the Nor’easter of Ass he unleashed upon me. But I did not. Like so many great opponents during Aguirre’s NBA days, I slid and stumbled and shuffled backward until he was essentially standing under the basket and I out-of-bounds. At which point he could merely reach up and lay the ball in the basket.

How I came to be guarding Aguirre was  a matter of circumstance. I was in Indianapolis writing a story for Sports Illustrated and had wandered over to a local health club looking for a run. Aguirre, then an assistant coach for the Indiana Pacers, arrived a half hour later. My teammates, kind  souls that they were, agreed that I should be the one to guard Aguirre.

This was what an NBA coach might refer to as “a matchup problem.” Aguirre was a6’6″, 230-pound NBA legend who averaged 20 pounds during his 13-year career with the Mavericks and the Pistons, and even at 43 years old, he was still in remarkably good shape. I, on the other hand, was a6’1″, 175 pound former small-college  player who had a difficult enough time defending the guys n my local rec league.

For the most part Aguirre took it easy on me in the post backing me down only a handful of times. Not that it mattered; he turned out to be just as adept on the perimeter. At one point I was guarding him on the wing and he fooled me so completely, using a ball fake together with a subtle push on my leg and hp, that I actually turned around to try and beat him to the baseline. In mid-sprint I heard Aguirre chuckle behind me. He was standing in the same spot, having not moved an inch, and calmly fired up and swished a three-pointer. (He was a much better outside shooter than I realized.) “What in the world,” I asked him, “did you just do?”

He only smiled. Mark Aguirre did not get where he was by giving away his secrets to random dudes he meets at the gym.

That night I was him at Conseco Fieldhouse, before the Pacers game, and his face lit up with recognition – and amusement. “Hey, still waiting for that baseline drive?” he asked.

I laughed, then asked if I might pick his brain at some point, this time in the name of journalism. “Check back with me after the game,” he said.

I did, and he was true to his word. That night, after a Pacers win, Aguirre spent nearly 45 minutes in the back corridor of Conseco showing me the secrets of his post moves: how to leverage a defender, which arm to use to swim past an opponent, how to “lock in” an opposing big man on a lob pass, and, best of how, how to “push the refrigerator” (that is, use your outside leg to drive into a defender, as if he were a Frigidaire.)

As Aguirre talked, I realized that in all those years of watching him play, I’d never fully appreciated what he was doing. I just figured… well, I don’t know what I figured. That he just used his butt to move guys out of the way? That he’s been born a little quicker and trickier around the basket than the rest of us?

Unmistakably, though, there was an art to what he was doing one honed over the years, one only certain players have mastered, one only certain players can master, for it requires a rare combination of dedication, talent and intuition. To appreciate it, you need only watch one of those young, springy big men who enter the league each year. You know the type – long-limbed, imposing, throwing down monster dunks. These players may be freakishly athletic, but their post moves are so rudimentary as to be non-existent. Pump fake? Never. Freeze fake? What’s that? Moving the refrigerator? They’re not even good at moving their feet.

Still, it is the resplendent jams of these high-flyers that we see on the highlights, and the 10-year-old boys mimic on Nerf hoops. And there’s nothing wrong with that – I admire the dunk as much as anyone – but it is a shame that few fans are privy to a true craftsman like Aguirre breaking down his art.

Instead, we often hear about how the pro game is flawed, full of remarkable athletes who boast unremarkable skills. As a writer who covers the NBA, I run into this mind-set on occasion. “No one who plays defense, no one passes and it’s all about getting paid,” some people say. “How can you enjoy watching that?”

In response I’ll usually mumble something about Chris Paul and drop steps and bank shots, but that’s not much of a comeback. What I should say is, Sure,there’s a lot about the pro game that’s messed up, like guys who can hit their heads on the rim but can’t dribble with their left hand, and, yes, there are some lackadaisical millionaires, but it’s still a beautiful, complicated game, the best ever invented in my opinion, and there are plenty of guys who treat it as such.

Then I could explain why that’s true. I could describe the way Ray Allen squares up on his jump shot so perfectly that, were he on sand, he would spring up and, upon returning to earth, land precisely in his own footprints. I could talk about underhand scoop shots that rise like helium balloons. I could describe nine seconds left, the floor spread and the arena roaring like a 747 as Kobe Bryant holds the ball at the top of the key, about to break thousands of hearts.

