Quick Review: CAN’T KNOCK THE HUSTLE by Matt Sullivan (Dey Street Books)

SullivanM-CantKnockTheHustleUSA behind-the-scenes account of the 2019-2020 NBA season, by way of the notorious Brooklyn Nets and basketball’s renaissance as a cultural force beyond the game.

The Nets were already the most intriguing startup in the NBA: a team of influencers, entrepreneurs and activists, starring the controversial Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. But this dynasty-in-the-making got disrupted by the unforeseen. One tweet launched an international scandal, pitting the team’s Chinese owner and the league’s commissioner against its players and LeBron James. The sudden death of Kobe Bryant, after making his final public appearance in Brooklyn, sent shockwaves through a turbulent season.

Then came the unimaginable. A global pandemic and a new civil-rights movement put basketball’s trend-setting status to the ultimate test, as business and culture followed the lead of the NBA and its empowered stars. No team intersected with the extremes of 2020 quite like the Brooklyn Nets, and Matt Sullivan had a courtside view.

Can’t Knock the Hustle crosses from on the court, where underdogs confront A-listers like Jay-Z and James Harden, to off the court, as players march through the streets of Brooklyn, provoke Donald Trump at the White House, and boycott the NBA’s bubble experiment in Disney World. 

Hundreds of interviews — with Hall-of-Famers, All-Stars, executives, coaches and power-brokers across the world — provide a backdrop of the NBA’s impact on social media, race, politics, health, fashion, fame and fandom, for a portrait of a time when sports brought us back together again, like never before. 

Matt Sullivan’s Can’t Knock the Hustle is, quite possibly, one of the best basketball books available. Counterintuitively, this is in large part because it’s not all about basketball — rather, the Brooklyn Nets and other athletes and personnel who make an appearance, are a lens through which readers see the changing political and social landscape of America. Expertly written, I really enjoyed this. Continue reading

Quick Review: STEVE KERR by Scott Howard-Cooper (William Morrow)

HowardCooperS-SteveKerrUSHCThe definitive biography of Steve Kerr, the championship-winning basketball player and head coach of the record-breaking Golden State Warriors

Few individuals have had a career as storied, and improbable, as Steve Kerr. He has won eight NBA titles — five as a player and three as a coach — for three different franchises. He played alongside the best players of a generation, from Michael Jordan to Shaquille O’Neal to Tim Duncan, and learned the craft of basketball under four legendary coaches. He was an integral part of two famed NBA dynasties. Perhaps no other figure in basketball history has had a hand in such greatness.

In Steve Kerr, award-winning sports journalist Scott Howard-Cooper uncovers the fascinating life story of a basketball legend. Kerr did not follow a traditional path to the NBA. He was born in Beirut to two academics and split his childhood between California and the Middle East. Though he was an impressive shooter, the undersized Kerr garnered almost no attention from major college programs, managing only at the last moment to snag the final scholarship at the University of Arizona. Then, during his freshman season at Arizona, tragedy struck. His father, Malcolm, then the president of the American University of Beirut, was assassinated in Lebanon by terrorists. Forged by the crucible of this family saga, Steve went on to chart an unparalleled life in basketball, on the court and on the sidelines.

The only coach other than Red Auerbach to lead a team to the Finals five consecutive seasons, Kerr seems destined for the Basketball Hall of Fame. Steve Kerr is his incredible story, offering insights into the man and what it takes to be — and make — a champion. Drawing upon Scott Howard-Cooper’s years covering the Warriors, deep archival research, and original interviews with more than one hundred of the central characters in Kerr’s life, this is basketball biography at its finest.

