The Pequod Review:
David Halberstam's The Breaks of the Game is a profile of the 1979-80 Portland Trail Blazers at a unique moment in the franchise's history — three years after their dominant 1977 NBA championship run, by which time the team had mostly fallen apart and was about to trudge through a mediocre season. Halberstam profiles the players, coaches and executives involved with the team — head coach Jack Ramsey, recently-departed center Bill Walton, journeyman guard Billy Ray Bates, and many others — and the book becomes not just a collection of intimate biographical profiles but also a broader analysis of 1970s American sports culture.
One of Halberstam's best such profiles is of Kermit Washington, a shy and sensitive player who would be sent from San Diego to Portland just before the 1979-80 season and whose reputation had been tarnished by a punch he threw two years earlier during an on-court fight:
Only one player at the San Diego camp seemed uneasy about the coming season. That was Kermit Washington, the power forward, a young man who had gone in one year from being something of a social outcast in basketball because of a nearly fatal fistfight with another player, to a far happier year as a Clipper starter, where at the end of the year he was voted by fans as the most popular player on the team. Washington, who had never enjoyed a very easy or pleasant professional career, had always been aware of the rootlessness of the professional athletic life and how hard it was not just on the athlete himself, but even more on his wife and children. But in San Diego his wife had finally found, he believed, not just a residence, something bought at one price, inhabited superficially, and sold later at a higher one, but a genuine home, a place where they would always live. It was, he thought, the easiest city in America to live in, with a climate even better than Los Angeles because there was less smog, and where the beaches were less crowded and more accessible. For Pat Washington, who (given the traveling schedules of NBA athletes) often served her children as both mother and father, a special plus was that every other couple in San Diego seemed to have children the exact same ages as the Washington children.
Their summer had been easy and pleasant; they seemed surrounded by new friends. Kermit Washington liked his new teammates. During the summer many of them had stayed in shape by practicing together, something he had never seen on any team before, and they had even come over to his court and basket and practiced outdoors. Swen Nater, the giant center, usually brought the basketball. Nater was so strong and so physical that in pickup games like this it was impossible to stop his moves to the basket without fouling him, and so they fouled him, much to his genuine anger, and he would warn them once, and warn them twice, and finally, since no one seemed to pay any attention, he would take his basketball and go home. It made basketball fun, it was like being boys again and it seemed to reflect the happiness of his new life. In San Diego, Kermit Washington had found an ease of living and an acceptance as a man that had eluded him for much of his life.
His career before the fight had been difficult enough, and he had fashioned himself into a high-level professional athlete against the odds, mostly by personal determination. There was a particular irony about the stigma of the fight, for Kermit Washington seemed by his very game and his attitude to want social acceptance more than almost any other player. His face reflected his emotions: if he had made a mistake the pain and guilt always showed on his face and as he ran upcourt past his coach his expression at once showed apology and responsibility; he would, his face seemed to promise, not repeat the error. But the fight had made him an outcast. The film clip showing Washington smashing Rudy Tomjanovich in the face as Tomjanovich ran at Washington, a double force of collision because both principals — Washington black, Tomjanovich white — were moving, had been featured mercilessly on television sports shows, whose newscasters had piously attacked the violence of the moment, and whose executive producers had relentlessly rerun it because it was such rare footage, such good television. Washington had hated that time, the fear of what he had done to Tomjanovich, the knowledge that he had almost killed a man, and he had hated as well the fact that an entire (white) nation, a jury of millions and millions of people, had judged him and found him guilty, not of being in a fight during a heated moment in a game, but rather of premeditated assault on another player. That moment, which was alien to the rest of his career, had stamped him indelibly in the eyes of most American sports fans. He was not the player from the ghetto who had pushed himself to become a scholastic all-American, or the player who, having failed pitifully in his early years with the Los Angeles Lakers, forced himself by special coaching tutorial to become a quality basketball player. He had instead become the villain. Without any hearing, he had been immediately suspended from basketball; he had been fined $10,000 and the suspension cost him another $50,000.
America believed that its athletes were heroes and, being highly skilled at something so exemplary as a sport, were by nature also immensely self-confident; after all, their own high school heroes of yesteryear, now older and balder and heavier, had been confident and secure and had always won, as the fairy tale demanded, the best-looking girl. But the new American athlete, particularly the modern American professional basketball player, was very different. He was rarely confident about anything save his own sport, he had rarely as a young boy been garlanded by his peers and by beautiful cheerleaders. Instead he was more often than not black, often came from pathetic economic and psychological circumstances, was a basketball player out of desperation as much as anything else. Despite both athletic and financial success, his status in the greater society remained shaky. He remained as aware of where he had started as where he had ended, and how easily he might return.
