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Birth of a Salesman

For thirty-five years, David Halberstam, an unsilent member of the Silent Generation, has contemplated America and its place in the world, casting his eye on big subjects—Vietnam, global economics, race, mass media, and the 1950s. Like Graham Greene, who, between his weightier fictions on sin and salvation and the transgressions of Pax Americana, published the tidy thrillers he called “entertainments,” Halberstam intersperses his eight-hundred-page baggy monsters with diversions of his own. His subject is always sports—the 1949 American League pennant race (Summer of ‘49), scullers questing for a place on the 1984 Olympic team (The Amateurs), the 1964 World Series between the New York Yankees and the St. Louis Cardinals (October 1964), and the troubled 1978-1979 season of the NBA’s Portland Trailblazers (The Breaks of the Game).

Writing well about sports is as difficult as writing well about sex. In sports, the confluence of the 1989 Oakland vs. San Francisco World Series and the Loma Prieta earthquake notwithstanding, the earth rarely moves. Today, because of television, reporting on who won and who lost is a penny short and a day late; on a single Saturday in February, nineteen men’s and women’s college basketball games, and one NBA game, were televised in the New York area. There were also two championship boxing bouts, two NHL hockey games, skiing and figure skating championships, a soccer match, two golf tournaments, harness and thoroughbred racing, and two track meets. With so much action immediately available onscreen, the written report conveys only what one has already seen, if not live, then on the late-night news wrap-ups and the highlight shows, with instant replay, clever cutting, multiple angles, slo-mo, super slo-mo—plus trash talk, hoop hanging, styled home run trots, and end-zone dirty dancing.

On top of this, the sports wire is supplemented by all-sports-all-the-time sports radio, where hosts like “Mad Dog” Russo on New York’s WFAN encourage fans who call in to bring their vitriol to a splendid boil; the blood lust these callers direct at athletes, coaches, managers, referees, umpires, and owners who have incurred their displeasure seems on the level of the musings of the nation’s Trench Coat Mafias. Inevitably, sportswriters feel the need to compete with the fevered callers and the mad dog hosts who set the tone of sports commentary. The felicitous phrase and the graceful sentence, never an abundant commodity on the sports pages, have given way to the sodden, uninventive invective of sports radio. “Gutless” and “yellow” are adjectives of choice, “choke” a predicate for any losing situation, and “phonies,” usually gutless and often chokers, populate the sporting scene. Indeed the self-image of many contemporary sportswriters seems to depend on maintaining that were it not for sports, athletes would be pumping gas, if they were not sticking up the gas station.

Sports sections, like the sports franchises they cover, have become dominated by stars. The reason is economic; the only ads that appear in most big-city sports pages—any issue of the Los Angeles Times, for example—are for cures for impotence, baldness, and hair loss, for retail computer outlets and for auto tire discounters. Big-ticket advertisers—for sports gear and equipment—get more bang for the buck on sports television. But in a time of declining revenues, editors go for star sports columnists; the sports pages are the most-read section of the newspaper, and the columnists are the panzer commanders of the circulation wars. By a multiple of several times, star sports columnists are the most-read and highest-paid writers on a newspaper, earning salaries as high as $500,000 a year. There are too many columns and too little space, Pete Hamill, who edited both New York tabloids, the Post and the Daily News, told me; this is a circumstance that encourages cutthroat competition among the columnists, and no abiding loyalty to their papers. When a tabloid sports star sees him for lunch, a top editor at The New York Times confided to me, he knows that the columnist is using the putative interest of the Times (whose own columnists do not earn in the half-million-dollar range) as leverage to bump or renegotiate his contract.

Some sportswriting stars have become, in Calvin Trillin’s memorable phrase about TV’s Sunday political pundits, sabbath gasbags, exchanging zingers on ESPN and laughing uproariously at each other’s bad jokes. With only a few exceptions the sports column has become a glum business, all performance and attitude, a venting of ego intended to counterbalance the weight of athlete fame and money. What separates David Halberstam from most other writers about sports is that as a Pulitzer Prize winner,1 a best-selling writer, the recipient of sixteen honorary degrees, and one of the most indefatigable reporters of his generation, he suffers no ego deficit in relation to his star and superstar subjects. Nor is he envious of their celebrity and material success. He genuinely likes them, and especially enjoys the company of those he calls “lifers,” the scouts, trainers, and assistant coaches whom fame and riches have passed by, but whose life remains the game. He tells us that the father of Phil Jackson, Michael Jordan’s last coach on the Chicago Bulls, was an evangelical minister in North Dakota, and that Jackson grew up in a church whose parishioners spoke in tongues, so that it was not a remarkable stretch when, as an adult, he became a practicing Buddhist.

Sports for Halberstam reflect American society, a society in which raceremains the insoluble issue. White America sees the playing field, where athletes of color dominate in skill and generally predominate in numbers, as validation of the comforting illusion that the nation is color-blind. This is an illusion that Halberstam subjects to constant examination in his sporting entertainments, first in The Breaks of the Game (1981), which is among the best books I know of about professional sports in this country, an exploration not only of a basketball team coming apart at the seams, but of race and money and community.