I could talk about reverse layups with so much spin they hit the backboard and then shoot sideways as if yanked on a leash. I could evoke the ka-smack of the one-handed rebound the the ka-thunk of a three-pointer from the top of the key that sinks off the back of the rim as it drops in.

I could mention the Noooooo!-then-Yessssss! Shot and the way bench guys in the NBA hold each other back, as if saving one another from oncoming traffic, because that last play was just too danm exciting. I could relate how, after 40 years of pulling out a little pump fake to the right before shooting a jump hook, my 70-year-old father still employs it every time he plays, not because it works (although occasionally it does) but because it’s like catching up with an old friend.

I could describe shots so pure the net snaps up and has to be untangled from the rim, and the way an NBA three-pointer arcs so high it looks as it if was shot from the moon, and seeing a play on Sunday afternoon on NBC, then seeing it again a few hours later down at the playground, reenacted a hundred different ways. I could talk about back picks you can practically hear through the TV, especially when they result in alley-oop dunks, and how the only thing better is when a help-side defender comes flying over to block that alley-oop.

I could confess that I can spend an hour talking to someone at a dinner party and never make the kind of real, true communication that come from running one seamless give-and-go with a stranger during a pickup game. I could talk about the most compelling moment in sports – one second on the clock, down by tow, first of two three throws – and how it had made men’s careers as well as ruined them.

But  I don’t say any of that, of course. Instead, what I’ve done is write this book. And while it’s not necessarily about all the aforementioned things, it is a celebration of the game and those who play it at the highest level, the players for whom it truly is both an art and a science.

Because while the majority of what we read and hear about the NBA may be day-to-day drama – who wins, who loses, who might get traded, who threw whom under the bus – this doesn’t mean that NBA stars don’t adore the game in all it’s myriad intricacies.

All you have to do is ask one. Not in vague generalities, but speaking his language. Ask LeBron James for the umpteenth time about his impending free agency, or his friendly rivalry with Dwyane Wade, and he will likely say one of the same things he’d said  the umpteenth other time he’s been asked. But sit down with James and watch film and ask him to dissect a pick-and-roll, or how he draws a weakside defender’s attention, and it’s amazing what happens. He leans forward, he gets excited, he talks quickly. He becomes a teacher, eager to explain. Gone are the marketing catchphrases and one-game-at-a-time cliches, replaced by staccato observations. He becomes like anyone else talking about something he loves: passionate.

This book is about passionate players. It is not about one season or the inner workings of a team or the “genius” of a coach, but rather about the beauty of basketball, because even the “ugly” aspects – like, say, defense and rebounding – become beautiful in the hands of the masters.

The material herein comes from research conducted over the course of nearly three years, some of it while working on stories for SI. I gathered much in league arenas and locker rooms, but just as often my work was done over beers (as with Rockets forward Shane Battier, who graciously broke down his approach to perimeter defense while sipping pale ales at a bar in Portland), or in a coffee shop in Washington, D.C. (as with Idan Ravin, the NBA trainer known as “the hoops whisperer”), or, in the case of Steve Keerr, while shooting jumpers together at AmericaWest Arena.

But no matter what my method, for a week or two after researching each chapter, almost without fail, I become obsessed with whichever aspect of the game I’d just explored. And because of that, I’d like to publicly thank the noon hoops crew at the Berkley YMCA for putting up with these obsessions. For no sooner had I returned from reporting on, say, rebounding, than I was suddenly trying to grab every weakside board at the Y by jumping laterally, the way Ben Wallace does. Three weeks later I’d be trying to out Kobe’s jab-step-fake-and-go even though a simple rocker would have worked just fine. And, of course, I preached to all who would listen. I became the Deepak Chorpa of the drop step, a Mormon missionary of the motion offense.

It is my hope that, in writing this book, I might inspire some of you to feel similarly: to see the game from a different perspective (or a dozen different ones), to gain a renewed appreciation for the at-times misunderstood giants who roam our nation’s arenas and, above all, to revel in the art of what is truly a beautiful game.

This was an excerpt from The Art of the Beautiful Game by Chris Ballard. Copyright 2009 by Chris Ballard. Reprinted by permission by Simon and Schuster, INC.

