The UK was in the middle of its first lockdown when The Last Dance, a ten-part documentary about the 1997-98 Chicago Bulls, was released by Netflix and ESPN. The idea was presumably to coincide with the beginning of the NBA playoffs in April 2020, but as things turned out the series filled the gap created by the suspension of live basketball after the league shut down in March. Fans and players retreated to their homes and watched Michael Jordan instead. The basketball podcasts I listen to paused their endless speculation about the shutdown and the possible resumption of play (later that summer, the league finished the season in a bubble at Disney World in Florida) and gave in to nostalgia for the 1990s. It was as if every sports journalist had been struck by the same fact at the same time: not only had their kids never watched a Jordan game from start to finish, most current NBA players hadn’t either.
But the nostalgia evoked by The Last Dance was larger and more general than any regret about fading memories of Jordan. (Sporting fame is fleeting. In the case of writers, artists, musicians and movie stars, we continue to consume the work that made them famous. But people don’t usually watch old ball games.) It was connected to a generational shift in the way basketball is played. For the past six or seven seasons the NBA had been reshaping itself according to ideas about playing ‘efficiency’ driven by increased access to complex ‘tracking data’. To take shooting percentages alone, we now have stats not just for shots from two-point and three-point range (which existed even in Jordan’s day), but from inside the paint, from between ten and sixteen feet, from the long mid-range, off pick-and-rolls, off the dribble, from catch-and-shoots, with defenders in your face, with specific defenders in your face, from ‘open’ looks, in the last five minutes of close games etc.
When I was a kid, sports announcers like Bill Walton used to dramatise the end of games by saying corny things like, ‘It’s just a question of who wants it more.’ Now they talk about crunch-time efficiency and cite the data. In other words, something that was once seen as a test of character – the courage to perform under pressure – is now regarded as a test of certain kinds of technical advantage. I’m exaggerating – the two aren’t mutually exclusive – but only a little. The journalists who cover the NBA (and the players, coaches and front-office people, too) have to place themselves on a scale according to how much they think winning or losing can be predicted by ‘following the science’. At one end are the analytics geeks, like the current Philadelphia 76ers president, Daryl Morey, whose basketball god isn’t Michael Jordan but the efficiency-hunting James Harden (who has never won a championship). At the other are journalists like Bill Simmons, who calls himself a ‘narrative guy’. There are also people in the middle. The writer and podcaster Zach Lowe, for example, identifies as ‘analytics adjacent’.
Chris Herring is one of the journalists who likes to cross the aisle. He used to write for fivethirtyeight.com, which takes a data-driven view of the NBA. Recently, he moved to Sports Illustrated. When I was growing up, SI was the American sports magazine. It sold itself not just on its glossy front-row photography (it was first published in 1954) but on its ability to tell complex stories – its contributors included William Faulkner, John Updike, Jack Kerouac and Don DeLillo. In Blood in the Garden, Herring is firmly in narrative mode, and he wants to remind us what a good narrative sport basketball is.
This is true for several reasons, some more interesting than others. First, the obvious ones. Basketball is played on a relatively small court, about ninety feet long by fifty wide. Compared to the other major team ball sports – soccer, American football, baseball, rugby and cricket – basketball offers the best front row seats: it comes closest to the intimacy of tennis (a tennis court is roughly half the size of a basketball court). There are only five players per team and they don’t wear helmets or any kind of headgear, so you can see the emotions on their faces. Also, the players themselves are larger than life – the average NBA player is six and a half feet tall. Going to a game is like entering an episode of Star Trek in which the Enterprise has landed on a planet that resembles our own, except that the inhabitants are several iterations along in the evolution of the species.
Then there are the less obvious reasons. Because height is so important, basketball players often bloom late. Practising shooting (the key skill) can be counterproductive until your body is big and strong enough to do it properly – in most cases, after puberty. (In soccer, by contrast, if kids don’t start working seriously on their close control by the time they’re nine or ten, they may never catch up.) This means that basketball players sometimes get normal childhoods, and can emerge suddenly into stardom from relatively ordinary backgrounds – a possibility strengthened by the fact that the NBA recruits its talent not from specialised professional academies but from the university system.
