Tim Challies|3:17 pm CT

Review: When the Game Was Ours

When the Game Was OursAs I stated in my review of The Book of Basketball, basketball is far from my favorite sport. If I were to get into the game, and if I were to find myself enjoying it at all, I would likely need a story to draw me in. While the game bores me, I tend to be genuinely interested in people. When the Game Was Ours combines the lives of two players–superstars Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. And it just so happens that, on that basis, the basis of a story of two people, I quite enjoyed this book.

With my very limited perspective on the game, I’m sure I am only vaguely aware of the critical role these two men played in basketball history. Their rivalry, perfectly timed, was instrumental in transforming the NBA into the game it is today. The ongoing struggle between these two men, star-crossed antagonists, who represented speed versus shooting, black versus white, East Coast versus West Coast, flashy versus quiet, was one for the ages. It was a rivalry so profound that even someone as ignorant as I am caught wind of it. And in this book the two men, once enemies but now fast friends, tell what it was like to be there. They describe life in the NBA during these transition years and tell of their great rivalry.

Notable in the midst of the battle were two features of the rivalry. Both men were exceedingly proud, demanding recognition and thinking nothing of mocking those who were unable to compete with them. Though Johnson was flashy and boisterous while Bird was quiet and shy, both were convinced of their own superiority and neither could stand being second in anything. Where their pride was greatest was in their relationship to one another. Each man drove the other to be better, to attain to greater heights. It is fascinating to read how they hated one another and yet depended upon one another to raise their game to the next level and the level after that. At the heart of their excellence was their bitterness.

In a book like this one, credited to Johnson, Bird and a third writer (in this case Jackie MacMullan), there is always the question of voice. Will they use the first person or third person? In this case the powers that be decided to go with the third person. Though it is probably the correct choice, ridding them of the otherwise-annoying need to say, “I (Larry)…”, it does take the men out of the story just a little bit. What I mean is that it reads more like history and less like autobiography than I might have liked. Of course Bird and Johnson remain central to the book, but somehow still remain strangely distant from it. This, in turn, raises the question of authorship and I had to wonder whether crediting the two men as authors is entirely accurate. My impression is that MacMullan interviewed the men for long periods, wove the story together, and had them sign off on it. To credit all three authors equally seems unlikely, though not atypical.

A brief aside: The Kindle version, which is the one I chose to read, had quite a few sloppy errors. I am beginning to notice these in Kindle books–typos, missing punctuation, missing line breaks, font variations, etc–and am wondering if it points to some inherent problem or limitation with the Kindle format or if it points to publishers giving insufficient attention to their electronic books. The move from paper to e-books is one of give and take and I do hope that publishers do not expect us to give up excellence in editing and formatting. That is asking too much. Publishers, please give sufficient time and attention to the e-book! It’s the future, don’t you know.

As a final note, the book contains several egregious uses of those 70′s style basketball shorts that never looked good on anyone, let alone an inordinately lanky guy like Bird. You’ve been warned.

When the Game Was Ours is okay; just okay. It’s not a bad book but neither is it an excellent one. At the very least I can say that it held my attention despite focusing on two athletes I don’t care for who played a game I dislike. I guess that says something for it.

Verdict: Read it if you’re a basketball fan or a sports nut.





Tim Challies|3:00 pm CT

Review: Born to Run

Born to RunIt all began with a simple question: why does my foot hurt? Christopher McDougall, a writer who enjoyed running, wondered why it was that he kept getting hurt. When he ran he got hurt. It was that simple. He visited a succession of doctors who suggested cortisone and orthotics and other high-tech solutions to these injuries. “Humans are not made for running,” he would hear from these experts. “If you do it, you’ll get hurt.”

But in his travels, McDougall came across a small Mexican tribe called the Tarahumara–a tribe whose culture was, at least in part, based around running. Long distance running, that is. And very long distance running at that. They would regularly run fifty miles at a time over some of the world’s most grueling terrain in races that would begin and end in wild village-wide parties. These people could run nearly endless distances, and do so for years and years without injury. McDougall had to learn their secret. As he writes in the book’s opening pages:

In the end, I got my answer, but only after I found myself in the middle of the greatest race the world would ever see: the Ultimate Fighting Competition of footraces, an underground showdown pitting some of the best ultradistance runners of our time against the best ultrarunners of all time, in a fifty-mile race on hidden trails only Tarahumara feet had ever touched. I’d be startling to discover that the ancient saying of the Tao Te Chaing–”The best runner leaves no tracks”–wasn’t some gossamer koan, but real, concrete, how-to, training advice.

McDougall’s quest to understand how some people can spend their lives running without injury while others suffer cruelly from only a short jog, though the ultimate point of the book, is interspersed with the build-up to this epic fifty-mile trail race. He introduces a bizarre and often-hilarious cast of characters and brings them all to Mexico with him. There they set out to see if these highly-trained athletes who had given themselves to ultradistance running would be able to compete with the Tarahumara, who are the furthest thing in the world from professional athletes.

