HOOPS LIT: HITS AND MISSES

Two of these basketball books are on target; two are air balls
January 09, 1989

A biography of Mother Teresa could hardly be more adoring than Bob Knight: His Own Man (Donald I. Fine, Inc., $17.95) by Joan Mellen. Then again, Mother Teresa has never won a national championship. As the author of books like Big Bad Wolves: Masculinity in the American Film and Voices from the Japanese Cinema, Mellen, an English professor at Temple, might be expected to offer a fresh perspective on the man considered to be either the god or Godzilla of college basketball coaches. Instead, she is so full of praise for Knight, winner of three NCAA titles at Indiana, that her portrait fails to capture his complexity.

After Knight's allergic reaction to A Season on the Brink, John Feinstein's account of the Hoosiers' 1985-86 campaign, why would he allow another writer access to him? Perhaps he could read the author like a book and knew what the result would be for him—a public relations coup Under Mellen's purifying pen, Knight's profanity becomes "salty" language, his tasteless jokes mere "ribbing" and "needling," his on-court antics "boyish intransigence."

Mellen attempts to redress the injuries she evidently believes Knight has received in Feinstein's book and in the press. She recounts what she calls the "litany" of his sins—the chair-throwing incident, the aborted game against the Soviets, the shoving of an LSU fan, etc.—and offers an excuse for each one, whitewashing his behavior with specious reasoning. For example, she defends Knight's refusal to leave the floor after his third technical foul in Indiana's 1987 meeting with the Soviets. She argues that referee Jim Burr was the real villain because the game, which Indiana forfeited, was badly officiated: "Knight was not depriving audiences of fifteen minutes of basketball (the time remaining) because the unruly play permitted had amounted to no game at all." Such a whining excuse would be laughable even in a junior high debate class.

Mellen writes that her interest in Knight began after she watched Larry Bird play in the 1986 NBA Finals and after hearing that Bird had dropped out of Indiana. She wondered how "the brilliant coach, practitioner of the team game, had lost the unselfish, creative player who exemplified that game better than anyone who had ever played it."

She doesn't bother to answer that question, but she might want to pick up Bird: The Making of an American Sports Legend (McGraw-Hill, $17.95) by Lee Daniel Levine, who details Bird's 24-day sojourn at Indiana and a numbing amount of other information about Bird's personal and professional life. Despite the book's subtitle, Levine says that "the Larry Bird presented here—a real person—is vastly more engrossing than the mythologized, one-dimensional sports 'legend.' " Levine, a free-lance writer, discusses Bird's youth in the heartland of "Hoosier Hysteria." his first marriage, his divorce and, most important in Levine's eyes, the alcoholism and suicide of Bird's father.

Because this biography is not "authorized," the quotations from Bird and much information about his personal life are culled from magazine articles and other books. Still, Levine has done an impressive job of marshaling these secondary sources, and he did get Larry's mother, Georgia, to talk to him.

Unfortunately, Levine's dry exposition makes Bird a dull, almost academic study. But the book's most serious defect is the author's tendency to indulge in amateur psychologizing. In theorizing about the effect of his father's problems on Bird's personality, Levine quotes Freud, Jung and William James and occasionally uncorks a sentence like this: "Yet, for all of basketball's therapeutic value, it was less of a cathartic exercise than an imperfect act of sublimation." We get glimpses of Bird—but not enough of them—that reveal his sense of humor. We are reminded that it was Bird who dubbed himself "the hick from French Lick."

In his autobiography, Give 'em the Hook (Prentice Hall Press, $17.95) by Tommy Heinsohn with Joe Fitzgerald. Heinsohn, the former Celtics player and coach, has an explanation for Bird's success that is similar to Levine's, but it is more engaging: "I believe the need that motivates most great athletes is some form of love deprivation. I call it the Love Ache.... [Bird] is as compelled, as driven, as obsessed as any great athlete I've ever seen.... There's got to be some of this love ache in him."

Heinsohn's book is more a collection of rambling opinions than a chronological account of his life. And he is tough on college coaches who move into the professional ranks; he calls them "Prussian generals" because they "don't want their players to think."

Former New York Knick coach Hubie Brown, who was an assistant coach at Duke in his last stop before the pros, comes in for the heaviest criticism: "Hubie...was an elitist who thought ex-players knew nothing, that in order to be a truly outstanding coach you had to have paid your dues at the high school level."

In another autobiography, Walt Frazier: One Magic Season and a Basketball Life (Times Books, $18.95) by Walt Frazier with Neil Offen, Frazier covers the Knicks' 1969-70 NBA championship season. In the process he recalls his childhood, his college days, his teammates and his "Clyde" side—the flashy dresser who loved Manhattan's nightlife and women. Frazier maintains that the Clyde part of his personality was a cover for his basic shyness.

In sum, the biographies of Bird and Knight should be better than they are, and Heinsohn's and Frazier's down-to-earth autobiographies are as good as you could want them to be.

ILLUSTRATIONPHILIPPE WEISBECKER

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