Very Quick Review: THE LAST ENFORCER by Charles Oakley, w. Frank Isola (Gallery)

OakleyC-LastEnforcerAn interesting, albeit limited memoir

A memoir from Charles Oakley — one of the toughest and most loyal players in NBA history — featuring unfiltered stories about the journey that basketball has taken him on and his relationships with Michael Jordan, LeBron James, Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing, Phil Jackson, Pat Riley, James Dolan, Donald Trump, George Floyd, and so many others.

If you ask a New York Knicks fan about Charles Oakley, you better prepare to hear the love and a favorite story or two. But his individual stats weren’t remarkable, and while he helped power the Knicks to ten consecutive playoffs, he never won a championship. So why does he hold such a special place in the minds, hearts, and memories of NBA players and fans?

Because over the course of nineteen years in the league, Oakley was at the center of more unbelievable encounters than Forrest Gump, and nearly as many fights as Mike Tyson. He was the friend you wish you had, and the enemy you wish you’d never made. If any opposing player was crazy enough to start a fight with him, or God forbid one of his teammates, Oakley would end it.

“I can’t remember every rebound I grabbed but I do have a story — the true story — of just about every punch and slap on my resume,” he says.

In The Last Enforcer, Oakley shares one incredible story after the next — all in his signature, unfiltered style — about his life in the paint and beyond, fighting for rebounds and respect. You’ll look back on the era of the 1990s NBA, when tough guys with rugged attitudes, unflinching loyalty, and hard-nosed work ethics were just as important as three-point sharpshooters. You’ll feel like you were on the court, in the room, can’t believe what you just saw, and need to tell everyone you know about it.

I was looking forward to reading this memoir. Like many people, Michael Jordan’s prime years with the Chicago Bulls was my introduction to basketball. Oakley was one of Jordan’s earlier teammates, and is one of his closest friends, but was traded away to the Knicks just before the Bulls embarked on their epic six-championships run. This is his story, complete with honest, blunt appraisals of his teammates, the League (now and then), and more. It’s got plenty of interesting insights and illuminating stories. But in many ways, it also comes across as rather one-note. Continue reading

Quick Review: WHERE TOMORROWS AREN’T PROMISED by Carmelo Anthony & D. Watkins (Gallery)

AnthonyC-WhereTomorrowsArentPromisedUSHCAn interesting memoir about family, struggle, and basketball

A raw and inspirational memoir about growing up in the housing projects of Red Hook and Baltimore — a brutal world Where Tomorrows Aren’t Promised.

For a long time, Carmelo Anthony’s world wasn’t any larger than the view of the hoopers and hustlers he watched from the side window of his family’s first-floor project apartment in Red Hook, Brooklyn. He couldn’t dream any bigger than emulating his older brothers and cousin, much less going on to become a basketball champion on the world stage.

He faced palpable dangers growing up in the housing projects in Red Hook and West Baltimore’s Murphy Homes (a.k.a. Murder Homes, subject of HBO’s The Wire). He navigated an education system that ignored, exploited, or ostracized him. He suffered the untimely deaths of his closely held loved ones. He struggled to survive physically and emotionally. But with the strength of family and the guidance of key mentors on the streets and on the court, he pushed past lethal odds to endure and thrive.

By the time Carmelo found himself at the NBA Draft at Madison Square Garden in 2003 preparing to embark on his legendary career, he wondered: How did a kid who’d had so many hopes, dreams, and expectations beaten out of him by a world of violence, poverty, and racism make it here at all?

Carmelo’s story is one of perseverance and determination; of dribbling past players bigger and tougher than him, while also weaving around vial caps and needles strewn across the court; where dealers and junkies lined one side of the asphalt and kids playing jacks and Double Dutch lined the other; where rims had no nets, and you better not call a foul — a place Where Tomorrows Aren’t Promised.

I didn’t know that much about Carmelo Anthony before reading Where Tomorrows Aren’t Promised. As someone who follows the NBA, I’d of course heard his name and that he was a star. In January 2020, shortly before the pandemic rolled in, he snatched victory away from the Toronto Raptors in the last live game I saw. (It was a superb, albeit frustrating, shot.) So, when I had the opportunity to read his new memoir, I jumped at the chance. And I’m glad I did — this wasn’t the memoir I was expecting, but it it is an excellent glimpse into the mind and early life of a basketball All-Star. Continue reading

Quick Review: THE AFGHANISTAN PAPERS by Craig Whitlock (Simon & Schuster)

WhitlockC-AfghanistanPapersA timely, illuminating, necessary, but strangely limited book

The groundbreaking investigative story of how three successive presidents and their military commanders deceived the public year after year about the longest war in American history…

Unlike the wars in Vietnam and Iraq, the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 had near-unanimous public support. At first, the goals were straightforward and clear: to defeat al-Qaeda and prevent a repeat of 9/11. Yet soon after the United States and its allies removed the Taliban from power, the mission veered off course and US officials lost sight of their original objectives.

