Birth of a Salesman

Michael Jordan
Michael Jordan; drawing by David Levine

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…

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