Race was also a factor in Halberstam’s October 1964. He writes that after the signing of Jackie Robinson by the Brooklyn Dodgers, and his resulting stardom, the National League actively sought out the best young black players; between 1953 and 1962, nine of the league’s ten Most Valu-able Players were black. In the American League, the attitude was different. “I don’t want you sneaking around down any back alleys and signing any niggers,” he quotes Yankee general manager George Weiss warning his top scout, who, when he worked for the Dodgers, had enthusiastically endorsed Robinson; the American League’s first black MVP, in 1963, was Yankee catcher Elston Howard. To Halberstam, the 1964 Series was a clash between the two cultures: the Yankees with one black starter (Howard) lost to the Cardinals, who had four, plus the terrifying (because of the brushback pitch he threw without hesitation at hitters of whatever racial persuasion) future Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Gibson, who won three games.

For The Amateurs, Halberstam took up single sculling so that he might learn to appreciate the physical torment his emotionally volatile rowers experienced for what in the end was no treasure and scant acclaim, only the personal satisfaction of competition and possible selection for the 1984 Olympic team.2 Dispassionately, he recorded the relationships among the competitors in the tryouts and the training camps, where suspicion, dislike, envy, and distrust threatened the occasional fragile comity and where, never far below the surface, there lurked the possibility of mutiny against the coaches. For these oarsmen, winning one for Old Glory was not the first order of business; it was Yale vs. Harvard, East Coast strength vs. West Coast technique, or at its most primitive, you’re not as good as I am.

Halberstam returns to basketball and to race in Playing For Keeps, the story of Michael Jordan’s career and his final season with the Chicago Bulls. When The Breaks of the Game was published in 1981, Halberstam had noted the cracks that were beginning to show in the social and economic architecture of professional athletics. What interests him eighteen years later is the way in which those fissures widened to the point where they essentially forced the aging edifice, and the old ways in which business was done there, to collapse. Michael Jordan was not alone responsible for the structural changes, but his arrival on the pro basketball scene, and in a more important sense on the national economic stage, supplied the last and loudest trumpet that blew the walls down.

Jordan is perhaps the most successful athlete in history, a figure known in any corner of the globe where one has access to a television set. Pele, the Brazilian soccer genius, had the same kind of recognition except in America, where the sport has never caught on commercially. In athletic talent, Jordan had only one equivalent, an athlete himself in a way, and one every bit as gifted as he—Mikhail Baryshnikov. Each seemed to find a way to conquer gravity, to slip “the surly bonds of earth,” as John Gillespie Magee’s World War II poem celebrating the idea of flight had it. Jordan was Air; there was something magical about the nickname, more magical even than “Magic.” Of course he has published his own memoir—For the Love of the Game: My Story. Like Jordan himself, it seems more a product than a book, its prose a pottage of cliché, sermon, self-adulation, and self-righteousness, set off by glorious photographs and trick typography in a dazzling number of hues, fonts, and sizes, often centered for maximum effect.

IF THERE IS ONE PLAYER I WOULD HAVE LIKED TO PLAY AGAINST IN HIS PRIME

IT WOULD HAVE BEEN

Jerry West.

And did he feel sorry for friends such as Charles Barkley and Patrick Ewing when he played against them?

NO.

Where did he never find comfort?

IN THE SPOTLIGHT.

In the face of such modesty, Halberstam wisely does not concentrate heavily on Jordan’s airiness, focusing more on the business and sociological infrastructure of basketball than on the game and its fluid floor rhythms. Twenty years ago the sport was perceived as too black and too tainted with drugs. CBS was broadcasting few games, and in many major venues the 1980 NBA championship series between Julius Erving’s Philadelphia 76ers and Magic Johnson’s Los Angeles Lakers was only carried on late-night tape delay. As a medium for advertising, the NBA ranked, said one league executive, “somewhere between mud wrestling and tractor pulling.” There was even talk, Halberstam writes, of “splitting the season into two sections to heighten fan interest and, to counter the claim that players did not play hard for forty-eight minutes, of awarding a point in the standings to a team every time it won a quarter.”

The arrival of Magic Johnson with the Lakers and Larry Bird with the Boston Celtics was the first step in turning the NBA into an economic colossus. Theirs was a natural rivalry, starting at the NCAA final the previous spring when Johnson’s Michigan State team beat Bird and Indiana State. One was white, one was black, one played for the Celtics, the NBA’s most storied franchise, the other for the showtime Lakers, Magicalized into Hollywood’s team; at Laker games, it seemed as if Jack Nicholson in his courtside seat by the home bench got more TV face time than the lesser players. In all, Bird and Johnson matched up in three NBA finals, the Celtics winning the first, the Lakers the next two; the alchemy of these two superstars changed the NBA story line from color, cocaine, and rehab to the intimacy and acrobatic movements of the pro game, with its no-look passes, slam dunks, three pointers, and triple doubles.

  1. 1

    I met Halberstam in 1962 when he was The New York Times‘s man in Vietnam, on the way to his Pulitzer. As Time magazine’s Far East writer, stationed in New York, I had flown into Saigon more or less as a day tripper to get the “feel” of the situation—a week or so was all that Time‘s editors thought a writer with New York wisdom and the availability of Washington expertise needed to catch the lay of the land, and to set straight the local reporters whom my editors thought had gone native. That Halberstam was able to overlook this impertinence, and that I recognized it as such, made for a friendship that has persisted to the present.

  2. 2

    Halberstam still sculls. At some point, a film producer asked if I had any interest in making The Amateurs into a screenplay. I saw no visual way of explaining why the rowers endured the pain. One could show the boats skimming through the water, and buckets of sweat, and muscles and tendons stretched into cords, but why they did it seemed unfilmable. It was suggested that a Halberstam surrogate would try to discover why, but then it would become a movie about a reporter and not his subject, generally a bad idea.

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