Thursday, January 12, 2017

Review: Sports Business Unplugged (2016)

By Rick Burton and Norm O'Reilly

There are some people out there that don't want to hear anything about the business side of sports. They are sick of contracts, agents, sponsorships, international relationships, and so on down the list.

"Sports Business Unplugged" is not for them.

The story behind this book requires a little explanation. SportsBusiness Journal is the trade newspaper/magazine of the sports business. It's been around for a quarter of a century or so. I remember seeing it around the office when I worked in professional sports back then. Not every article is going to interest every reader, but that's fine - something will get your attention. Since it's written for organizations in the business (and they buy most of the subscriptions), it's tough for the average fan to justify the cost.

Along the way, SportsBusiness Journal picked up a couple of columnists. Rick Burton is a professor at Syracuse University, while Norm O'Reilly works in the same job at Ohio University. They have teamed up for a column in the publication for the past several years. "Sports Business Unplugged" is a collection of their greatest hits.

The book is broken into four different sections. There's marketing and sponsorship, followed by the Olympics, Canada and the world, and improving the world of sports. I suppose the surprise there is how much is written about Canada by a couple of American experts, but the issues raised are still valid.

And that's the most important of this. Burton and O'Reilly do a good job of discussing situations in sports that might get overlooked otherwise. What is the relationship between sports and young people? Are there better ways to conduct the bidding process for cities who want to host the Olympic Games? What do the Olympics do for a city, anyway? Are sports paying enough attention to morals and ethics? What will sports look like in a couple of decades? Sometimes the authors don't have the answers, but they are opening the right questions for discussions.

One warning here: This is not for beginners. Some background in the business of sports is necessary, and even that may not get you through some of the references. But you'll get the idea.

Full disclosure: Burton was on our school newspaper staff when I was at Syracuse. The kid's done pretty well for himself, I'd say. So there's no rating here - just a note that it's nice to see an old friend advance the discussion so well.

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Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Review: A Guy Like Me (2016)

By John Scott with Brian Cazeneuve

One of the big lessons of 2016 is that free elections can have interesting and unexpected consequences.

I was thinking about the voting for the NHL All-Star Game, of course. Did you have anything else in mind when you read that?

The center of attention in this case is John Scott, a veteran enforcer who found himself in the spotlight last year. There's little doubt it's the reason he wrote this autobiography, "A Guy Like Me."

Scott was playing for the Arizona Coyotes a little more than a year ago when an unofficial campaign got underway, probably viral in nature, to get Scott into the All-Star Game. His vote total kept going up and up until he was in position to win a spot in the starting lineup.

The situation was a little awkward, and the NHL didn't help matters with its clumsy response. League officials tried to get Scott to reject the invitation if he actually won, which he didn't do. Then an NHL official tried to tell Scott it was bad for the league for him to play in the game, which made him more determined than ever to play. The capper was when Scott was traded to Montreal and immediately sent to the minors under shadowy circumstances. Could a minor leaguer even play in an NHL All-Star Game?

Scott did go to the game (there was no rule against it), had a couple of goals, and was named the Most Valuable Player. Everyone who tried to get serious about a cute little exhibition game in which no one hits or plays defense came off badly, while Scott was embraced. It's almost a movie plot, and Scott says author Mitch Albom is working on it.

The veteran's version of those events certainly is the highlight of the book, issued quickly enough to still attract the interest of hockey fans. As for the rest of the story, it's relatively standard stuff - although Scott is far from a typical hockey player in some ways.

The native of Canada grew up mostly across the border from Buffalo. He grew into his size of 6-foot-8 eventually, making him rather fearsome on the ice. Scott landed a spot on the roster at Michigan Tech University, where he - this is the most unusual part - studied engineering. So much for that jock stereotype in this case.

Scott quickly figured out that he needed to be a potential fighter to play at hockey's highest level, and he made the decision to do so. He wasn't a legend as these things go, but he did his job no matter where he went. Enforcers sometimes bounce from team to team where they are most needed, and Scott was no exception with seven NHL teams on his resume. Scott retired after the 2015-16 season; the All-Star Game was a tough act to follow.

Scott comes off here as a pretty smart person, as the engineering degree would indicate, and rather articulate too. He's easy to like, and no wonder many rooted for him in his career. The biggest catch in the book comes when Scott isn't writing about the All-Star Game. There's a great deal of material on how he learned to fight and his battles along the way. The problem with the story is that there's isn't much else to it. Scott wasn't really a part of too many memorable games or teams. He only participated in four playoff games, all with Chicago. Scott has some stories about teammates such as Patrick Kane and Joe Thornton, but a little more humor would have been nice.

