Picks and Pans Review: Outrageous!
Unlike baseball, basketball doesn't produce many literary prospects. To be sure, there have been some notable exceptions—Bill Bradley's Life on the Run, Pete Axthelm's The City Game, Rick Telander's Heaven Is a Playground, Bill Russell and Taylor Branch's Second Wind and John Fein-stein's more recent A Season on the Brink, just to pick a quick starting five.
But now, with basketball enjoying unprecedented popularity, a number of new books are looking to rewrite the conventional wisdom. Soon we will have not one, but three Magic Johnson—approved bios, each dealing with various aspects of his ongoing battle with HIV.
Magic's odyssey notwithstanding, the most compelling name in basketball today is Michael Jordan, so it's not surprising that he is the subject of two new titles. The more heavily publicized is The Jordan Rules (Simon & Schuster, $22), in which Chicago Tribune basketball writer Sam Smith chronicles the Chicago Bulls' '91 championship season. The book has quickly soared to the best-seller lists, in part due to widely quoted excerpts in which Jordan is taken to task by his teammates for hogging the ball, skipping team parties and holding up the team bus.
But in context, Jordan actually comes off as a sympathetic mortal, which is no easy trick given his supernatural powers and Fort Knox bank account. Author Smith gives us a number of vivid examples of how the Bulls' superstar is expected (both on the court and off) to live up to unrealistic expectations. What's remarkable is that he fulfills so many of them. There is a poignant pregame locker-room encounter between a highly emotional Jordan and a young girl suffering from cancer. When the girl walks away, Jordan says sadly, "How do they expect me to play basketball now?"
Taking to the Air (Warner, $18.95) purports to take on the larger questions surrounding Jordan's success. Does he have a responsibility to the black community? Should he be hawking expensive sneakers to inner-city kids? Should he use his stardom to endorse political causes and people? All good questions and, to his credit, writer Jim Naughton, a reporter for The Washington Post, avoids the temptation to answer them glibly. The problem is, that while Taking to the Air is thought-provoking and intelligently constructed, it's not very much fun to read, and in the end isn't that what His Airness is really all about?
In the same jet stream there is Elevating the Game by Nelson George, a Village Voice columnist better known for his writings about pop music. To Nelson, basketball has become a theater of black style and a metaphor for the African-American experience. His school-yard prose does not always serve his sweeping claims and connections well. But George is on solid ground describing how the great black stars who entered the game in the '60s and '70s not only sped it up but made it more exuberant and imaginative. And, hoop fans will enjoy the expansive anecdotal histories of such legends as Earl "the Pearl" Monroe, Oscar Robertson, Connie Hawkins and New York City school-yard star Earl Manigault.
Finally there is Charles Barkley's Outrageous! (Simon & Schuster, $20), by the imposing power forward of the Philadelphia '76ers and SPORTS ILLUSTRATED senior editor Roy S. Johnson. Basketball's biggest bad boy takes shots at his teammates, fans, the City of Brotherly Love and '76ers owner Harold Katz. Ironically it's the less explosive stuff that makes the better read. Barkley waxes eloquent about his longtime friendship with teammate Moses Malone, whom he regards as a father, and calls Sudan native Manute Bol, another teammate, the smartest man he has ever met. Though Barkley's mouth often outruns his brain, Outrageous! demonstrates that he's not the fool his many detractors would have us believe.