Breaking Down Breaks of the Game

Breaks of the GameThere is a quote from Bill Simmons on the cover of my copy of The Breaks of the Game by David Halberstam, calling it “the perfect book about the perfect team.” Unfortunately, neither superlative is accurate.

Calling a book “perfect” is generally an overstatement, but it’s less often that an appraisal gets the subject of a book wrong. The problem is that The Breaks of the Game is a book about the 1976-1978 Portland Trail Blazers that covers the 1979-1980 Portland Trail Blazers.

The Portland Trail Blazers began the 1970s as a feeble expansion team, winning 47 total games in its first two seasons. They tried an array of players and coaches, but could never quite put it together—until, that is, a brief run at the end of the 1976-1977 season, when they won the championship, and the first 60 games of the next season, in which they went 50-10.

For that brief stretch, Bill Walton, a college star at UCLA who had struggled in his first two years in Portland, was the best rebounder and defensive center in the league; for that brief stretch, Maurice Lucas became a dominant offensive force; for that brief stretch, Lionel Hollins and Dave Twardzik were a dynamic guard combo. For that brief stretch, the team seemed perfect.

And then Bill Walton got hurt and the team pretty much fell apart.

Sounds like a pretty compelling story, right? Well, the problem is that all of this happened before 1979, which is when Halberstam begins actually covering the team. In some important ways, this book is about the “perfect” team: Halberstam focuses on all of the key figures from that team and provides all of the backstory about that team. But in more substantive ways, the book is about the 1979-1980 season: We see the events and emotions of this season unfold as they are happening, and we follow the new additions to the team just as closely as the veterans.

As a result, Halberstam’s attention seems divided. When he’s discussing the 1977 team, it seems like he’s providing backstory for the 1979 team, and when he’s discussing the 1979 season, it feels like he’s trying to give perspective to the fallout from the 1977 season. The story lacks focus.

Without focus, the book also has little cohesion. Halberstam’s prose jumps around from subject to subject with little rhyme or reason. A paragraph about LaRue Martin, the Blazers’ former center, is followed quickly by a discussion of NBA commisioner Larry O’Brien. The biggest problem with this, other than the obviously disjointed feel it causes, is that it makes it hard to keep facts straight, since they are presented in no meaningful order. Was it Kermit Washington’s knee that was injured, or his back? Was it Bobby Gross who the Blazers got from the ABA, or Dave Twardzik? Did Stu Inman, Portland’s vice president, want Calvin Natt or David Greenwood in a trade for Maurice Lucas? Not being able to keep this stuff straight makes it hard to make sense of moments later on in the book.

It’s odd to criticize Halberstam’s writing, since he is so well-regarded for his journalism, particularly for his sports journalism. And it’s clear from the book that he has an eye for anecdotes. Plenty of his stories, such as one in which Lloyd Neal yells “Take that motherfucking cuckoo!” at notorious Laker fan Jack Nicholson after a dunk, are engrossing, seeming like a vivid snapshot of what life in the NBA is like.

Nevertheless, there are times when the writing feels stunted and, dare I say, amateurish. Maybe it’s just a pet peeve, but it seems to undercut your expertise on basketball when a writer uses a clunky phrase like, “shoot the foul,” which Halberstam does on more than one occasion. Is it too much to ask for him to say “foul SHOT” or “free throw”? Similarly, Halberstam at one point tries to illustrate a player’s superiority to Jim Spanarkel by saying, “He thought that there was never a day that the sun had come out that he could not take Spanarkel anywhere he wanted on the court and do with him what he wanted.” That metaphor is way too bogged down.

Even worse, there are times when Halberstam’s reporting is uninterested in facts, and even inaccurate. When discussing Mickey Mantle, for example, Halberstam says: “In an age where the best players switched teams readily, Mantle had played for one team and that seemed to symbolize the best of old-fashioned loyalty.” This is just not true. Mantle did not play “in an age where the best players switched teams readily.” Mickey Mantle retired in 1968, one year before the reserve clause was even challenged in baseball, and seven years before it was officially torn down. In fact, in Mantle’s age, the best players hardly ever switched teams, let alone doing so “readily.” This is a small point in Halberstam’s larger narrative—it isn’t even the relevant sport—but credibility is of paramount importance when it comes to journalism.

If Halberstam is going to sacrifice narrative focus and journalistic credibility for the sake of a larger point, then it ought to be one hell of a point. The central thesis of The Breaks of the Game—that it’s hard to keep a team together in the modern era of big money and free agency—seems overly nostalgic and essentially outdated. This may simply be the benefit of 30 years hindsight, but by this point sports fans are used to free agency and the business aspects of sports. It can be a bitter pill, but we swallow it anyway.

The Portland Trail Blazers of the 1970s may be the most tragic example of this bitter pill. After Walton’s injury in 1978, the big redhead felt pressure to come back and join his team for the playoffs. Whether that pressure was applied explicitly or implicitly depends on who you talk to. He came back and reinjured himself in the second game of the postseason. He blamed the Portland medical staff, which he sued, and demanded a trade. Over the next four seasons, he played in 14 games. It’s a sports tragedy, and one of the best stories in the history of the NBA. I just wish it had been told better.

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