Along the way McDougall offers many facts and reflections dealing with human physiology and evolution. While humans have gotten a bad rap as runners (compare them to most other mammals and they will look pretty pathetic in comparison) this is largely because they have been compared only in terms of speed. What humans have that most animals do not is endurance. McDougall comes to believe that humans evolved as running creatures, capable of running down prey not with sheer speed but with a long game of endurance and attrition. The application to all of this is that running is at the very heart of what it means to be human. Humans evolved as running creatures and now, as the book’s title suggests, are born to run.

As one who believes that God created humans as we are, without having us first evolve from some other kind of life form, I have to dismiss McDougall’s science in this regard. Yet the book was not without its important takeaways. Most interesting was what he showed about running shoes (both through anecdotal evidence and statistical evidence)–that there seems to be a direct correlation between the technology of a running shoe (and hence its price) and the incidence of injury. More expensive shoes tend to lead to more injuries. Which is to say that God made us with feet (and not shoes) for a good reason. When we wear shoes we reduce the ability of our feet to move and to mold themselves to whatever surface we happen to be moving across. This makes good sense, does it not?

As he reaches the book’s conclusions, McDougall undoubtedly overstates his case, going almost as far as to suggest that if we all just ran (in bare feet or, at the very least, really cheap shoes) we’d all be happier and healthier and the world would be a better place. In this way running has become his religion with the Tarahumara as his deities and the world’s best ultradistance runners a slightly lesser pantheon. Running seems to have become an idol. Idols typically are good things that are made ultimate things (to echo Tim Keller) and here we see McDougall falling into that age-old trap. A good thing has become ultimate and undue homage has been given to it.

Nevertheless, Born to Run is an interesting book and one that succeeds on most levels. While the science is suspect and while the author’s breathless adulation for his sport sometimes reaches celestial heights (and while there are occasional uses of rough language), the book still proves an enjoyable read and one that offers plenty of good food for thought. Those discussions of human physiology, though couched in the language of naturalism, pointed me to a Creator, a craftsman, whose works inspire fear and awe.

Verdict: Read it if you’re a runner (or want to be).





Tim Challies|3:34 pm CT

Review: The Book of Basketball

The Book of BasketballI have no love for basketball. I hated playing it in gym class all those years ago and get little enjoyment from playing it today. It is one of the few professional sports I have never seen live and one I really have no interest in seeing live. I know very little about the game and, frankly, do not care to know much more. That March Madness always overshadows the joy of Spring Training is a genuine tragedy. Reading “The Sports Guy” Bill Simmons’ The Book of Basketball, though, unavoidably drew me toward the game, at least for a few days. It was quite a chore, not least because this book is epic, weighing in at over 700 pages. 700 pages is a tall order for any single topic. But for basketball it comes close to a crime.

Simmons is a basketball freak. Seriously, I doubt there could be a greater fan of the game. Basketball is his life, his religion. From the time he was a young child he was absorbed in the game and over the years his passion has not diminished a bit. His knowledge of the game, its teams and its players is encyclopedic. And in The Book of Basketball he offers his take on just about every important question in basketball history: Who were the greatest players? Which were the greatest teams? What is the single greatest key to winning? Will there ever be a better player than Michael Jordan? And on and on.

The answers to these questions are nothing if not thorough. The quest to find the best players in the history of the game leads him to offer rather extensive looks at nearly 100 players, culminating in the inevitable conclusion that Michael Jordan has to be at the top of the list. The quest to find the greatest team is, thankfully, considerably shorter, though still extensive. I can’t deny there was some level of interest as I read through these long lists of players, seeing what distinguished one from the next and discovering how each of them made their mark on the game. Yet at the end of a list of 100 players, the majority of whom are no more than names to me, it is difficult to distinguish one from the next. My head was left spinning. Interesting at the moment, but gone a day or two later. It is just too much to absorb!

Parenthetically, The Book of Basketball highlights one of the pitfalls of e-books. I happened to read it using my Kindle and found myself skipping a lot of end notes I otherwise might have read. There are hundreds (and hundreds and hundreds) of end notes, but with the Kindle there is often too much effort involved in searching them out. And so I just took a pass on most of them. Had I been reading the printed book, I’m sure I would have done a lot more flipping back-and-forth. There are many things the Kindle does well; end notes is not (yet) one of them. If Apple does come out with a tablet book-reading device, I bet we’ll see a far more advanced and usable system. Here’s hoping!

The Book of Basketball is often profane, with rough language and regular jests about pornography, strip clubs and the like. Simmons appears to be caught in perpetual adolescence. Or maybe he just knows his audience. Why is it that sports are so often accompanied with base humor? Regardless, the regular inappropriate quips grow really old really fast, detracting from the otherwise enjoyable witty flavor Simmons employs. The guy has a terrific sense of humor; it’s too bad that he chooses to misdirect it so often.

In the end, I’d say this book is for basketball fans only, and even then only the biggest fans. To dedicate to basketball the amount of time it takes to read a book like this hardly seems worth it to me. Baseball, perhaps (but probably not). Basketball? No way.

Verdict: Read it only if you’re a super-mega-ultra basketball fan.