John Starks, for example, perhaps the most beloved player on the 1990s Knicks, quit high-school basketball after just a year, telling his coach ‘he needed a job to help his mom at home.’ Starks eventually cycled through a series of small-time college basketball programmes, from Rogers State, where he was on the ‘taxi’ squad (which didn’t suit up for games), to Northern Oklahoma, until he got kicked out for smoking pot in his dorm room. After that he met his future wife and ‘took a minimum-wage, $3.35-an-hour cashier job at a Safeway’ to help ‘provide’. Later, he was promoted to stock boy and would ‘test his athleticism by touching the 10.5-foot-high beams towards the back of the store’ – it didn’t hurt that he’d grown four inches since high school. Starks still played basketball in his spare time. Drifting, restless, he finally enrolled at Tulsa Junior College, which had no basketball team.
At that point, he had a bit of luck. An assistant coach at a nearby college went over to watch an intramural game to see if any talent had ‘slipped through the cracks’. Eventually, he ended up offering Starks a scholarship to Oklahoma Junior College, where he was ‘maybe our tenth or eleventh-best player at the time’. Sometimes big-time college teams will schedule early-season games against junior colleges, partly as a favour and partly because they want to pick up a few easy wins. The day Starks got married, OJC was supposed to play in Kansas, but a snowstorm was coming and the game had to be called off. When the storm failed to materialise it was on again. OJC’s coach managed to reach Starks at the wedding reception. He and his new wife ‘hopped in their Chevy Impala’ and ‘sped up Highway 75’. Arriving at half-time, his team down 25 points, Starks changed out of his tuxedo. In the second half, he led a furious comeback, scoring 22 points on his own, including a reverse dunk off a half-court alley-oop. Even though his team lost by four, the performance was good enough to get him a scholarship to Oklahoma State, a Division One programme. He was on his way.
Blood in the Garden is full of stories like this. The hero, or villain, is the head coach of the Knicks in the early 1990s, Pat Riley, a cross between Gordon Gekko and Forrest Gump, whose career now spans seven decades of NBA history. His father was a former minor-league baseball player who came home one day and burned a lifetime’s worth of memorabilia because the ‘farm system’ team he ended up coaching had been axed. Later he became an abusive alcoholic sideline dad, who once had to be escorted out of his son’s basketball game. This was Riley’s model for what happens to you when you quit playing sports.
Riley himself had a decent career as a bench player in the NBA, before chancing his way into broadcasting, then becoming assistant coach, and in 1981 head coach, of the Los Angeles Lakers, whose stars included the six-time MVP Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and a young Magic Johnson. The players liked him because he let them run the show – he was 36 years old and didn’t know what else to do. But three championships later he started to get ideas. By this point, he had become a ‘bestselling author’ and a ‘motivational speaker who could command $20,000 per talk’, as well as having a ‘face that would grace not only billboards but magazine covers’. A few years after leaving the Lakers, he published a book called The Winner Within, which included a chapter that warned against self-serving leadership titled ‘The Disease of Me’. But the real lesson he learned from coaching the Lakers is that you should always be the most important person in the room.
This is the guy the Knicks hired as head coach, and what he instituted was the opposite of the Lakers’ ‘Showtime’ – the free-flowing beautiful game spearheaded by Magic Johnson in his prime. Magic made basketball look fun and easy. The trick was to have more talent than other people, and the Hollywood celebrities in the front row at the Forum added to the vibe. Riley, as a player, did not have more talent than other people; he stuck around in the league by working harder and playing meaner, and he brought the same tendencies to the Knicks. After firing one popular operations staffer at his new club, he addressed the tension in the locker room by saying: ‘Sometimes in a situation, you have to shoot a hostage in the head, then look around and say, “Who the fuck is next?”’
In 1991, Michael Jordan won his first championship by beating the Lakers; a few months later Magic retired, announcing that he had HIV. The torch had been passed – Michael was now the guy who made it look easy. Blood in the Garden is in essence an account of Riley’s attempt to bridge the talent gap by turning basketball into an uglier game, where grace and skill matter less than brute force and a willingness to push the rules to their limits. The book goes into detail about the intensity of the team’s pre-season workouts, the fist-fights that broke out in practice, the angry confrontations with the league (which frequently punished the Knicks for violent play), but all of this can be summed up by the contrast between Starks and Michael Jordan – the Golden Boy who won a national collegiate championship at North Carolina when he was nineteen and got his name on a line of Nike sneakers when he entered the NBA. MJ never had to provide for his fiancée by stacking shelves.