I first learned who Steve Kerr was during the Golden State Warriors’ championship runs from 2014-19 (a run the Raptors ended). Over those years, I picked up bits and pieces of information about his playing career — specifically, that he was on the Chicago Bulls during Michael Jordan’s post-baseball years back on the team. It wasn’t until The Last Dance docu-series that I learned a bit more about his pre-Warriors life. With Scott Howard-Cooper’s Steve Kerr: A Life, I’ve been able to fill in the gaps. This is a very good picture of Kerr’s fascinating life, on and off the court. Continue reading

Very Quick Review: THE LAST SEASON by Phil Jackson (Penguin)

JacksonP-LastSeasonUSPBPhil Jackson’s memoir for the final year of his (first) stint as Lakers coach

An inside look at the season that proved to be the final ride of a truly great dynasty — Kobe Bryant, Shaq, and the LA Lakers

For the countless basketball fans who were spellbound by the Los Angeles Lakers’ 2003-2004 high-wire act, this book is a rare and phenomenal treat. In The Last Season, Lakers coach Phil Jackson draws on his trademark honesty and insight to tell the whole story of the season that proved to be the final ride of a truly great dynasty. From the signing of future Hall-of-Famers Karl Malone and Gary Payton to the Kobe Bryant rape case/media circus, this is a riveting tale of clashing egos, public feuds, contract disputes, and team meltdowns that only a coach, and a writer, of Jackson’s candor, experience, and ability could tell. Full of tremendous human drama and offering lessons on coaching and on life, this is a book that no sports fan can possibly pass up.

I recently read Jeff Pearlman’s excellent, entertaining Three-Ring Circus: an account of the LA Lakers’ three-championship run in the early 2000s. Coached by Phil Jackson and led by Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant, the team was dominant, impressive to watch, and dysfunctional. Pearlman’s book is a warts-and-all, humorous examination of the team and the characters that comprised it. I wanted to read more about the team and the NBA of that time, so I picked up Jackson’s memoir of his the 2003-4 season. What I found was an interesting, informative, and engaging read. Continue reading

Quick Review: THREE-RING CIRCUS by Jeff Pearlman (HMH)

PearlmanJ-ThreeRingCircusUSAn amusing, irreverent account of the Lakers of Kobe, Shaq, and Phil Jackson

The story of the Lakers dynasty from 1996 through 2004, when Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal combined — and collided — to help bring the Lakers three straight championships and restore the franchise as a powerhouse 

In the history of modern sport, there have never been two high-level teammates who loathed each other the way Shaquille O’Neal loathed Kobe Bryant, and Kobe Bryant loathed Shaquille O’Neal. From public sniping and sparring, to physical altercations and the repeated threats of trade, it was warfare. And yet, despite eight years of infighting and hostility, by turns mediated and encouraged by coach Phil Jackson, the Shaq-Kobe duo resulted in one of the greatest dynasties in NBA history. Together, the two led the Lakers to three straight championships and returned glory and excitement to Los Angeles.

I’m not sure I can remember a time when I didn’t know the names “Kobe Bryant” and, especially, “Shaquille O’Neal”. This despite not having access to NBA games (in person or on TV) until Kobe’s final year in the League, and after Shaq had retired. I knew they’d won the championship together at least twice, but that was it. When Pearlman’s Three-Ring Circus popped up on my radar, I knew I had to read it. And I’m very glad I did: it’s a detailed, irreverent and (seemingly) balanced account of the tense years leading up to and including the Lakers’ three-peat. I really enjoyed it. Continue reading

Very Quick Review: KG: A TO Z by Kevin Garnett (Simon & Schuster)

GarnettK-KGAtoZAn interesting and unorthodox memoir from one of Boston’s Big Three

A unique, unfiltered memoir from the NBA champion and fifteen-time all-star ahead of his induction into the Hall of Fame.

Kevin Garnett was one of the most dominant players the game of basketball has ever seen. He was also one of its most outspoken. Over the course of his illustrious twenty-one-year NBA career, he elevated trash talk to an art form and never shied away from sharing his thoughts on controversial subjects. In KG A to Z, published ahead of Garnett’s induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame, he looks back on his life and career with the same raw candor.