Distracted by the war in Iraq, the US military became mired in an unwinnable guerrilla conflict in a country it did not understand. But no president wanted to admit failure, especially in a war that began as a just cause. Instead, the Bush, Obama, and Trump administrations sent more and more troops to Afghanistan and repeatedly said they were making progress, even though they knew there was no realistic prospect for an outright victory.

Just as the Pentagon Papers changed the public’s understanding of Vietnam, The Afghanistan Papers contains startling revelation after revelation from people who played a direct role in the war, from leaders in the White House and the Pentagon to soldiers and aid workers on the front lines. In unvarnished language, they admit that the US government’s strategies were a mess, that the nation-building project was a colossal failure, and that drugs and corruption gained a stranglehold over their allies in the Afghan government. All told, the account is based on interviews with more than 1,000 people who knew that the US government was presenting a distorted, and sometimes entirely fabricated, version of the facts on the ground.

Documents unearthed by The Washington Post reveal that President Bush didn’t know the name of his Afghanistan war commander — and didn’t want to make time to meet with him. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld admitted he had “no visibility into who the bad guys are.” His successor, Robert Gates, said: “We didn’t know jack shit about al-Qaeda.”

The Afghanistan Papers is a shocking account that will supercharge a long overdue reckoning over what went wrong and forever change the way the conflict is remembered.

This must be one of the best-timed books of the year. With President Biden’s recent announcement that the American presence and responsibilities in Afghanistan are over, Whitlock’s book has understandably generated a lot of interest and attention (far more, it seems, than the articles it’s based on received). In the days since the withdrawal, it seems as though every article has quoted Whitlock’s book (well, the introduction, mostly). I decided it was time that I got around to it, too, after leaving it languishing on my TBR for a couple months. It is an interesting and quick read, with plenty of illuminating and damning discoveries. It was also somewhat limited, however. Continue reading

Quick Review: GIANNIS by Mirin Fader (Hachette)

FaderM-GiannisUSHCThe Improbable Rise of an NBA MVP

The story of Giannis Antetokounmpo’s extraordinary rise from poverty in Athens, Greece to super-stardom in America with the Milwaukee Bucks — becoming one of the most transcendent players in history and an NBA champion…

As the face of the NBA’s new world order, Giannis Antetokounmpo has overcome unfathomable obstacles to become a symbol of hope for people all over the world, the personification of the American Dream. But his backstory remains largely untold, and Fader unearths new information about the childhood that shaped “The Greek Freak”—from sleeping side by side with his brothers to selling trinkets on the side of the street with his family to the racism he experienced in Greece. Antetokounmpo grew up in an era when Golden Dawn, Greek’s far-right, anti-immigrant party, patrolled his neighborhood, and his status as an illegal immigrant largely prevented him from playing for Greek’s top clubs, making his rise to the NBA all the more improbable. Fader tells a deeply-human story of how an unknown, skinny, Black-Greek teen, who played in the country’s lowest pro division and was seen as a draft gamble, transformed his body and his game into MVP material.

Has there been a better-timed book, recently? Shortly before this book’s release date, the Milwaukee Bucks, led by Giannis Anetokounmpo, won their second NBA championship — the franchise’s first was in 1971 (a team led by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar). Like many fans of the NBA, I was aware of Giannis and his incredible impact on the court. However, I didn’t know that much about his past or upbringing. In Giannis, Mirin Fader offers readers an engaging, well-written and nuanced portrait of Antetokounmpo’s rise to greatness, and the forces that have shaped him as a player and man. Continue reading

Quick Review: MURAKAMI T:THE T-SHIRTS I LOVE by Haruki Murakami (Knopf)

MurakamiH-MurakamiTUSHCAn engaging, enjoyable trip through Murakami’s t-shirt collection

The international literary icon opens his eclectic closet: Here are photographs of Murakami’s extensive and personal T-shirt collection, accompanied by essays that reveal a side of the writer rarely seen by the public. 

Considered “the world’s most popular cult novelist” (The Guardian), Haruki Murakami has written books that have galvanized millions around the world. Many of his fans know about his 10,000-vinyl-record collection, and his obsession with running, but few have heard about a more intimate, and perhaps more unique, passion: his T-shirt-collecting habit.

In Murakami T, the famously reclusive novelist shows us his T-shirts — including gems from the Springsteen on Broadway show in NYC, to the Beach Boys concert in Honolulu, to the shirt that inspired the beloved short story “Tony Takitani.” Accompanied by short, frank essays that have been translated into English for the first time, these photographs reveal much about Murakami’s multifaceted and wonderfully eccentric persona.

