Is This the Best Book About the NBA Ever Written?

Slate's Culture Blog
Nov. 1 2011 8:52 AM

Is This the Best Book About the NBA Ever Written?

breaks

The NBA season was supposed to start today. Opening night would have seen the champion Dallas Mavericks host Derrick Rose and the Chicago Bulls, followed by Kevin Durant’s Thunder taking on the post-Phil Jackson Los Angeles Lakers. Instead, the lockout continues: The owners want to split “basketball-related income” 50-50, the players want to keep 52.5 percent of it, and games have been canceled through November.

David Haglund David Haglund

David Haglund is a senior editor at Slate. He runs Brow Beat, Slate's culture blog.

What is an NBA fan to do? I, for one, plan to give The Breaks of the Game another shot. David Halberstam published the book 30 years ago this month; many fans consider it the best book about the NBA ever written.

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Halberstam spent the 1979-80 NBA season with the Portland Trail Blazers, a team that had recently lost future Hall of Famer Bill Walton and had added Kermit Washington, then trying to live down a punch that nearly killed another player (future two-time-champion coach Rudy Tomjanovich). The Trail Blazers, under coach Jack Ramsay, won the title in 1977, but by ’79 they were coming apart, and Halberstam’s book is the tale of their demise. It’s also about the history of a then-troubled league and the racial dynamics at work both within the NBA and between the (mostly black) league and its (mostly white) fans.

How good is the book? I emailed Jonathan Lethem—winner of a “genius” grant, author of Chronic City (among many other works of fiction) and the forthcoming essay collection The Ecstasy of Influence—whom I knew to be a fan, and asked him to explain its appeal. Here’s what he told me:

Twenty-odd years ago Christian K. Messenger wrote the great survey of sports in American literature to that point, from Ring Lardner and Bernard Malamud to Don Delillo’s End Zone—and one of his great conclusions was that while baseball represented the American past, and football the American present, basketball stood for the future—and that, partly as a result, there hadn’t been a great basketball novel. Apart from a few small gems, this remains basically sound—except David Halberstam’s The Breaks of the Game has everything Messenger could ever have been looking for, even if it happened to be true. In Jack Ramsay and Kermit Washington and Bill Walton and Maurice Lucas Halberstam paints characters as good as those in any novel, and they’re entirely unforgettable. I’ll feel for the rest of my life as though I was a fan of that ’77 Portland championship team, and I wasn’t even watching basketball then.

Lethem is not alone in his admiration. Bill Simmons wrote a tribute to the book after Halberstam died in a car accident in 2007; he calls it “the greatest sports book ever.” Nathaniel Friedman, aka Bethlehem Shoals, one of the founders of FreeDarko, calls the book “sublime.”

Despite that high-profile praise, the book does not have the widespread following of, for instance, Halberstam’s Summer of ’49. It was even out of print for a while; I first picked up a copy when it was quietly reissued in paperback two years ago.

And I stopped reading halfway through. How come? While I admired Halberstam’s restraint—his prose is never showy and he doesn’t oversell the arc of his narrative—I found myself bored. His sentences are workmanlike, and his way of moving from one subplot to another kept me from feeling fully absorbed by any one storyline. (I felt similarly about Summer of ’49—though I did get to the end of that one; I read it at the height of a serious Red Sox/Yankees obsession.)

Still, smarter people than I hail The Breaks of the Game as an out-and-out classic. I picked it up last night right where I had left off, and soon I was enjoying a terrific section about Moses Malone’s contract negotiations. So maybe I’ve been missing something.

Besides, it’s not like there’s a game on.

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