Kermit Washington had come from such circumstances and though he had by dint of hard work created a far sounder environment than many of his professional peers, still the vulnerability was always there, and the reaction following the Tomjanovich fight had underscored it for him. He had remained in isolation and under suspension until rescued by Irv Levin, then owner of the Boston Celtics. A deal had been arranged. He would be traded to the Celtics by the Lakers and thereafter reinstated. Because he was saved by Irv Levin, Washington felt a special gratitude to the owner. A few months later, when his contract expired and he became a free agent, suddenly other teams were pursuing him actively, power forwards of his attitude and character being extremely scarce. Denver had been unusually anxious to sign him and had offered, over four years, some $200,000 more than Levin. But in a show of loyalty rare in professional sports, Washington turned down Denver and signed with Levin. Shortly after that Levin, a man of the West Coast, had, by sleight of hand and with the consent of his owner colleagues (who might after all want to pull off such a move themselves one day), switched franchises, taking the virtually defunct Buffalo team to San Diego, giving up the Celtics to the former Buffalo owner, and taking with him from the Celtics a number of their more valuable players, including Kermit Washington.
Washington became one of the few beneficiaries of the trade, winding up in San Diego. He liked the city, he liked the climate and he even liked his teammates, many of whom were considered like himself social rejects by other NBA teams. He enjoyed Lloyd Free, the great shooter, a Philly reject (“I’m so good, even I couldn’t stop me”), who would on the day of a game often eat no more than a candy bar and yet play brilliantly; he enjoyed Sidney Wicks, the Portland-Boston reject who, as on his previous teams, was always talking but who had come finally to the right team because here everyone else was always talking, and no one was listening; he liked Nick Weatherspoon, Washington-Seattle-Chicago reject who, arriving in San Diego, had also become a born-again Christian (upset with an article written about him in a local paper, he had turned to the sportswriter and had said, “May the Lord forgive you for what you’ve done”); and, above all, he liked Swen Nater, the huge white center, a seriously religious young man who upon the occasion of any important decision (buying a new car or a new house, signing a contract) kept a Bible at hand so that he could open the Good Book to find, with any luck, from the randomly opened page, the proper prophetic guidance. It was fun playing for San Diego, Lloyd Free had said, because everyone was a little crazy.
Washington had thought it a mistake in June when Irv Levin signed Bill Walton. In the previous season the Clippers gained strength as they went along and had in the end barely missed the playoffs. Considering the compensation inevitably due Portland for a player of Walton’s caliber, signing him meant mortgaging much of San Diego’s future for a gifted but physically troubled player who might or might not be able to play. Washington was also aware, from the moment he heard the news, that given Walton’s exceptional value and San Diego’s limited roster and previous rulings by Commissioner Larry O’Brien, Washington himself was almost certain to go to Portland. That would not just mean four cities in three years but worse, having to prove himself yet again. He had sent O’Brien a handwritten letter, pleading for permission to stay in San Diego, telling of how difficult his readjustment had been after the turmoil caused by the fight, how hard he had worked to “rebuild my confidence as an individual. It was hard enough the first time getting rid of my negative image. Proving myself all over again would be even harder.…” He did not expect the commissioner to take any letter from him seriously but he felt he ought to write it anyway. Every day Bill Walton went out of his way to be particularly courteous to Kermit Washington. Walton was even quoted by reporters as saying that Kermit was stronger, perhaps even better, than Maurice Lucas, Walton’s old running mate (a comment which irritated Lucas a good deal), and that the one player San Diego could not afford to give up in the compensation was Washington, the most physical forward on the team. Commissioner O’Brien, Kermit Washington thought, was not likely to take the words of Bill Walton any more seriously than he took the words of Kermit Washington. He was almost sure he was gone.