The Art Of A Beautiful Game

I have a confession to make: after two seasons of covering the NBA I had started to become lazy when it came to asking players the kinds of questions which warranted them throwing out something more than the traditional sports cliches.

Don’t get me wrong, I still do my homework leading up to each game, it’s just that instead of taking some risks or digging deeper with the questions I asked players, I was starting to throw generic questions out to players and was getting frustrated when I would get generic answers thrown back at me.

After reading Chris Ballard’s new book I found myself renewed and motivated for another season of covering the NBA while being given the motivation to dig a little deeper in the kinds of questions I asked players. Instead of asking a generic questions, I’m going to dig a little deeper by asking them questions which probe and require players to dig a little deeper in their responses.

In his book, Chris manages to dig deeper by challenging Steve Kerr to a three-point shooting contest to test a theory he has, races Shaquille O’Neal one night on his way back to his hotel while sharing a ton of stories like how Kobe Bryant’s competitive streak refuses to allow a high school teammate crack double figures during a game to 100.

While you won’t find me racing Shaq in my car when he visits Toronto again later this season, you will find me digging a little deeper this season like I did with my recent interview with Daniel Gibson where we talk about muscle memory and how he keeps loose on the court during shooting slumps.

Since this book served as such a big inspiration to me I hooked up with Chris to pick his brain about some aspects of the book. Below you can read the quick email exchange we had last week:

1. Something that stood out from the book is how you use your experience as a basketball player to dig deeper with your questions that most journalists. When did you realize playing professional basketball wasn’t in your future and when did you start to focus on journalism as a career?

It wasn’t so much a matter of realizing professional basketball wasn’t in my future – there was never any doubt about that, really, unless you’re talking about maybe playing in a very small league in a country very far away – as trying to find a way to incorporate basketball in my future in some way. One of my college teammates at Pomona, Mike Budenholzer, went the coaching route and is now an assistant with the Spurs. Another college teammate, Jason Levien, became an agent and, through those connections, ended up as assistant GM of the Sacramento Kings (that two guys from a DIII hoops school ended up in the NBA is both a testament to those two guys and a story in itself). For me, I figured journalism was my best shot, mainly because it’s what I knew. Right out of college I wrote a book about pick-up basketball called “Hoops Nation” that sold about 6 copies but was a remarkable experience to report and turned into something of a career stepping stone. From there, it seemed natural to stick with it. I still find it amazing that I get to write about something I love for a living.

2. In this book there is a great collection of stories and anecdotes from your years of covering the NBA. Have you ever considered starting a blog for Sports Illustrated where you can share stories that don’t find their way into the magazine or books like this?

That’s a great idea. At times, I’ve used my weekly web column on SI.Com as a place to post stuff that doesn’t make the magazine. Recently, at the behest of SI I’ve started tweeting as well (SI_ChrisBallard) but I’m not sure how much depth you can provide in 140 characters. So yeah, we’re still figuring that out…

3. You mentioned that one of the main reasons for writing this book is to remind fans why they fell in love with this game. In a way, it’s your attempt to reach out and show readers the areas of the game that are still “pure” and not corrupted by money or corporations. How did writing this book help remind you why you love this game?

Every time I would sit down to write I’d get into a chapter and start thinking, “Well, if I can knock out 1,000 words by noon then I can sneak off to the Y for the noon run.” And, inevitably, I’d go whether or not I made it to 1,000 words. And, really, that’s the best way I can put it: talking to these guys about the game  – the Battiers and Kerrs and Kobes – made me want to go play it. Right now. Because there was a passion that’s contagious. When I had my shooting contest with Kerr  – the basis of one chapter – by the end of it we were both so amped up we talked shooting for another hour (and I seriously think Steve was ready to go suit up). That’s what I love – millionaire executives who start acting like 14-year-olds when they get around a ball.

4. As a writer for Sports Illustrated you get to watch NBA games all season long. Who are some of your favorite players to watch? What aspects of their game do you find so alluring?

It may sound cliché, but I’d watch Kobe or LeBron play anywhere, anytime: 2-on-2, 3-on-3, pop-a-shot, whatever. There’s a mastery of the game with those two, on a number of levels. You can spend a whole night just watching Kobe’s footwork. Others: I love the way Jason Kidd and Steve Nash control the game. For shooters, I’ll go with Ray Allen and Anthony Morrow (seriously, watch him sometime – so pure). And for hustle/grit, it doesn’t get any better than Nocioni – it’s just too bad he’s on the Kings.

