IT IS NOT in David Halberstam's nature to give his readers less when more is available. The Breaks of the Game is not merely an account of one season in the life of a professional basketball team; it is a study of the economics and, for want of a better word, the culture of professional sport in the age of television. It is also the best book Halberstam has written -- less preoccupied with power than The Best and the Brightest or The Powers That Be, more concerned with people, and therefore ultimately more immediate and moving.
The book probably began as a break from Hallberstam's labors on weightier matters. The idea of spending a full season with the Portland Trail Blazers must have seemed rather a lark to him after The Powers That Be; playing sportswriter can be a cool tonic after a prolonged siege of major issues. Yet what he found, when he joined the Blazers in the fall of 1979, turned out to be "a long season for a troubled team in a troubled league," raising serious questions that passed well beyond the tight boundaries of a basketball court.
What Halberstam discovered was that professional basketball had gotten too much too soon. In little over a decade it had grown from the compact to the bloated. In the early '60s it consisted of only eight teams, all located in older cities where the game had a long playground and schoolyard history; a decade and a half later the number of teams had tripled, many of the new ones located in Sunbelt cities having little or no intimate knowledge of the game. "What was happening to basketball was similar to what was happening to a great many products in America," Halberstam writes. "Originally, the impulse behind basketball had been genuine on the part of everyone concerned, the product had been good. And because the product was good all other kinds of people wanted a piece of it, making the value of the product skyrocket."
Of these eager investors, the most eager and the least resistible was television. TV saw in basketball "an entertainment medium like any other, though one peculiarly suited to pushing cars and shaving cream and beer," and it approached the moguls of the game singing its siren song of big bucks -- bucks so big and so easy to get that backetball fell all over itself to rake them in. It expanded not into cities but into "markets," areas ordained by television as having a sufficient number of potential consumers to warrant giving them "local" teams and using those teams to sell those consumers cars and shaving cream and beer.
In the process, Hallberstam accurately argues, basketball made a "shift in values from those of pure sports to entertainment and advertising." In the league headquarters and in the front offices of individual clubs, the heart of the game was allowed to shrivel. The mad flurry of expansion -- designed not merely to add new "markets" but also to enrich existing franchises with fat fees for admission to the league -- severely diluted the quality of the game. As unrestrained competition for top players simmered, many of the poorer franchises priced themselves out of the market, leaving only New York and Los Angeles and a few others as reasonably healthy. And the goose that laid the golden egg bid fair to kill the gosling: as pro-basketball Nielsens began to drop, TV began to pull away -- leaving the National Basketball Association at the end of the 1979-80 season, as it is today, a league in severe if not mortal difficulty.
Halberstam found troubles in the locker rooms similar to those in the front offices. Players became obsessed with their paychecks to the detriment of team cohesion: "The big salaries, older players believed, had gradually altered the players' self-perception, and gradually made what they did less fun.... It was now an article of faith among thoughtful former players that the new breed were by far more talented, but that they lacked desperately one key element -- a feeling for each other, a sense of community, a loyalty to something besides careers and paychecks."
The Portland Trail Blazers proved, in 1979-80, to be a case in point. Only three seasons before, they had won the championship of the NBA with a remarkable display of team unity and selflessness. Led by their star center, Bill Walton, they had stomped the fearsome Philadelphia Seventy-Sixers in the finals, and had won the hearts of the people of Portland to a degree rare in professional sport. Yet by 1979, though the city still loved them dearly, the magic was gone. Walton, in a noisy public sulk over alleged medical mistreatment, had removed himself to San Diego and its Clippers; Bobby Gross, Dave Twardzik and Larry Steele, players of modest talent but great grit, were three years older, slower and wearier; and Maurice Lucas and Lionel Hollins, genuine stars, were angry with management over six-figure salaries that they considered vastly inadequate.
