David Halberstam book The Breaks of the Game

David Halberstam’s book The Breaks of the Game is the main topic for conversation on this New Year’s Day 2023 edition of the Torg Stories podcast. I also bring some of my writer and teacher self to workshopping this show’s content in the second half of the episode.

Scroll down for the audio podcast and for a list of “Golden Lines” from the book Anne and I used for our discussion.

Click above to listen to the podcast.

Click here to link to the book on Amazon.

Some background notes on Halberstam’s book The Breaks of the Game:

  • Published in 1981 and tells the story of the 79-80 Trailblazers team. 
  • Author David Halberstam won a Pulitzer Prize for international reporting in 1964.
  • Halberstam died in 2007 age 73 and was killed in car crash. 
  • I also read Playing for Keeps, Halberstam’s book about Michael Jordan.

Golden Lines from the book:

  • “When you are discussing a successful coach,” sports psychologist Bruce Ogilvie once said, not of Ramsay but of the entire profession, “you are not necessarily drawing the profile of an entirely healthy person.”
  • Most damaging to the intensity of the game was the arrival of the no-cut contract. Given no-cut contracts, too many games, and a schedule designed to exhaust even the most physically fit young men in America, many players responded by functioning on automatic pilot, coming alive only in the playoff games.
  • In addition to just doing whatever it takes to win, I believe that I ought to coach a version of the game I enjoy watching. This line about Coach Ramsay reminds me of that: “Ramsay, for all his toughness and his obsession with winning, that believed there was poetry in the game, that it was connected to ballet, and that there was beauty and truth in it, the right movement of the right body flashing by another body to score.”
  • Whether you are coaching at a middle school, for a DII college team or in the pros, each level of competition comes with a variety of challenges: “The real question is why anyone would want to be a coach in this league. You’re always on the road, the pressure to win is terrible, the players are not conditioned by salaries to listen, and there’s simply no time to teach the kids in practice.”
  • At Watauga HS in the girls basketball program, we use visualization. Here was a description of Walton’s pregame routine: “He played his own music, from the Grateful Dead, a rock band of which he was virtually a member, and the music helped, it flowed through him and he thought about the tempo he wanted to set and how he could move. He would sit in his home or his hotel room in those hours and actually see the game and feel the movement of it. Sometimes he did it with such accuracy that a few hours later when he was on the court and the same players made the same moves, it was easy for him because he had already seen it all, had made that move or blocked that shot.”
  • “For suddenly the team went into a slump. A few defeats became, as they can in basketball, a psychological state.”
  • In the classes I teach at App State, we talk about the tension that can come with assimilating to a new group. This about Kermit Washington: “When he went home to his old neighborhood during the summer his friends teased him. ‘Kermit, what’s happened to you? You beginning to talk like a white person now, man.’ He knew he was changing, he did not think it was a bad thing to change, to want to be better. It was also important for Pat to like him. He was sure she would not like someone who could not write a sentence or make a paragraph.”
  • I grew up in Indiana rooting for Coach Bob Knight’s Hoosier teams and later trying to run a version of their motion offense. This sentence is about Coach Knight: “He once suggested to the NCAA that schools only be allowed in effect to give out only as many basketball scholarships as the number of seniors who had graduated from its program and received their degrees the previous year.”
  • The following quote is about nicknames, and it got me thinking about nicknames I’ve heard and liked. In this sentence, Earl Monroe shows up at the playground for a game: “He was wearing the most ragged shorts imaginable, terrible ratty sneakers and an absolutely beautiful Panama hat. That, Luke knew immediately, was true style, the hat and the shorts and the Rolls. The crowd had begun to shout Magic, Magic, Magic (his playground nickname, different from his white media nickname which, given the nature of sportswriters who like things to rhyme, was the Pearl). 
  • What nicknames came to mind right away for me: Sweetness, The Splendid Splinter, Chocolate Thunder, Big Smooth. The Snake, Magic, Babe, Dr. J., The Iceman and The Bus. 
  • I didn’t know this word!!!! Obstreperous meaning noisy and difficult to control. 
  • The writer describes UCLA: “For UCLA was a beautiful school, one of the loveliest in the country; its faculty and intellectual climate, as America’s power and affluence steadily moved westward, had been continually on the rise.”
  • THE LEAGUE’S PROBLEMS were not limited to its television ratings. Live attendance was bad too. It had averaged around 11,000 a game the year before and now it was down nearly 10 percent, to about 10,000. Only 6 of 22 teams showed an increase in attendance and 7 of the teams had a decline of more than 2,000 spectators a game.
  • Would have been an incredible time to buy in: “To no one’s particular surprise, he sold the San Diego Clippers to Donald Sterling, a Los Angeles realtor-lawyer, for $13.5 million, a figure far far greater than the amount he had spent to buy in. (IRV LEVIN BOUGHT BEFORE: COMPLICATED STORY BOUGHT CELTICS FOR 3.5 MILLION) 
  • The lines where the book gets its title: “In the end the club waived him but agreed to pay him for roughly a quarter of the season. It also agreed to help him in his claim against the insurance company for his disability pay. Thus did Larry Steele’s active career with the Portland Trail Blazers end. He tried not to be bitter about it. It was, he said, just one of the breaks of the game. Friends in business told him that this sort of thing happened all the time in the corporate world, especially when men reached higher career levels where salaries were greater.”

Some other background or related information I collected:

  • Billy Ray Bates is mentioned as a player who joins the team and gets off to a good start. From Wikipedia: “On January 17, 1998, Bates robbed a New Jersey Texaco station at knifepoint, slashing the ear of attendant Philip Kittel. He was sentenced to seven years in prison. Bates hit bottom when he robbed the gasoline station. At the time, he was living with his wife and stepdaughter while holding two manual-labor jobs in eastern New Jersey.”
  • Click here to read the Suns sale for 4 billion dollars.

Jack Ramsay :

  • Died in 2014 at age 89. 
  • Doc of education from Penn. 
  • 1977 Ramsey won the title with Blazers. 
  • 15 nba finals for nba radio

Bill Walton:

  • He’s 70. 
  • I know him first as an 86 Celtic and then as a broadcaster now. 
  • 88 game winning streak at UCLA 
  • 4 sons with first wife, including Luke who was named after Maurice Lucas. All sons played college basketball.

Thanks for checking out this page and the podcast!

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