Sometimes when [Kermit] talked about Swen Nater, his friend in San Diego, he would say that he understood Swen because he was passed around a lot as a little boy. I can understand that, Kermit would say, I was passed around too. That was a sad phrase from a difficult childhood. Passed around. His mother was a graduate of Howard University, where she had received good marks. She was very smart, he thought, but not so good at dealing with the pressures of life around her. She was always telling people to be truthful and honest and they were always letting her down. Probably she had been too idealistic, he thought. His parents split up when he was about three. There had been a terrible fight, one that he was not supposed to see. Years later he thought that his father had wanted some credit cards back from his mother. His mother’s brother had come over and there had been a family fight, and someone hit his uncle with an iron, and there had been blood. Everyone had been shouting and yelling. He witnessed everything, the accusations, the fighting, the blood. He had been absolutely terrified by the sight of the people he loved fighting with each other. That was the last time he saw his parents together. His father took custody of the children. Then his mother had come by one day and taken him and his older brother and run off with them. It had been an aimless, ill-planned flight and they had been poor all the time. He remembered vaguely the bleakness of the trip; they stayed once with the Salvation Army and there had been days with virtually nothing to eat. He had a memory, he was not entirely sure it was true, of not eating for three days and then being given a ham and cheese sandwich and devouring it so quickly that he never even chewed it. Finally they had to wire for help and his father showed up to take them home. For a time he and his brother lived with various members of the family—grandparents, aunts, uncles, father’s family, mother’s family, changing homes. There was a feeling, he remembered, of never really belonging, of perhaps not being wanted. He was convinced that the fault must somehow be his, and became terribly shy, quiet to the point of being mute. He said as little as he could because he was afraid that anything he said might be wrong. Finally they ended up with his great-grandmother on his father’s side. She was a stern, strict old lady, but she also had time to love both boys. The rules were strict but he knew she cared. When he and his brother Eric brought their report cards home from school and their grades were predictably bad, they would tell the old lady that they had done well. She, after all, could not read or write. Pleased that these two little boys had done so well, she would mark her X on the card in the appropriate place. That was as good a time as he remembered. His father remarried and the boys moved back with him; his stepmother was clearly less than overjoyed to find that the Washington ménage contained two little boys. The home did not become warmer. He had no memory, as a little boy, of anyone hugging him. He was closest to his older brother, Eric; it was as if the two of them were connected to each other, against the rest of the world.
It was a frustrating time for Maurice Lucas. He was with this team and he was not with it. He wanted to be traded, and they had said they would trade him, but nothing happened. They told him that they could not get what they wanted, and that they were not going to give him away. He doubted their word, he knew of the preseason trade with Chicago that Weinberg had vetoed and it had convinced him once again that they paid him at one level and spoke of him with the media and with other teams at another level....
He liked to think of himself as a person of the streets. He had been a street kid in Pittsburgh, a city with dark and dangerous streets that he at once loved and wanted to escape. When he was a boy he had been a swimmer on a championship local relay team and he had fancied himself a great swimmer, and he had dreamed of medals still to be awarded. But swimming was not a black sport, pools were not readily available for blacks and no college eagerly passed out scholarships to black swimmers, nor was the television screen filled with the exploits and financial triumphs of swimmers black or white. So he had turned to basketball.
It was a passport in Pittsburgh from one neighborhood to another, past invisible barriers set by different local gangs. He was proud of his street-smarts, his sense of the mood and the tone of the streets, how to blend with it. He knew the various tricks, shooting craps, making a little money playing cards, scalping some ill-gotten tickets to Forbes Field. He liked the feel of the streets, the rhythm and the action, the fact that these streets came alive just when other streets in other places were closing down. He knew how to evade trouble when he wanted to, and how to find it when he wanted. Both his parents were tall, his father 6′ 4″, his mother a handsome and imposing 6 feet. His father, a butcher, was gone by the time he was two, his mother supported the family by working as a secretary in the tuberculosis foundation. When he was in high school he began to grow. Once he was of middling size and then suddenly he was 6′ 2″; and then even more remarkably, in one three-month period he grew 6 more inches. For a time that was difficult, he was skinny and he had outgrown all his clothes, and the girls did not like someone who was that tall and skinny and whose pants did not reach his ankles. But then he began to grow into his body and regain his coordination. He also worked on weights. Because he was so tall, he sensed now that basketball could mean something to him.
Halberstam does this so well throughout the book — he creates honest and sympathetic portrayals of imperfect individuals, while also showing how they fit into (and were impacted by) wider trends in American society. The Breaks of the Game is about basketball, but its character studies are so rich and instructive that the book could actually be about almost anything at all.
