Monday, October 15, 2012

Loose Balls

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of Loose Balls: The Short, Wild Life of the American Basketball Association (Simon & Schuster, 1990).

Five and a bit years ago, I met a fellow who was - I'm not kidding - every bit as angry that the Kentucky Colonels didn't move to the NBA as he was in 1976. He'll go to his grave kicking dirt on the shoes of Indiana Pacers fans.

The Pacers, along with the New Jersey Nets, San Antonio Spurs and Denver Nuggets, had previously belonged to an upstart league called the American Basketball Association. Those people who could attend this league's games in the days before wall-to-wall sports coverage across dozens of channels really enjoyed the competitions, the personalities, the slam dunks, the three-pointers, the fourteen-inch-high afros, and everything that exemplified this scrappy, in-your-face league and its shoestring budgets. Those who saw Dr. J in his earliest days, or a wild man like Marvin Barnes, swear that they played a very special and crazier game. Sports historians say that the ABA's attitude took over the NBA, and that the staid, team-based game of basketball was changed permanently by the ABA's cult of personality.

Speaking of personalities, this league had them in spades. Marvin Barnes, who later played for Detroit and Buffalo in the 1970s before burning out, was, by any definition, a complete lunatic. In one fabulous story, not understanding how time zones work, he refused to fly from Louisville back to St. Louis, because it appears that the plane will land a minute before it takes off. Blowing off practices, losing cars, destroying hotel rooms, this guy was a complete nut before such behavior was really known outside of rock stars.

I picked up an interest in minor league sports and defunct leagues a few years back, and was interested in seeing a Will Ferrell comedy called Semi-Pro, which suggested there was an additional ABA team, the fictional Flint Tropics, though I never did. This film seems to have prompted either a new print run or a new round of publicity for Terry Pluto's 1990 book Loose Balls, making it more readily known to readers. "Oral histories" have become quite common over the last decade or so, but this style was apparently still new enough to spark some critical grumbling when it was released. Pluto doesn't insert much of a narrative into the book; rather, he organizes his interviews into a roughly chronological narrative with little side stories of various teams, players or events.

It does feel a little longer than perhaps it needs to be, and indeed it takes a while for the story to get going, since the initial tales of potential owners grumbling for power go on for what seems like sixty pages. Once play begins, and the characters start bouncing off each other with fun anecdotes and history, it becomes a much breezier book, almost light at 440 pages.

I would have preferred color photos and a little more of a structure for each chapter that shows off which teams were playing. Two charts at the beginning of the text help a little bit, but aren't particularly user-friendly, especially the one that reproduces old team logos in smudgy black-and-white. Hopefully, one day somebody will repackage this book with a much more interesting and fun design. Recommended for all sports fans.

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