As 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.