Garnett describes the adversity he faced growing up in South Carolina before ultimately relocating to Chicago, where he became one of the top prospects in the nation. He details his headline-making decision to skip college and become the first player in two decades to enter the draft directly from high school, starting a trend that would be followed by future superstars like Kobe Bryant and LeBron James. He shares stories of playing with and against Bryant, James, Michael Jordan, and other NBA greats, and he chronicles his professional ups and downs, including winning a championship with the Boston Celtics. He also speaks his mind on a range of topics beyond basketball, such as fame, family, racism, spirituality, and music.

Garnett’s draft decision wasn’t the only way he’d forever change the game. His ability to play on the perimeter as a big man foreshadowed the winning strategy now universally adopted by the league. He applies this same innovative spirit here, organizing the contents alphabetically as an encyclopedia. If you thought Kevin Garnett was exciting, inspiring, and unfiltered on the court, just wait until you read what he has to say in these pages.

Kevin Garnett — long-time Minnesota Timberwolves star, member of the Boston Celtics championship-winning Big Three. KG is one of my in-laws’ favourite players. As I’ve mentioned (probably too frequently, now), I grew up loving the game of basketball, but completely cut off from access to the NBA. So, after reading Michael Holley’s The Big Three, I was keen to learn more about the eponymous trio. Garnett’s memoir, which I ‘read’ as an audiobook, offers an interesting, well-told, and engaging insight into one of the NBA’s great players. Continue reading

Upcoming: CAN’T KNOCK THE HUSTLE by Matt Sullivan (Dey Street Books)

SullivanM-CantKnockTheHustleUSEver since Kevin Durant said he was going to leave the Warriors and go to the Nets, the Brooklyn team has been creating a bigger stir than normal. Fellow superstar Kyrie Irving also joined the team in 2019. Steve Nash was named their new coach. Then, following a rather strange series of events last month, the Nets added another superstar in James Harden. The Nets are currently #2 in the East, and with the three powerhouse players, it’s almost inevitable that they’ll get deep into the playoffs, if not make the finals. It’s safe to say that interest in the team is high. This summer, some of that interest will be served by Matt Sullivan‘s new book, Can’t Knock the Hustle. Pitched as “David Halberstam’s classic The Breaks of the Game meets Michael Lewis’s Moneyball for the modern age”, it covers “the Season of Protest, Pandemic, and Progress with the Brooklyn Nets’ Superstars of Tomorrow”. Here’s the full synopsis:

An award-winning journalist’s behind-the-scenes account from the epicenter of sports, social justice and coronavirus — a lasting chronicle of the historic 2019-2020 NBA season, by way of the notorious Brooklyn Nets and basketball’s renaissance as a cultural force beyond the game.

The Brooklyn Nets were already the most intriguing startup in sports: a team full of influencers, entrepreneurs and activists at the heart of American culture, starring the controversial Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. But this dynasty-in-the-making got disrupted by the unforeseen. One tweet launched an international scandal pitting Brooklyn’s Chinese owner and the NBA’s commissioner against its players and LeBron James. Then came the death of Kobe Bryant, a tragic shock in an already turbulent season, as the league re-launched into a world of uncertainty with the entertainment business following its lead: Covid-19 and a new civil-rights movement put basketball’s role in society to the ultimate test — and no team intersected with the extremes of 2020 quite like the Brooklyn Nets.

Can’t Knock the Hustle crosses from on the court, where underdogs confront A-listers like Jay-Z and James Harden, to off the court, as players march through the streets of Brooklyn, provoke Donald Trump at the White House and fight for social justice from the NBA’s bubble experiment in Disney World. 

Hundreds of interviews — with Hall-of-Famers, All-Stars, executives, coaches and power-brokers from across the globe — provide a backdrop of the NBA’s impact on social media, race, politics, health, fashion, fame and fandom, for a portrait of a time when sports brought us back together again, like never before.

Matt Sullivan’s Can’t Knock the Hustle is due to be published by Dey Street Books in North America and in the UK, on June 22nd, 2021.