This goes some way to explaining why New Yorkers love the Knicks, and why they love Starks in particular. Knicks fans like to think of their town as a hard-hat kind of place: when Starks played at Madison Square Garden he was just going to work. His most glorious moment came in game two of the 1993 Eastern Conference finals, when he drove baseline against Chicago’s B.J. Armstrong and dunked left-handed all over the late help from Horace Grant and Jordan to seal New York’s 2-0 lead. But the Bulls won four out of the next five games to clinch the series on their way to Jordan’s third straight championship. Even when Jordan retired at the end of the season, and the Knicks reached the finals the following year, they couldn’t get over the hump and lost to Hakeem Olajuwon’s Houston Rockets, partly because Olajuwon had more talent than anyone on the Knicks, but also because Starks made only two out of eighteen shots in the deciding seventh game, one of the worst shooting performances in finals history.
To find out what chasing the Grail is like, Louis MacNeice wrote, you should talk to Lancelot not Galahad. After all, Lancelot had to think about it his whole life – Galahad, to use the Nike slogan, just did it. I don’t think I’m spoiling it for anyone when I say that Riley’s Knicks never won an NBA championship. The Last Dance is Galahad’s version of the 1990s NBA; Blood in the Garden tells the story from Lancelot’s point of view. We’re used to reading about all the effort it takes to succeed, but Herring shows us vividly how much work failure involves. By 1995 Riley decided he had backed a loser and departed in traditional New York fashion for Florida, to run the Miami Heat. The last third of the book covers the birth of a new rivalry based in part on the personal conflict between the old coach and some of his former staff and players. In the short term, the Knicks won many of those battles, including a first-round playoff series in 1999 on the way to their second finals appearance of the decade – where they lost again.
But in the long run, Riley clearly won the break-up. In 2006 he coached the Miami Heat to a championship and in 2010, as executive, orchestrated the signing of LeBron James, which led to two more championships. Whereas the Knicks have won one playoff series in the last twenty years. There are worse things than being Lancelot: you can be one of the many, many knights who just suck. Riley himself is still a major figure in the game and presides over something half-ironically, half-admiringly referred to in NBA circles as ‘Heat culture’ – a pseudo-militaristic insistence on conditioning and competitive intensity, which is what distinguished those blood-in-the-garden Knicks from the rest of the league. But ‘culture’ is also what you fall back on when you don’t quite have the talent. Was it culture that won Riley nine NBA championships in five decades as player, assistant coach, coach and executive? Or was it Magic Johnson, Dwyane Wade and LeBron James?
In this context, Jordan’s 6-0 finals record remains the standard that makes all other basketball successes look human. There’s a debate going on now, partly fuelled by the rise of analytics, about whether LeBron has finally passed Michael as the ‘greatest of all time’. At the age of 37, still unretired, James has played more seasons, scored more points, dished out more assists, won more games. Even the advanced data suggests that he has extended his peak for much longer than Jordan did. Yet James’s record in the NBA finals is 4-6, with at least two blow-outs and missed opportunities among the losses, while Jordan’s career described an almost perfect narrative arc: once he figured out how to win, he never lost again. Of course, the analytics crowd are suspicious of winning and losing, which is just a gross proximate metric that belies the deeper reality of various statistical abstractions (Player Efficiency Rating, Real Plus Minus, Wins Above Replacement Player and the like). One of the joys of listening to them talk about basketball is to hear them complain about Jordan’s ‘six and oh’, which reminds me of Shaw’s line about Shakespeare: ‘There is no eminent writer … whom I can despise so entirely … when I measure my mind against his … It would positively be a relief to me to dig him up and throw stones at him.’ Knicks fans would sympathise.
Listen to Benjamin Markovits talking about basketball with Ben Cohen and Kevin Arnovitz on the LRB Podcast.