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Nov. 01, 1999
Nov. 01, 1999

Table of Contents
Nov. 1, 1999

NBA Preview 1999-2000

Books

A FLAME OF PURE FIRE
By Roger Kahn
Harcourt Brace, $28

This is an article from the Nov. 1, 1999 issue

Of all the icons of the Roaring '20s, from Lucky Lindy to the
Babe, the one most commonly and unaccountably neglected is
heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey. Roger Kahn has rectified that
oversight with this absorbing and unabashedly sentimental
biography of the old Manassa Mauler. Kahn regards Dempsey not
only as "at his peak, the greatest fighter who ever lived" but
also as "that rare thing: close up, as from afar [a hero]."

Dempsey was also something of a paradox. Outside the ring, he was
the quintessential nice guy: friendly, full of fun, even witty,
and so generous that he gave away perhaps a fifth of his fortune
to indigent ex-pugs. Inside the ropes, though, he was his
opponents' worst nightmare: a snorting, snarling engine of
destruction with explosive power in both fists. For Dempsey,
boxing wasn't so much a matter of winning or losing as of killing
or being killed. It was a homely philosophy he learned in the
hobo jungles and mining-camp saloons of his impoverished Colorado
youth.

Kahn brilliantly recounts Dempsey's great victories over Jess
Willard, Georges Carpentier and Luis Firpo, as well as the sad
defeats in Dempsey's declining years at the clever hands of Gene
Tunney and, in their second fight, from the suspected treachery
of "long count" referee Dave Barry. Kahn also provides in Dos
Passos-like vignettes a look back at the extraordinary times in
which Dempsey thrived.

Just one small cavil: The fact that Kahn actually knew Dempsey
gives his portrait added verisimilitude. But must it also give
him license to pepper his pages with self-aggrandizing
he-told-me's? Is it necessary for the author to depart from a
description of Dempsey's first wife as a sometime barroom pianist
into an irrelevant account of his own adventure with a woman
similarly employed?

But why quibble? This is quite simply Kahn's finest work since he
made The Boys of Summer part of the language.

A COACH'S LIFE
By Dean Smith
(with John Kilgo and Sally Jenkins)
Random House, $25

This humble memoir should dispel the notion that Dean Smith is
too good to be true. In fact, it's all too true that Smith is
good, both as a person and a mentor. In his 36 years as the
basketball coach at North Carolina (he retired two years ago), he
became the college game's alltime winner: 879 victories, a .776
winning percentage. Of his 245 lettermen, 237 received their
degrees--some, like Michael Jordan, after they had turned pro.
Smith has a sense of humor, too: Witness the description of his
Carolina successor, Bill Guthridge, as "so neat, he could
organize a bowl of chop suey."

There is a lot of basketball here and even more of this good
man's personal philosophy. A pious man himself, Smith takes
gentle umbrage at the notion prevalent among Christian athletes
that the Good Lord is up there rooting for one side or the other
in sports. Both He and Smith know better.

COLOR PHOTO: HARCOURT BRACECOLOR PHOTO: RANDOM HOUSE