This is, strangely, the first of Haruki Murakami’s books that I’ve read. However, I find that he and I have very similar thoughts when it comes to t-shirts and what they mean for us/people in general. In this slim volume, Murakami collects the short essays he wrote for a Japanese fashion magazine about some of his (many, many) t-shirts. They are grouped by theme, and offer some interesting and endearing digressions on various topics. I really enjoyed it. 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: EVERYTHING NOW by Rosecrans Baldwin (MCD)

BaldwinR-EverythingNowUSLessons from the city-state of Los Angeles

America is obsessed with Los Angeles. And America has been thinking about Los Angeles all wrong, for decades, on repeat. Los Angeles is not just the place where the American dream hits the Pacific. (It has its own dreams.) Not just the vanishing point of America’s western drive. (It has its own compass.) Functionally, aesthetically, mythologically, even technologically, an independent territory, defined less by distinct borders than by an aura of autonomy and a sense of unfurling destiny — this is the city-state of Los Angeles.

Deeply reported and researched, provocatively argued, and eloquently written, Rosecrans Baldwin’s Everything Now approaches the metropolis from unexpected angles, nimbly interleaving his own voice with a chorus of others, from canonical L.A. literature to everyday citizens. Here, Octavia E. Butler and Joan Didion are in conversation with activists and astronauts, vampires and veterans. Baldwin records the stories of countless Angelenos, discovering people both upended and reborn: by disasters natural and economic, following gospels of wealth or self-help or personal destiny. The result is a story of a kaleidoscopic, vibrant nation unto itself — vastly more than its many, many parts.

Baldwin’s concept of the city-state allows us, finally, to grasp a place — Los Angeles — whose idiosyncrasies both magnify those of America, and are so fully its own. Here, space and time don’t quite work the same as they do elsewhere, and contradictions are as stark as southern California’s natural environment. Perhaps no better place exists to watch the United States’s past, and its possible futures, play themselves out.

Welcome to Los Angeles, the Great American City-State.

It’s not just America that’s obsessed with Los Angeles. I’ve long been fascinated by the city (even though I’m not sure I’d like to live there). It’s one of my favourite fiction locations, and its diverse and fragmented nature allows for incredible variation in the novels, TV series and movies set within it. In Everything Now, Baldwin does a very good job of showing us the city from a number of different angles — some familiar, some new, all interesting. An interesting and engaging journey through various facets of Los Angeles, I enjoyed this. 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: ALWAYS CRASHING IN THE SAME CAR by Matthew Specktor (Tin House)

SpecktorM-AlwaysCrashingInTheSameCarUSBack in 2013, I read and enjoyed Matthew Specktor‘s American Dream Machine — a novel about Hollywood, fathers, and the ways in which the entertainment industry has evolved over the decades. This year, Specktor has a new book coming out: Always Crashing in the Same Car. It’s pitched as a blend of memoir and criticism that “explores family legacy, the lives of artists, and a city that embodies both dreams and disillusionment”. I’m really looking forward to giving this a read. Here’s the synopsis:

In 2006, Matthew Specktor moved into a crumbling Los Angeles apartment opposite the one in which F. Scott Fitzgerald spent the last moments of his life. Fitz had been Specktor’s first literary idol, someone whose own passage through Hollywood had, allegedly, broken him. Freshly divorced, professionally flailing, and reeling from his mother’s cancer diagnosis, Specktor was feeling unmoored. But rather than giving in or “cracking up,” he embarked on an obsessive journey to make sense of the mythologies of “success” and “failure” that haunt the artist’s life and the American imagination.

Part memoir, part cultural history, part portrait of place, Always Crashing in the Same Car explores Hollywood through a certain kind of collapse. It’s a vibrant and intimate inspection of failure told through the lives of iconic, if under-sung, artists — Carole Eastman, Eleanor Perry, Warren Zevon, Tuesday Weld, and Hal Ashby, among others — and the author’s own family history. Through this constellation of Hollywood figures, he unearths a fascinating alternate history of the city that raised him and explores the ways in which curtailed ambition, insufficiency, and loss shape all our lives.

At once deeply personal and broadly erudite, it is a story of an art form (the movies), a city (Los Angeles), and one person’s attempt to create meaning out of both. Above all, Specktor creates a moving search for optimism alongside the inevitability of failure and reveals the still-resonant power of art to help us navigate the beautiful ruins that await us all.

Matthew Specktor’s Always Crashing in the Same Car is due to be published by Tin House in North America and in the UK, on July 27th, 2021.

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