Nonetheless, Halberstam has a very good understanding of the game of basketball too; here he captures the changing role of coaches in the NBA:
The coaches’ jobs were never secure. What went up in this league went up very quickly, and often came down just as quickly. Power was for the coaches an illusory thing; the only players to whom they appeared powerful were in fact marginal players, players over whom they could indeed exercise power, but to little purpose. The players over whom they would like to exercise their power — that is, the talented players flawed either by attitude or a specific major weakness in their game — more likely than not were completely protected, given the contemporary nature of the league, by no-cut contracts far larger than those of the coaches. It was these players who could, if they listened and obeyed, make the coaches seem more successful and thus more effective, yet it was these players over whom it was impossible to exercise authority directly; instead, unlike players of the past, they had to be stroked and cajoled into doing what the coaches wanted.
And later he discusses the nature of team-building and leadership:
Then there was the team itself. The arrival of a high-salaried superstar, [Stu] Inman believed, threatened the fabric of a basketball team far more than that of a football or baseball team. All three, of course, were team sports. But baseball was highly idiosyncratic and egocentric. Baseball players brought their highly specialized skills to a team, but remained singular. They did not have to blend their skills or sacrifice their talents to enhance each other as basketball players did, nor did they even have to get on particularly well with each other. (“ What’s the best thing about playing for the Yankees?” Graig Nettles was once asked. “Getting to play with Reggie Jackson every day.” “And the worst thing about playing for New York?” he was asked. “Playing with Reggie Jackson every day.”) Football, more than baseball, was a team sport, but again on every play the role of every player was clearly defined: an offensive lineman blocked as well as he could, a runner ran as hard as he could. But basketball was far more vulnerable to the change caused by the arrival of big money, Inman and his colleagues thought. For basketball demanded that though the players be talented, they also subordinate their individual talents to the idea of team and to each other. A truly great basketball player was not necessarily someone who scored a lot of points; a truly great basketball player was someone of exceptional talent and self-discipline who could make his teammates better. Basketball was a sport where under optimal conditions a great player with considerable ego disciplined himself and became unselfish. But big money, creating the idea of the basketball player as superstar, militated against sacrifice in sports. The super salaries went by and large to those with impressive statistics, and big statistics usually came at the expense of team. No one in the two years of great Portland teams had exceptional statistics, most of the rare things they had done on the court never showed up in the box score. The entire Wicks episode had taught Inman, in addition, how fragile the idea of team was, how quickly one player could throw it off. Now that Walton was gone, he believed that Lucas wanted out, that his ego had probably changed and that there was no way he was likely to remain happy and valuable in Portland.
Even the business side of the NBA gets strong coverage, as Halberstam shows the precarious position of the league in the late 1970s:
CBS, frustrated by low ratings in the regular season, seemed bewildered by the difficulties of covering the playoffs adequately, further frustrating genuine fans. With the proliferation of teams, regular-season coverage declined to the point where CBS was ignoring fully two-thirds of them; there were in effect two leagues — one consisting of the twenty-two NBA member teams, the other a six-or seven-team league covered by CBS, its version of the NBA.
All this took place in less than a decade — sudden growth, the shift in values from those of pure sports to entertainment and advertising. What had happened to basketball was typical of altogether too much happening in the new American scheme of things: there was more, but it was less.
In the locker room after the [1977 championship] game the players poured champagne on each other... None of it made the national airwaves. CBS, the network which broadcast the league, but in larger truth sponsored the league as well, had, the moment the last basket had been shot and the score posted, departed the Portland Coliseum for the green fairways of a new, invented-for-television golf tournament, the Kemper Open. The die-hard basketball fans, perhaps ten million of them, who had stayed the course of a long and laborious twin season of basketball, first the interminable regular season and then the semi-interminable second season of the playoffs, waiting to see what Bill Walton looked like in victory (would he attack the President? the FBI?) and Julius Erving in defeat, saw instead the head of the Kemper Insurance Company welcoming them to a golf course. No one was pouring champagne on his head. Many of them turned off. Many others called CBS to complain irately over this injustice. It was, they knew, a decision which would never have been made at the end of a baseball World Series or a football Super Bowl, where the fans’ right to see their winners was inalienable.
The decision of CBS to cut away was a reminder that for all of its artistic beauty and its high salaries, and the fact that it might employ more truly brilliant and complete athletes than any other sport, professional basketball had not entered the national psyche or become part of the national myth. It remained, the grace and skill of its athletes notwithstanding, a sport of some isolated urban areas and some rural areas struggling for national acceptance.
(Of course, all of this was about to change with the arrival of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird.)
I could quote this book endlessly. What Ken Dryden would later do for hockey, David Halberstam has done for basketball. Highly recommended.