What all this produced was not so much divisiveness as apathy. Goaded ferociously by their coach, Jack Ramsay, the Blazers responded with indifference. Lacking a strong, dominant center with Walton gone, the team needed to play with exceptional precision if it was to have a shot at the playoffs. Instead, it frequently lapsed into choas; it was as if every player's mind was somewhere else, which in fact was often the case. The Blazers did make the playoffs -- under the NBA's tawdry system, almost everybody makes the playoffs -- but they did so with the embarrassment of a losing record and they were quickly eliminated.
Halberstam has not constructed his account of their season in the form of a journal, a la Ball Four, in fact, the book's most conspicuous weakness is that Halberstam has not really provided any structure upon which to hang his tale, unless serendipity can be called structure. He simply allows himself to go wherever events or his interests take him; among the subjects he covers are the diverse but profound effects that Red Auerbach and Roone Arledge have had upon the game, the expolitation of poor young men (most of them black) by the collegiate recruiting system, race relations in professional sport, the illusion of loyalty that management presents to players and that players present to each other.
Many of these players are unusually attractive people, but others are spoiled brats: "Superstars in high school, coveted by college recruiters, always stroked and coddled and catered to, they could not deal well with reality or adversity, either on or off the basketball court." Yet narcissistic though they are, they are also exploited. Their staggering salaries notwithstanding, they are the victims of punishing schedules (82 games a year before the playoffs) and debilitating travel arrangements; some of them leave the game after six or seven years so abused physically that they cannot hope to lead normal civilian lives.
Of these players, two especially arouse Halberstam's sympathies. One is Kermit Washington, who a couple of seasons before had gained unsolicited notoriety by instinctively punching out an opposing player during a physical encounter. The player was very badly hurt; since the player was white and Washington black, the incident played conveniently into the hands of those who think pro basketball has been "taken over" by blacks. Yet the Washington whom Halberstam came to know is an exceptionally sensitive person, one who had worked his way out of an impoverished neighborhood in the District of Columbia and had acquired a precarious sense of self-esteem that was nearly destroyed by the aftermath of the punching incident. Kermit Washington's story, as Halberstam tells it, is deeply moving.
So too is that of Billy Ray Bates, though in a different way.Bates also is black; he comes from an even more impoverished area of rural Mississippi. Unlike Washington, who willed himself into becoming a basketball star, Bates is a natural athlete with an instinctive feel for the game. But he played at a small school and was neglected by the scouts. He found a place in the Continental League, and eventually was given a trial by the Blazers. His success was immediate and dramatic, his story heartwarming; but what gives that story its particular charm is Bates' innocence, his delight in his new surroundings and his propensity for saying whatever leaps into his mind.
Halberstam tells the stories of these and other men with authenticity, humor and a super eye for the telling anecdote or incident. (A story about the trainer, Ron Culp: "A few months later, dealing with a rookie named Michael Harper who seemed vague about how to furnish his new Portland apartment with such necessities as sheets and dishes, Culp had said: 'Michael, do you know who we're going to draft next year?' 'No,' said Harper. 'Who?' 'In the second round we're going to draft your mother,' Culp said.") As in his previous books, Halberstam's prose style can get on the nerves, in particular his inexplicible peculiarities of punctuation; but because he is dealing with Larry Steele and Billy Ray Bates rather than Robert McNamara and Otis Chandler, he spares the reader much of the melodramatic heavy-breathing of the earlier books.
By contrast with the subjects of those books, the people of The Breaks of the Game are insignificant men whose only real claim upon our attention is their ability to run and jump and throw a ball. Yet in Halberstam's careful, affectionate telling they emerge as men who, even at their most infuriating, are worth caring about. He has captured the texture and the tensions of their lives, the "curious amalgam of great skill, great ego and great anxiety" that is at the core of professional basketball. What he has to say about the big picture is perceptive and interesting; but the book comes most vigorously to life when he reduces his scale to the lives of these individual men, and presents them to the reader as the people that, he persuades us, they actually are.