Follow the Author: Website, Goodreads, Twitter

Quick Review: BUBBLEBALL by Ben Golliver (Abrams Press)

GolliverB-BubbleballUSAn excellent account of life in the NBA bubble

A captivating account of the NBA’s strangest season ever, from shutdown to championship, from a prominent national basketball writer living inside the bubble

When NBA player Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19 in March 2020, the league shut down immediately, bringing a shocking, sudden pause to the season. As the pandemic raged, it looked as if it might be the first year in league history with no champion. But four months later, after meticulous planning, twenty-two teams resumed play in a “bub­ble” at Disney World-a restricted, single-site locale cut off from the outside world.

Due to health concerns, the league invited only a handful of reporters, who were required to sacrifice medical privacy, live in a hotel room for more than three months, and submit to daily coronavirus test­ing in hopes of keeping the bubble from bursting. In exchange for the constant monitoring and restricted movement, they were allowed into a basketball fan’s dream, with a courtside seat at dozens of games in nearly empty arenas.

Ben Golliver, the national NBA writer for the The Washington Post, was one of those allowed access. Bubbleball is his account of the season and life inside, telling the story of how basketball bounced back from its shutdown, how players staged headline-grabbing social justice protests, and how Lakers star LeBron James chased his fourth ring in unconventional and unforgettable circumstances. Based on months of reporting in the exclusive, confined environment, this is an entertaining record of an extraordinary season.

“March 11, 2020, the day that the balls stopped bouncing.” After Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19, the 2019-20 NBA season was brought to an abrupt end. For the billion dollar business/league, this led to a frantic period of planning and strategizing to find a way to safely save the season. I love watching and playing basketball, but I would be lying if I said the paused season was at the forefront of my mind in the early days of the pandemic. For Ben Golliver, however, the abrupt end to the NBA season was potentially life-changing: the Washington Post‘s NBA correspondent, it meant his job came to a screeching halt, too. As the NBA maneuvered to save the season, Golliver was approved to attend the whole Bubble-season in Florida. This is his engaging, well-written account of those three months.
Continue reading

Very Quick Review: WE THE NORTH by Doug Smith (Viking)

SmithD-WeTheNorthA reporter reflects on 25 years of the Toronto Raptors

When the Toronto Raptors first took the court back in 1995, the world was a very different place. Michael Jordan was tearing up the NBA. No one had email. And a lot of people wondered whether basketball could survive in Toronto, the holy city of hockey.

Twenty-five years later, the Raptors are the heroes not only of the 416, but of the entire country. That is the incredible story of We the North, told by Doug Smith, the Toronto Star reporter who has been covering the team since the press conference announcing Canada’s new franchise and the team’s beat reporter from that day on.

Comprising twenty-five chapters to mark the team’s twenty-five years, We the North celebrates the biggest moments of the quarter-century–from Vince Carter’s amazing display at the dunk competition to the play-off runs, the major trades, the Raptors’ incredible fans, including Nav Bhatia and Drake, and, of course, the challenges that marked the route to the championship-clinching Game 6 that brought the whole country to a standstill.

We the North: 25 Years of the Toronto Raptors tells the story of Canada’s most exciting team, charting their rise from a sporting oddity in a hockey-mad country to the status they hold today as the reigning NBA champions and national heroes.

I’ve written about how I quickly became a Raptors fan after moving to Toronto in 2014, and how the greater access to NBA games (on TV and also, occasionally in-person) made me somewhat addicted to the sport. Like many (most?) people in the city, I was swept up by the excitement of the 2019 championship run and victory. I have also been enjoying the many stories from my in-laws, who have been avid Raptor fans since the franchise was launched, who have provided some interesting and useful lessons in the franchise’s history. Doug Smith has been there from the start: the first reporter on the Raptors beat. We the North is a collection of short essays, covering various aspects of the team and its history. It’s an engaging read. Continue reading