Fans of hockey fights are famous for their enthusiasm and passion for that aspect of hockey - take it from a guy who co-wrote a book with an enforcer. They should enjoy "A Guy Like Me." The rest of the potential audience probably won't be so engrossed.

Three stars

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Thursday, January 5, 2017

Review: Furious George (2017)

By George Karl with Curt Sampson

You just knew when you watched George Karl as a college player that he would be a coach some day.

Karl was one of those guys at the University of North Carolina that certainly had some talent, but what struck people from a distance was his drive, intensity and determination. Your team might outscore his team, but you'd never defeat him. He's just come back for more.

Sure, enough, Karl earned a little playing time in pro basketball, but stayed with the sport after his playing days ended. After a few years of paying his dues, he ended up as a coach in the NBA. He's the first to say he coaches like he played.

It's been quite a ride. He goes over some of the details in "Furious George" - extra credit goes to the person who thought of that title.

There are two qualities that you'd expect from a book by Karl. He has made several stops in his coaching career, including a couple in basketball's minor leagues and one in Europe. Coaches sometimes have a short shelf life, if only because players have been known to tune them out after a few years. The good ones rebound, pardon the pun, and Karl has done a lot of that.

Meanwhile, Karl always has spoken his mind in public while coaching, although he has kept some thoughts in reserve. Now that time has gone by, he feels more free to give completely honest opinions. And in a variety of cases, Karl does.

The book has received some publicity for his commentary on the play of Carmelo Anthony when the two were together at Denver. Just to take something at random: "He was the best offensive player I ever coached. He was also a user of people, addicted to the spotlight, and very unhappy when he had to share it." Karl does say that he and Carmelo came from much different backgrounds and perspectives, and he didn't really expect his star player to instantly mesh with him. But there are some tough words along the way in the book.

Karl also has some less-than-kind things about such players as Mel Turpin and Chris Washburn, who had trouble with food and drugs respectively. Some of the owners and executives get a few choice words as well. I have no doubt that the job of coaching has changed greatly since Karl was a player, and that he's had to try to adapt to the ever-changing rules about dealing with new situations as best he could.

Karl tells his life story in a slightly frantic but entertaining fashion. The first few chapters are a bit disorganized in terms of time, as they jump around a bit from subject to subject. After that it settles down, but there is still a lot of ground to cover in terms of seasons and personalities. This isn't a complete life story, as it merely hits the highlights.

Even so, there's some interesting points to be made here, and Karl has some fun doing it. Based on the book's contents, Karl has had quite a few burgers and beers with friends and associates over the years. The menu may have changed lately because of a battle with cancer, but the book still reads like a friendly chat among friends.

"Furious George" may not be the most memorable basketball book on the shelf, but it's generally honest and fun. Those who have followed the NBA closely over the years will find the pages turn quickly.

Three stars

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Saturday, December 31, 2016

Review: Best American Sports Writing 2016

Edited by Rick Telander

It's year 26 for the annual edition of "The Best American Sports Writing" series. Not only have I read all of them, but I've reviewed several of them on this blog.

Sometimes it's difficult to come up with a fresh approach to the review, which can happen in a series of anthologies. But in this case, the angle to take here became apparent pretty quickly.

Translation - the editor really does matter in these books.

Rick Telander gets his turn at putting the book's contents together. He's well-qualified for the job, serving as a columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times. Telander established a good reputation nationally for his work at Sports Illustrated, and his book "Heaven is a Playground" is considered one of the best books of its kind.

Telander sets out the ground rules for his selections in his introduction. He points out that he is interested in entertaining writing, first and foremost. Then he adds, "It's hard for any account of a big sports event or a much-watched game to make it into these pages. Those uber-stories ... have been told and retold in too many places to be original anymore." Telander then writes that he'd rather read about a Chinese student's bike-ride across America than about Tom Brady or Lance Armstrong.

So with that warning, we're off. The 27 selections in the book are all well done, so Telander has followed his own instructions well. I can't say I completely finished every entry - it's a hard sell to get me to read anything on UFC/MMA - but that's more my problem than the writer's in question.

Still, I found myself asking a question as I went through the book. Would this story normally appear in the sports section of a newspaper, or in a sports magazine? It's fair to say the answer on some of the articles would be "probably not" - at least more often as compared to other books in the series.

