The Breaks of the Game
I am almost finished with David Halberstam’s Breaks of the Game, which is a book about my favorite sport, Basketball. Its topic is the 1979-1980 season of the Portland Trailblazers. It is a masterpiece, and you should read it.
Its style is deceptively spare: Halberstam’s prose is extremely direct, favoring straightforwardly descriptive claims contained in short sentences. It reaches a kind of cumulative grandeur largely by refusing to take flight. We are told that men and and their actions are beautiful and cruel and courageous and we are persuaded. The tone effectively skirts the terrain of epic, which is fitting for a story about the great men of our past.
The book has an ingeniously indirect structure; while its ultimate task is rendering the spiritual character of its prime movers– Kermit Washington, Bill Walton, John Ramsey, Maurice Lucas — it approaches this aim crabwise. The basketball season provides the book’s explicit structure, covering nearly every game in some detail. But at each turn, it breaks from this narrative to further sketch the portrait of some player in the drama. It circles back on the main figures again and again, sketching further facets of each man’s character. With Washington, it turns back on him again and again to render a missing element of his personal history. The effect of this accumulation of telling details is to create an indelible impression of several complex, contradictory men tenuously united by sport genius, their willingness and unwillingness to undertake great personal suffering for the sake of basketball.
While the book ranges over many themes in the development of basketball, its two ground notes are the two dominant forces in American life, Race and Commerce. Blackness (and, more impressively, Whiteness) are depicted, simply, as tangible elements of each man’s lived reality. It is the predominant force in how men relate to each other and to their coaches and to their environment. Almost every black player is conscious of how the dignity denied to him because of his race is tied up with the astronomical fortune furnished by his athletic gifts. Everyone is acutely aware of how their worth as men is measured by the size of their salary relative to that of other players — especially white players. And so by being about men and their sense of themselves the book also becomes a book about America, about everything.
And this reality sits in uneasy tension with these men’s coeval passion to make something beautiful on the court with their bodies and minds. Its observations of the game itself are lovingly detailed without being wonkish. Halberstam’s acute observation of the game itself amkes the theater in which the war between economics and basketball unfolds. Men struggle to reconcile their need to rely on each other with their need for money and recognition. Basketball wins.