Upcoming: STEVE KERR: A LIFE by Scott Howard-Cooper (William Morrow)

HowardCooperS-SteveKerrUSHCLast year, I started reading a lot of books about the NBA. In particular, I read four books about the Golden State Warriors — one each on Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, Andre Iguodala (a superb memoir), and another that covered KD’s winning tenure with and departure from the team. Like pretty much everyone else with even an slight interest in basketball, I also watched The Last Dance. In all of these, Steve Kerr featured quite prominently — as a teammate of Michael Jordan’s, and later as the successful coach of the Warriors. He was, however, not the focal subject of any of these books or TV series. This year, Scott Howard-Cooper‘s biography of Kerr is due to hit shelves, and I’m very much looking forward to reading it. Here’s the synopsis:

Few individuals have had a career as storied — and improbable — as Steve Kerr. He’s been part of eight NBA titles, General Manager of a franchise, and a respected broadcaster. Playing under three Hall of Fame coaches, including Phil Jackson, and a fourth destined for enshrinement, Gregg Popovich, Kerr was on five championship teams before winning three more as one of the most accomplished coaches in the NBA, with three NBA titles. Kerr’s teammates have included the greatest of the greatest: Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal, Tim Duncan, Scottie Pippen, David Robinson, and Dennis Rodman.

In this fascinating biography, Scott Howard-Cooper looks at the man and the facets of his unusual life that have made him a legend, from his childhood growing up in the Middle East as the son of academics, to the tragedy of his father’s murder by terrorists; the inauspicious years of his early career at the University of Arizona and in the NBA; his championship-winning seasons with the Chicago Bulls and the Antonio Spurs; his success as head coach of the Golden State Warriors, leading the team to the NBA title in his first year, and adding two more championships in the next four seasons. 

The only NBA coach other than Red Auerbach to lead a team to the Finals five consecutive seasons, Kerr seems destined for the Basketball Hall of Fame. Steve Kerr is his incredible story, offering insights into the man, the game he personifies, and what it takes to be — and make — a champion.

Scott Howard-Cooper’s Steve Kerr is due to be published by William Morrow on June 15th, in North America and in the UK.

Follow the Author: Goodreads, Twitter

Quick Review: THE BIG THREE by Michael Holley (Hachette)

HolleyM-BigThreeUSHow three of the NBA’s best players dominated the league and lead the Boston Celtics to their first championship in more than two decades

The first of “The Big Three” was Paul Pierce. As Boston Celtics fans watched the team retire Pierce’s jersey in a ceremony on February 11, 2018, they remembered again the incredible performances Pierce put on in the city for fifteen years, helping the Celtics escape the bottom of their conference to become champions and perennial championship contenders. But Pierce’s time in the city wasn’t always so smooth. In 2000, he was stabbed in a downtown nightclub eleven times in a seemingly random attack. Six years later, remaining the sole star on a struggling team, he asked to be traded and briefly became a lightning rod among fans.

Then, in 2007, the Boston Celtics General Manager made two monumental trades, bringing Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett to Boston. A press conference on July 31, 2007 was a sight to behold: Pierce, KG, and Ray Allen holding up Celtics jerseys for the flood of media. Coach Doc Rivers made sure the team bonded over the thought of winning a title and living by a Bantu term called Ubuntu, which translates as “I am because we are.” Rivers wanted to make it clear that togetherness and brotherhood would help them maximize their talent and win. What came next — the synthesis of the Celtics’ “Big Three” and their dominant championship run — cemented their standing as one of great teams in NBA history, a rival to Kobe Bryant’s Lakers and LeBron James’s Cavaliers.

The story of the 2007-9 Celtics has popped up in a couple of NBA books that I’ve read recently, and thought I wanted to learn some more — more than I could learn from the internet, certainly. I saw that this book was on the way, and was lucky to receive a review copy. It’s a well-written and balanced story, told with authority and also affection — for the team, the players, and the sport. I really enjoyed this. Continue reading