Which ones? Let's see, there's a tale of two people who a variety of personal problems who open up a bicycle shop. There's a victim of the Boston Marathon bombing, saying farewell to her leg. A teen who uses skateboarding to grow up a little. A hiker on the Appalachian Trail who actually is running, not walking, away from big trouble. That Chinese student who goes for a long bike ride. And perhaps a few others, depending on your definition of sports. Reaction gets personal - in the sense that it's tough for me to get too enthusiastic over any story about snooker, fishing or rugby - even though I've got enough faith in the book's premise to try then all.

There are plenty of more traditional sports stories that would fit in with the classic definition of best sports writing. A piece on Ted Williams' daughter wouldn't draw some in without the baseball connection, but it's really a fascinating look at father-daughter relationships. A story about a woman rower is told in a unique and honest way. There's an article on Africans who come to America in search of basketball scholarships, only to be lost in the shuffle. I particularly liked a story on the Cal Tech basketball team's struggles, and how author Jim Dent (I've read a couple of his sports books) succumbed to some demons.

The 2016 book isn't typical of the series, I guess, so I'll be interested to see how the reaction is. I remember Jane Leavy took a similar approach to her picks in 2011, and it didn't go over as well as some others. But those who open the first page with in an open mind will find some rewarding material that is to their liking.

Four stars

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Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Review: A Spark (2016)

By John M. Davidson

This isn't a full-fledged review of a book. It's more of a heads-up that a book is out there. As I understand it, people sometimes buy gifts at this time of the year.

In 2015, the South Park High School football team had the best season in its history. No team from the City of Buffalo had ever won a Section VI title (meaning the region around Buffalo) in history, let alone gone on from there. South Park did that and much more. The Sparks won a state championship.

The coach of that team was Tim Delaney, who took a few bows for breaking through that barrier - although, frankly, he probably would have rather been watching film of old games. Delaney said that he was reminded of the championship just about every single day of the offseason.

So here's another reminder. John M. Davidson has written a biography of Delaney called "A Spark." That's a fair title, since Delaney went to South Park High School and now teaches and coaches there. But he also took a match to the football program and ignited it so that it could reach new heights.

After a handful of chapters concerning Delaney's youth, the book starts following the many twists and turns of his career. He's bounced around a bit over the years, jumping from youth programs to high schools. Football coaches at all levels tend to lead nomadic lives, but it's surprising just how much that applies to high schools too. But when a head coach switches jobs for whatever reason, he often reaches back into his past for friends made along the way.

Eventually, Delaney worked his way up to being head coach at South Park. That's not a plum job as these things go. There's usually not enough money to support the program fully, and the number of kids with family or personal issues is large. Coaches like Delaney often find themselves buying their players a fast meal, because otherwise those players would go hungry. As you might guess, no one goes into high school coaching to make money. This isn't an aspect of the job that receives any of the publicity, so it's probably the best part of the story.

Slowly, Delaney built up the program so that good athletes passed through and thrived in the system. It all paid off in 2015, when the Sparks (so named because the school is located on South Park Ave., or as the street sign outside it reads, 'S. Park') ran through the opposition in a series of dramatic wins. The highlight might have been a semifinal win over Maine-Endwell, which had won the previous 62 games. ESPN's documentary on Maine-Endwell was a little spoiled by the surprise win by the Sparks, but that wasn't South Park's problem.

A book like this has different standards than one that is produced for a mass audience. It's designed to be a nice keepsake of a memorable time. Author Davidson makes a couple of decisions that are at least open for question. There are no details of the games or mentions of players' names along the way, keeping the focus completely on Delaney. The games were so exciting, though, that it really would have been nice for many to relive them here. Davidson also uses very few quotes in the story, even though he talked to many people about the season. That puts a little distance between reader and story that didn't need to be there.

No matter. "A Spark" does its job well enough. I would think anyone with connections to the coach or team will enjoy it, and in that sense the book is a nice little tribute. We should always celebrate such efforts.

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Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Review: The Perfect Pass (2016)

By S.C. Gwynne

Football fans probably have noticed a trend in their favorite game during the past several years: some teams are throwing the ball constantly.

Quarterbacks have smashed records for completions and yardage on all levels of the game. The days when a coach worships the concepts of time of possession and establishing the run are dying. Offenses love to cram as many plays as possible into four quarters. It's no wonder college games can last over four hours.

Every once in a while, it's important to ask "How did we get here?" about such transformational developments in any part of life. That's essentially what S.C. Gwynne has done in his book "The Perfect Pass." He has discovered the key to this underreported story, and it's more charming than you'd think.

