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Tuesday, April 24, 2007

David Halberstam: A Real Writer

David Halberstam was a real writer. Halberstam, who died on Monday as a result of injuries that he suffered in a car accident, was a real writer not because he won a Pulitzer Prize or because his books sold a lot of copies; awards are often given out as a result of popularity and great sales numbers do not prove (or disprove) the quality of a creative work. No, David Halberstam was a real writer because he loved and mastered the craft of writing. This love and mastery are clearly demonstrated in the work that Halberstam produced, work that covered an amazing array of subjects ranging from the Vietnam War to the civil rights movement to the 1949 American League pennant race to Bill Belichick to a Portland Trailblazers season that he described in perhaps the greatest book ever written about the NBA: The Breaks of the Game.

Real writers are able to elicit interesting quotes from their interview subjects because they ask the right questions and listen carefully to what they are told. I was a 10 year old kid when The Breaks of the Game was published and I was thrilled to read such an in-depth look at NBA basketball, my favorite sport. Halberstam interviewed a staggering number of players, coaches, broadcasters and others, so he obviously could not include everything that he heard--but a real writer knows how to include quotes that move the story forward by telling you something about the speaker and something about the topic at hand. On page 251 of The Breaks of the Game, Steve Jones talks about Marvin Barnes: "Saddest story in basketball. Most talented player I ever saw come into the game. He's blown it all and it's all gone, but I never saw a better player than Marvin Barnes when he came in the league. As quick as Walter Davis. The rebounding instincts, timing and strength of Moses Malone. Could shoot like Marques Johnson. Marvin broke every rule there was, sometimes I think he studied the rules just so he could break them." Halberstam then described the quick rise and equally quick fall of Barnes, concluding with this quote from Jones: "The Man gives you one chance at it in this game. You can't waste it. You can't be black and waste anything. Not a damn thing." I was struck not only by Barnes' story but by the way that Halberstam told it, supplementing the factual details of Barnes' career with the haunting, piercing quotes from Jones, a player turned broadcaster who currently can be seen on NBA TV. I never forgot those quotes: "He's blown it all and it's all gone" and "You can't be black and waste anything."

Real writers have an ear for language just like great composers have an ear for music. Here is Halberstam's description of Bobby Gross' thoughts about Julius Erving (p. 355, The Breaks of the Game): "But it was not just the leaping ability. It was The Doctor's hands. They were huge and yet surprisingly delicate, with extremely long fingers. It was odd, Gross suspected, for a player to be so fascinated with another player's hands, but Julius Erving had beautiful hands. They allowed him to hold the ball lightly and yet still control it, to do tricks with the ball, to drive past the basket and then at the last minute to score by putting all sorts of spins and reverse spins on the ball in ways denied mere mortals with mortal hands. Gross, in comparison with most American males, had huge hands but even they forced certain limits on his game. He could not dunk without holding the ball tightly; otherwise he might lose control of it. That alone denied him many of the angles available to Erving."

Real writers can write about any subject because they understand that before committing even one word to paper they must first research their subject and thoroughly understand it. That is why Halberstam was able to write with such depth and feeling about so many subjects--he did the "grunt" work. Too many writers don't get their facts straight before spouting their opinions.

Not everybody thinks that he can be a surgeon or an astrophysicist--but everybody thinks that he can write. If you doubt this, just surf the internet for a few minutes: more people are publishing their writing than at any time in history. Unfortunately, most of this writing is poorly done. David Halberstam's work was great not because of where it was published or the awards it received but because he pursued his craft the right way. Halberstam had an unquenchable thirst to understand the true nature of things and to communicate that understanding to his readers. That is why, at the age of 73, Halberstam was not resting on his laurels but was on his way to do an interview for his newest book when fate intervened.

David Halberstam lived a full life but he died before his time. The best tribute that can be made to him is to understand that real writing is precious and hard to find. Seek it out--and accept no substitutes.

posted by David Friedman @ 9:49 PM



At Wednesday, April 25, 2007 1:52:00 AM, Blogger vednam said...

