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A Slam Dunk of a Basketball Tale : FORTY-EIGHT MINUTES: A Night in the Life of the NBA by Bob Ryan and Terry Pluto (Macmillan: $16.95; 356 pp., illustrated)

January 10, 1988|Larry Ceplair | Ceplair, a historian, attended first game played for UCLA by the man now known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

It takes extraordinary courage to rave in the Los Angeles Times Book Review about a book that focuses on a National Basketball Assn. game played in Boston Garden on Jan. 16, 1987, that did not involve the Lakers. However, honesty must take precedence over home-team loyalty. This book by Bob Ryan, a basketball writer for the Boston Globe, and Terry Pluto, a basketball writer for the Akron Beacon-Journal, is the best inside look at professional basketball ever.

These two deeply knowledgeable writers conceived and implemented a brilliant idea: Provide a play-by-play itinerary of a single basketball game, interspersed with detailed comments about the game, the league, the players, the coaches, the referees, trainers, and announcers. (Only the writers' role is omitted.) Fortune smiled on their enterprise--the game they chose, the Cleveland Cavaliers vs. the Boston Celtics, proved exciting and well-played, with Boston winning in overtime, 133-128.

Ryan and Pluto worship the game of professional basketball, they know it intimately, and they are witty men. They also gained the cooperation of two other articulate and knowledgeable men: Lenny Wilkens, the Cavaliers' head coach, and Jimmy Rodgers, an assistant coach for the Celtics, who reviewed the videotapes of the game with the authors and offered detailed commentary on what occurred. The result is a finely textured tapestry. Best of all, Ryan and Pluto do not try to make of this fast, exciting, and complex sport an allegory for our times. They simply tell their story engagingly.

It should be said, however, that those who do not love professional basketball or are not interested in the most intimate details of the Cleveland and Boston organizations would do well to seek their reading pleasure elsewhere.

Those who like the game and who are not annoyed by reams of prose about the Celtics will be pleased. The game was a classic, matching a young team (with five rookies) put together by people with little basketball background from the ashes of a disastrous ownership vs. a veteran team assembled by the greatest coach and general manager the league has ever known (and hated)--Red Auerbach. In fact, the authors readily acknowledge that hatred and the Celtics go hand in hand among the nation's sports fans.

One more item should be mentioned before moving on to the authors' main themes: The authors think that Larry Bird is "the greatest all-around player the game has yet produced." They lavish space and praise on him, his talent and his attitude.

They are fair in their evaluations of each player, providing background and an assessment of skills and weaknesses. They appreciate the skills of these talented athletes. After describing an incredible move by Cavalier rookie guard Ron Harper, they note: "This was a move of sheer talent. Either you can jump that high or you can't. Either you can hang in the air for that long or you can't . . . . None of it can be taught, and Harper has it all."

Speaking of Harper, who is black, and his natural talent, it is good to see the authors address squarely the fact that pro basketball is a black man's sport. In the section describing Kevin McHale as a shot blocker, they write he "was the greatest white shot blocker of all time until Mark Eaton came along." They then explained that they used the phrase white shot blocker "very carefully," because it is "unnecessary to have a Ph.D. in kinesiology to realize that the average black player can jump higher and run faster than the average white player." They note that black players become understandably annoyed when their results are attributed to "physical ability" and "instinct" while white players are noted for their "sagacity."

They conclude: "The moves black players unveil on the court are the product of work. In order for any black player to reach the pinnacle of his profession, thousands of hours have been spent practicing, learning, and experimenting. What good does sheer jumping ability do if the person doesn't know what to do with the ball once he gets it? Speed is nice to have, but speed without purpose is irrelevant to the essence of the game."

The essence of the game, as they repeatedly make clear, is teamwork. Although it might seem as though pro basketball is an ongoing series of one-on-one encounters, the authors' descriptions of the sequence of each play make it clear that success is a product of careful preparation and hard work by the general managers and coaches and unselfishness by the players.

Ryan and Pluto also demonstrate that players want to win every game, that they have pride and determination, and that a game in mid-January that has little to do with the standings, the playoff picture, or one's salary can bring out the best in all concerned.

Though they find much to admire in the college game, they write "that the quality of professional basketball is markedly superior to that in the colleges . . . . There has never been a college game played to equal the best several hundred pro games."

There is much more in this book--the quality of refereeing, defense, capsule histories of the two teams, and more intelligent commentary on basketball as a game that has been put between two covers since Pete Axthelm wrote his classic, "The City Game."

This is a must-read for any fan, even those rabid about the Lakers and their guard, whatsizname, with the big smile.

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