5. What was the most rewarding part of writing this book? And, on the flip side, what was the most challenging aspect?

The most rewarding part was feeling like I understood the game on a deeper level – and could pass that along to readers. I’ve covered the league, on and off, for ten years but hadn’t had the luxury of going this in-depth before on subjects. Shadowing Battier for two games was like taking a master class not only in NBA defense but in efficiency and media manners.

The most challenging aspect, as always, is the writing. There are only so many metaphors for a ball going through a hoop.


Gash Almighty

Early in the spring of 1982, when he was a skinny freshman at North Carolina – before he had enough fans to start his own religion – Michael Jordan was largely unknown outside the state. So when Dallas evangelist Bill Glass was planning a Carolina stop for his prison ministry tour that summer, Jordan was not the guy Glass had in mind when he called Dean Smith looking to line up a basketball player to beef up the act. Jimmy Black. Sam Perkins. That was the kind of name Glass, a former NFL lineman, wanted.  Not available, Smith told him. Previous engagements. Glass couldn’t even get Matt Doherty.

When Smith offered up this unknown freshman, Glass was gracious but dubious. Jordan was certainly better than nothing. But part of the idea behind the Weekend of Champions ministry was to have a big-name athlete take part in the witnessing programs. Aside from their rap sheets, what was to separate Michael Jordan from these men? Without the fame, how would they identify upward?

Then Jordan hit a certain championship-winning shot and when that summer’s ministry rolled through Raleigh Correctional Center, the inmates warmly welcomed him to the yard. And Jordan, decked out in his fresh Team USA warmup, got enthusiastic props for thoroughly schooling a cell-block all-star. Glass was relieved. Those who didn’t receive salvation would at least have something to write home about.

But the Weekend of Champions was about much more than behind-bars basketball. In the past, the tour had featured inspirational athletes like catcher Jim Sundberg and pitched Frank Tanana, as well as men of faith from professional coaching and the world of pro wrestling. This time, before Glass hit ‘em with the Good Word, a martial arts expert from Tennessee named Mike Crain was invited to ratchet up the yard’s emotion. Jordan stuck around to see the show. And when it came time for Crain to do his crowd-pleasing  samurai sword show, he asked for a volunteer.

History gets a little murky after that. Glass remembers that Michael willingly climbed on stage. Crain remembers it differently. See, the sword trick calls for Chain to chop a full-grown watermelon in half while it rests on the volunteer’s stomach. Most everyone who winds up as the fruit platter declines to do so at first, especially after watching Crain, a fully Southerner decked out in an all-white martial arts suit accented with his black belt, slice the air with cold steel for a few minutes.

But Jordan was more skittish than most – and emphatically said “No.” Crain wasn’t fazed. He worked the thrill-hungry crowd of inmates to his advantage, and when he began hinting to Jordan that he wasn’t quite man enough to handle the job of human cutting board, the 19-year-old responded to the challenge the way you’d expect. He climbed the wood platform and laid himself back on the weight-training bench that had been used in an earlier act. And Crain placed the melon on Mike’s belly.

As Crain produced another black sash and began blindfolding himself, a panicky Jordan started to get up. Crain held him down lightly between the produce and the bench. The folks in the yard inched closer to the stage. Crain told Jordan to shield his eyes so that stray rind and see wouldn’t blind him, but MJ’s eyes were already shut tight enough to secure a home.

Crain drew back his sword – and slashed into the juicy green melon. But his blade traveled too far south, and the rail-thin Jordan’s protruding right hip slowed the blow. The watermelon was torn, not severed. The crowd was not hypnotized and drew even closer to the laid-out Jordan.

Down came the blade a second time, and now shards of watermelon went flying into the sky and across the stage. Crain knew from his audience’s reaction that he’d succeeded in dividing the fruit, but he had the queasy feeling that he might have gone too far. This whack was in the right place, but Crain had misjudged the amount of give in Michael’s lean belly. After pulling off his blindfold, he checked to make sure his volunteer was okay. When he and Glass wiped away the juice, Michael spotted a tear in the fabric.

Dude was irate.

