They were my friends. I grew up with them. They may have lived within 362 pages of a hardcover book, but I grew up with them.
The coach spent his life waiting for the perfect team. He walked the streets for hours after tough losses, frightened players with his passion, challenged them to fistfights in the locker room, never wavered in his belief that basketball should be played a certain way. Deep down, he worried his career could pass without ever finding the right blend of players. When he finally won a championship, it happened in the blink of an eye — a young group peaking at the right time, a beautiful mix of speed and teamwork, his vision come to life, a dream finally realized. Within a year they imploded, ravaged by injuries and jealousy and money and everything else that was ruining the NBA at the time. The coach would spend the next two years thinking about that perfect team. He had it, he had it … and then, it was gone. You could say he was haunted.
Dr. Jack Ramsay was the coach of the 1977 NBA champion Portland Trail Blazers and the year Halberstam covered the team, 1979-80.
He remembers Halberstam as a great writer — and a great friend.
The big redhead anchored the perfect team in college, then spent his professional career wondering if it would ever happen again. Slowly, he watched the right nucleus form around him, quick guards and heady players who intrinsically understood where to go and what to do. The entire team became an extension of him — his mind, his skills, his passing, his rebounding, his unselfishness, his enthusiasm, his everything. When his fragile feet betrayed him while they were defending their first title, a member of the team’s medical staff convinced him to try a painkiller injection for the playoffs. Didn’t work. He blamed the organization and signed with another franchise for a ton of money, obliterating the perfect team and suffering an especially painful divorce with his coach. What he didn’t know was that basketball wouldn’t make him happy again for another seven years. Eventually, you could say he was haunted.
The pariah wanted some peace. He wanted to stop moving around. He wanted to rebound and run the floor and not think of anything else, but a single moment of weakness trailed him everywhere he went, an angry punch that never should have been thrown. The world judged him by that roundhouse right, by the famous picture of the victim with blackened eyes and a bandaged nose. They didn’t care about the circumstances, that the puncher was a soft-spoken man who came from nothing and willed himself into becoming an NBA player. They didn’t care about his story and definitely didn’t want to hear it. They wanted him to be the black player who nearly killed the white player with one punch. And that’s who he was. You could definitely say he was haunted.
The rebounder grew up in the worst part of Pittsburgh, had his life saved by basketball, then spent much of his professional career hoping to extricate himself from bad contracts and bad advice. He just wanted to get paid. He deserved to get paid. Instead of feeling fortunate for playing with the big redhead — they were perfect together, just like everything else about that team — he never forgot for a second that the big redhead was making four times as much money. He couldn’t get past it. When the team fell apart, so did he. Eventually, they traded him for 40 cents on the dollar and he finally got paid, only he never played for another great team. You could say he got what he deserved. Or, you could say he was justified all along.
A selection of David Halberstam’s columns for Page 2:
• Homage to Patagonia
The underdog grew up on a cotton farm. He could barely read. He could barely stay in school. A freelancing guard with powerful legs, there were dozens of prospects just like him, players with more than enough talent who fell through the cracks for whatever reason. When he landed on the team that wasn’t so perfect anymore, he saved a wasted season playing the exact one-on-one style that the coach despised. By the time the playoffs rolled around, fans knew his name and announcers breathlessly pumped him up in pregame shows. During the final few minutes of the Seattle series, teammates cleared out for him and stood around as the underdog tried to beat three guys off the dribble at once. Sometimes, he even did. The perfect team had become something else, just another screwed-up team in a screwed-up league.
Dr. Jack Ramsay. Bill Walton. Kermit Washington. Maurice Lucas. Billy Ray Bates. I grew up with them.
You know who else lived in that book? Lionel Hollins and Geoff Petrie and Bobby Gross. I grew up with them, too. I grew up with Dave Twardzik’s old-school crewcut and Jim Brewer checking the latest NBA transactions over breakfast. I grew up with Lloyd Neal jumping up during a Lakers game and screaming at Jack Nicholson, “Take that motherf***ing cuckoo!” I grew up with Steve Jones telling Marvin Barnes stories, like the time Marvin showed up right before tipoff of an ABA game holding a bag of McDonald’s and wearing a mink coat with his uniform underneath it. I grew up with the story of Kareem making the sky hook in Magic’s first game, then Magic hugging him and hugging him and not letting him go. I grew up with Bobby Knight calling his friend Stu Inman, the guy who built the ’77 Blazers — the perfect team — right after Walton bolted for San Diego. Knight was so crushed that he asked Inman, “Is there any way to keep a perfect team together? Can it be done anymore?”
When the book was released in 1982, I had spent my formative years attending Celtics games, falling in love with basketball and wondering why more people didn’t love my league. I didn’t understand that the general public was turned off by drug issues and out-of-whack salaries. I didn’t understand the difficulties of selling a mostly black league to a mostly white audience. I didn’t understand the traumatic side effects of Kermit’s punch, the damage it inflicted, the ugly racial scabs that had been opened. I didn’t understand how television had changed the framework of the game. I didn’t understand what made those Blazer teams so great, just that they blew through Boston one time, crushed us by something like 40 points and looked like the most unbeatable group on the planet. I didn’t understand that my favorite league had been on life support in the late-’70s, that Bird and Magic saved the day, that those two players came along at such a pivotal time.
More importantly, I didn’t understand how to write. I had written short stories as a little kid, read every book in sight, even finished every Hardy Boys book before I turned ten. But I didn’t know how to write. “Breaks of the Game” was the first big-boy book I ever loved. Within a few pages, I came to believe that he wrote the book just for me. I plowed through it in one weekend. A few months later, I read it again. Eventually, I read the book so many times that the spine of the book crumbled, so I bought the paperback version to replace it.
Through college and grad school, as I was slowly deciding on a career, I read it every year to remind myself how to write — how to save words, how to construct a sentence, how to tell someone’s life story without relying on quotes, how to make anecdotes come alive. It was my own personal writing seminar. When the paperback suffered a tragic beach accident from an unexpected wave, I bought a third copy at the used books store on Newbury Street for $5.95. Best deal of my life. Every two years, I read that book again to make sure that my writing hasn’t slipped too much. Like a golfer visiting his old instructor to check on his swing.
The last time I read “Breaks” was two summers ago. We were due for another reunion this summer, a date that already feels bittersweet because the author suddenly passed away on Monday. He was 73 years-old, a Pulitzer winner, the first respected journalist to question the war in Vietnam. I’m not sure what made him decide to tackle the NBA, but there hasn’t been a better basketball book before or since. He nailed everything. He picked the perfect season for the perfect league — Magic and Bird’s rookie year — and took a 362-page snapshot of a professional sport right as it was shifting from a downtrodden era to a luctrative one. Maybe the timing was incredible, but so was the work itself. And it changed my life for the better.
Just know that I have tons and tons of sports books: Three overflowing bookcases in my house, more in my garage, even more at my father’s house and my mother’s house. The one that matters most? “Breaks of the Game,” the perfect book about the perfect team. If Dr. Jack, Kermit, Mo, Walton and Billy Ray were my friends, then David Halberstam was definitely my friend. I will miss him.
Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine. His book “Now I Can Die In Peace” is available in paperback.