I was very saddened to hear of Halberstam's death. I really admired his work on the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights era, and as you pointed out, he was a master of the craft of writing. Whether you agreed with his writings or not, you were always in for a good read.

Looking at the variety of topics he's written on, I was never sure whether to take his word as seriously as those of basketball experts, or to look at it as a less knowledgable outsider's point of view. For instance, I think he wrote an article in the mid 80s in a magazine arguing that Larry Bird would still be a great player if he played for the Lakers but Magic Johnson would not be nearly as great if he were a Celtic (due to the different styles of play of the two teams). I also think that in his book on the 1979 Blazers, he describes Dr. J as a poor passer and defender. There were many other opinions he held which I found rather strange that I can't exactly recall at this moment.

In any case, I still enjoyed Halberstam's work. Espn.com's Page 2 has an archive of old articles he wrote. There's one about Allen Iverson's performance in the 2001 finals that is very interesting. There's another about why he feels Patrick Ewing wasn't a great player which I found myself agreeing very strongly with.

At Wednesday, April 25, 2007 4:00:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

I don't recall seeing the Magic/Bird article.

The description of Dr. J was not Halberstam's opinion, but the message that Coach Jack Ramsay conveyed to his team before the series; Halberstam simply reported what Ramsay said. Halberstam noted that some of the Blazers resented that Ramsay denigrated Erving, who was such a respected player. The truth is that Dr. J was an excellent passer and an above average defender, as Rod Thorn mentioned in my interview with him (which can be found on this site).

At Wednesday, April 25, 2007 7:58:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've read other books I enjoyed more, due to the subject matter or simply that my expectations were lower; but I don't think I've ever read a book on basketball as well written as "Breaks of the Game".

I don't mean shallow mannierisms, I mean using language to convey ideas and feelings. Made you feel like you knew how Walton felt, why Lucas left, how lost was Dr Ramsay as his team crumbled, the way things happened in the NBA and how they affected people.

I think I'll look around for a copy of "Playing for Keeps".

At Wednesday, April 25, 2007 10:59:00 AM, Blogger marcel said...

he used to talk about jordan alot great writer dont know much about him though

At Monday, April 30, 2007 6:06:00 AM, Blogger vednam said...

The Magic/Bird article appeared after the 1987 season in Sports Illustrated. It focused on the issue of race in basketball. Halberstam mentioned, matter of factly, that while Bird would excel in the Laker style of play, Magic's greatest strength would be taken away if he played on the Celtics (who didn't have players fast enough to keep up with him). I found this assertion (and the self-evident manner in which it was stated) strange when considering Magic's skill set, and it was especially strange coming after the season in which Magic showed the full range of his skills in a half-court game. I think Magic reinforced that he can be a great point guard for a half-court team in the subsequent years when Showtime became Slowtime.

I know Halberstam wasn't examining that point all that carefully, and even if he believed that, it definitely does not take any credibility away from him. I just found that to be one of several curious observations Halberstam has made in his writings.

Thanks for clarifying that Jack Ramsay, and not Halberstam, was responsible for the low opinion of Dr. J's passing and defense (it's strange that Ramsay felt that way). My mistake.

At Monday, April 30, 2007 5:41:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Using a word that you coined in another thread, I always thought that Bird got "overpraised" a bit compared to Magic; Magic beat him in college, won five titles to three in the NBA and led a team to the title as a rookie when Bird won the Rookie of the Year.

I wonder if Ramsay's comments were a bit like the D'Antoni comments about Kobe that appear in Jack McCallum's recent book about the Suns. As Kenny Smith said on TNT, in the heat of battle, coaches are sometimes reluctant to give credit to the top guy on the other team--either out of emotion or because they don't want to discourage their own players. So, D'Antoni is not going to tell the Suns that Kobe is the best player in the NBA--he is going to harp on his weaknesses, real or imagined. I suspect the same might have been the case with Dr. Jack regarding Dr. J.

In 1975-76, Dr. J was in the top ten in the ABA in assists and made the All-Defensive Team; I don't think that he forgot how to pass and defend just one year later.


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