“Look watcha did!” he screamed at Crain. The warmus were MJ’s reward from his first international tournament. But the guy who had driven Jordan to the prison was concerned about more than the jersey. He suggest Michael check to see whether he had been wounded by the blade. Still heated about the shirt, Michael wouldn’t look until they were back in the car and the driver insisted. Then they both looked down and spotted a gash near Jordan’s navel. Since he hadn’t felt the wound, Michael was hardly concerned, even after the doctors at a nearby emergency room needed three stitches to close him up. He did harbor a small grudge – but not about the injury. That would heal in days. Warmup gear like this, though, was one of a kind.

After the Jordan snafu, Glass took Crain out of the evangelical rotation. Crain estimates that he’s performed the watermelon trick 1,750 times and has cut 16 people. “That’s not a lot,” Crain jokes. “He’s missed over 70 game-winning shots. Only mine are more costly.”

Michael didn’t speak much about the incident after he returned to his UNC dormitory. His dorm mates thought him such an unlikely candidate to have volunteered for something like this he had to show them the stitches to convince them the story wasn’t a prank. Everyone marveled over this uncharacteristically bizarre thing he’d done. And legend has it that Jordan turned deeply spiritual when he came to realize how close he might have come to becoming prime footage on a Faces of Death video.

So the next time you moan about our obsession with Jordan and the Bulls, remember this: Once upon a time, Michael Jordan was only a rotten rind away from being half the player he is now.

The was an excerpt from EPSN The Magazine’s special edition Michael Jordan Hall Of Fame Collectors Issue. I was lucky enough to be sent an advance copy from an ESPN rep and I’ll have a review up on Hoops Addict in the next few weeks. If you’re  Jordan fan this is a must read. Between stories of samurai’s trying to slice up Jordan, a first hand account from Phil Jackson and epic stories of legendary closed door Dream team scrimmages, there are a ton of exclusive quotes, stories and photos that will have you unable to put this down until you’ve read it cover to cover.


In The Scrum With Randy Foye

Fresh off his introductory press conference with the Washington Wizards, guard Randy Foye talked to members of the media about his true position, his initial reaction to being traded, his thoughts on Kevin McHale’s influence on his game, and his memorable duel with Dwyane Wade last season.

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Book Review: “Top Of The World”

<br />Despite covering the NBA in-depth with media credentials last season there are still countless aspects of the season I haven’t full grasped. Call it a case of going through my rookie season and some things being a blur, but even after being full submerged in the NBA by talking with countless coaches and players, there are still some stories I still don’t full appreciate or comprehend.

Unfortunately, watching the Boston Celtics magical march from the worst record in the NBA to being crowned NBA Champions is one such story line.

It’s not that I wasn’t aware of how special this feat was, it’s just that there are so many bylines that as a journalist based out of Toronto I wasn’t able to fully grasp all of the roster moves, hard work and luck that went into assembling last years NBA Champions.

After reading Peter May’s book “Top of the World” I now have a greater appreciation for all that went into the Celtics Championship season last year.

The book started with a chapter called “Ping-Pong History” with anecdotes about the lucky suit Wyc Grousbeck wore to the NBA Draft Lottery, how close Boston was to dealing Paul Pierce in 2007 for the draft pick which would turn into Chris Paul, how Danny Ainge was one of the few people in the Celtics organization set on building a team around Greg Oden or Kevin Durant, insight into what went through Paul Pierce’s mind when he found out Boston had secured the fifth overall pick in the 2007 NBA Draft and a look at how close Pierce came to being dealt to the Los Angeles Clippers.

The book then shifted into accounts of two pivotal deals Danny Ainge did make: the acquisition of future Hall of Famers Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett through some shrewd deals.

I’ll admit that while watching the 2007 NBA Draft at a pub in Toronto I was chuckling that the Raptors divisional rival had dealt for an aging jump shooter coming off surgery on both of his ankles. Little did I know the Allen deal was only a precursor to a much larger deal which would see Garnett dealt to Boston. The Celtics had a deal in place before the draft for Garnett, but the forward rebuked the deal because he didn’t want to turn his back on the state of Minnesota or join another team that lingered near the bottom of the standings.

Cue the Allen deal which helped Garnett and Pierce realize the Celtics were serious about turning things around in Boston.