We like our geniuses to be a little eccentric at times, and that certainly describes Hal Mumme. He loved football, loved to play it in high school and college, and loved to think about it the rest of the time. Mumme worked his way up the coaching ladder when he finished his playing career, becoming an offensive coordinator in Texas El Paso.

That's where he got fired in 1986. So Mumme started over, at Copperas Cove High School in Texas, and tried to do it all over again. But this time, he was going to do it his way - by throwing the football around. And throwing it some more.

Mumme had seen other teams emphasize passing, such as Brigham Young University and Bill Walsh's San Francisco 49ers. The high school coach took some ideas from both places, and added a few wrinkles of his own. Suddenly, Copperas Cove - a traditional doormat - was competitive for the first time in years despite playing bigger schools with better athletes.

That eventually led to a stop at Iowa Wesleyan College of Mount Pleasant, Iowa. If it wasn't the worst football program in America at that point, it was close to it. Mumme took the head coaching job and found a kindred spirit in Mike Leach, who had a number of interests headed by coaching football. Mumme recruited a bunch of players who generally weren't wanted elsewhere, stopped ordering stretching and sprints during practices, and installed his offensive system. Again, Mumme's team won more games than they had any right to win.

Eventually, Iowa Wesleyan got tired of Mumme and his ambition for a bigger and better program, and the coach was told to be on his way. The road led to Valdosta State, where his offense put up astounding passing numbers and his teams could stay with almost any opponent. He stayed five years, and then moved up to Kentucky - a traditional bottom-feeder in the Southeastern Conference. But after some reasonable success, Mumme had a bad season partly due to graduation losses in 2000, and the athletic director who hired him retired. Some recruiting violations by staff members led to Mumme's firing in 2001. He's had other stops at small colleges since then, and now coaches at Belhaven University in Jackson, Mississippi.

Author S.C. Gwynne obviously has plenty of writing talent, having been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He sticks to people and their personalities here for the most part, which is an excellent idea. There are some X's and O's along the way, which may intimidate a few but are probably necessary to tell the story adequately. Besides, most people who pick up a book like this in the first place will handle the technical matters smoothly. The pages go by very quickly, a good sign.

Mumme always has carried a conviction that football should be simple and fun, resembling a touch football game in the backyard. According to Gwynne, it sounds like Mumme's professional problems usually have popped up when he's dealt with others who think more conventionally - on and off the field. Mumme is much more at home with a blackboard or paper, charting the next play.

Football offenses always have tried to get one step of defenses, only to be reeled in eventually. We'll have to see if Mumme's work continues to catch on in the years to come. In the meantime, "The Perfect Pass" is an excellent way to find out where this latest wave of strategy came from, and where the sport might be going.

Four stars

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Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Review: Olympic Team Members from Western New York (2016)

By Denny Lynch and Ron Carr

It's easy to admire people like Denny Lynch and Ron Carr. They just won't take no for an answer when it comes to sports information.

Lynch, a former football executive, and Carr, a teacher in Western New York, have a connection to the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame. That organization is saluting the great athletes of the area's past.

Lynch frequently asked people about local athletes who had made it to the Olympic Games. This did not come up just when Olympic competition was taking place, but at any point in the calendar. He quickly discovered that no such list of area athletes who had taken part in the Games existed.

And so, he and Carr started to make one. The first 50 were pretty easy, but then it got tough. But the two kept at it, and the resulting list of more than 200 names with Olympic connections has been turned into a short book called "Olympic Team Members from Western New York."

This covers every sport, winter or summer, that has been part of the Olympics over the years. It also required a great deal of work. You don't do something like this without a large degree of curiosity, as well as a love of the subject. Those qualities show up nicely in the book.

Every athlete from Western New York who made it to the Olympics receive a paragraph here, as well as a photograph when possible. Without counting, hockey is the leader in local connections because of the contributions of the Buffalo Sabres. Even so, there are a surprising amount of rowers who have taken part in the international competition over the years. And who knew there was a woman with local ties who had such a distinguished career in judo? I hope Grace Jividen comes up in future discussions about the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame.

Lynch and Carr don't overlook those on the edge of the Games either. Administrators get their due here, as do those who just missed qualifying. That makes it even more complete.

"Olympic Team Members from Western New York" is, at its heart, a reference book. You can read the biographies in a short period of time, and you should, but it's nice to have something like this available. I plan on placing it in my bookshelf, and it will stay there for a long time - only to come out when I need a fact or two about a specific area. It's nice to have such a valuable resource available.

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