Until the Allen deal was finalized, neither Pierce nor Garnett felt the Celtics were serious about contending for an NBA Championship. But with Allen in the mix alongside Pierce, it provided Garnett with peace of mind to see that going to Boston wouldn’t result in another season hovering in the bottom third of the standings.

What’s amazing is how close the Allen deal came to stalling. Seattle was holding firm on a package involving Rajon Rondo and it was only at the last moment they relented and agreed to the Celtics package. If this hadn’t gone through I doubt we would have seen Garnett in Boston last season. Instead, Celtics fans would have seen Shawn Marion, Pau Gasol or Jason Kidd. While all three of those players are talented and would have formed a nice trio alongside Pierce and Al Jefferson, I don’t think it would have resulted in a championship for Boston.

While it’s easy to look back at all the move Danny Ainge made and shrug your shoulders and easily dismiss what happened as just another championship, the fact that he was able to turn a team with the worst record in the NBA to it’s champions is utterly remarkable. Reading this book provided me with an opportunity to learn about how some deals almost fell through, why Ainge elected to sign certain players to the roster and how assistant coach Tom Thibodeau almost wasn’t hired because Larry Brown wanted the gig. All of these twists and turns added to my amazement that their championship season unfolded like it did.

Because of this, reading this book was like sitting down to an all-you-can-eat buffet and stuffing myself full of stories, anecdotes and insight into one of the more memorable seasons in the history of the NBA; my only complaint is that it was that my feast only last 235 pages.

Book Review: “Open Your Heart With Basketball”

When I received a copy of “Open Your Heart With Basketball” in the mail to review I shuddered when I saw a basketball with a heart around it on the cover. Who wants to read a book about basketball with a huge heart on the cover? Not this kid. My immediate reaction was dismay that I’d have to read through 100 pages of fluff because I figured that if I wanted a sappy recount of someone’s experience with basketball I could just sit in front of my television for a couple hours and watch “Love & Basketball” instead.

However, once I opened up the book and actually began to read through it I was quickly won over because of the passion Christopher Bibey has for the game despite all of the adversity he has faced in his playing career.

The biggest road block that Bibey faced during his playing career was being diagnosed with cancer during his freshman year of college. Most young men will throw up their hands in frustration and quit when life throws them an obstacle like this but instead Bibey used the life skills that basketball had been teaching him to beat cancer and he used this tough situation to build persistence, determination and devotion in his life. Bibey did a great job of informing readers about the countless road blocks that coaches and life threw at him during his playing career and how instead of getting bitter or quitting he used these events to toughen his resolve and make him a stronger player and a better person.

Throughout this book Bibey did a great job of showing how attributes like persistence, determination and devotion that are learned on the hardwood can transfer to other areas of your life like dealing with getting dumped by the hot girl you’ve been dating, not getting the promotion you want at work or any of the countless hurdles that life can throw your way.

Another reason why I was fan of this book was because Bibey did a great job of addressing the mental aspect of basketball. When I was at university one of my favourite course was Sport Psychology so I was stoked to see that Bibey addressed this topic in a chapter called “Mind and Body.” Far too often fans think that the best athletes make the NBA but they fail to realize that the mental aspect of the game is just as important. In this chapter Bibey did a great job of breaking down some ways that he overcame a lack of physical ability to have a success playing career because of his mental preparation prior to games, he explains the important role visualization had in his training and preparation for games and he did a great job of explaining to readers the struggles he faced getting his body to reawaken following his cancer treatments. I could relate to him being a player that overcame physical limitations so he became symbolic to me of a “basketball underdog” and as I read through his book I couldn’t help but root for him.

Something else I enjoyed while reading reading this book were the quotes from college coaches about what they look for in recruits and their perspective on how the game of basketball has changed their lives. Arizona Wildcats head coach Lute Olson provided the forward for the book and throughout the book there quotes from other college coaches like Bill Lilly from West Virginia Wesleyan, Ron Slaymaker from Emporia State University, Scott Lang from La Roche college and Paul Hogan from New Hampshire Tech. Bibey was able to collect some great insight into how basketball has changed these coaches lives, what they enjoy most about basketball and how they motivate their players.

Besides being a heart warming story because he was able to beat cancer and play NCAA basketball following his fight with cancer, this story is a must read for any teen that loves the game of basketball because it shows that road blocks can be a hidden blessing because they can help you grow as a player and a person if you approach adversity with the right perspective.