Tuesday, June 24, 2014

From Abacus’ Bookshelf: Recalling David Halberstam

It must have been quite a challenge to edit the sports literature of the late, great David Halberstam. At times, it’s a bit of a challenge simply to read it – though invariably a rewarded effort.

Whether he’s chronicling one of the most spectacular stretches (albeit brief) of basketball brilliance in the history of the NBA…

Whether he’s waxing boyishly nostalgic over the baseball heroes of his youth…

Whether he’s craftily connecting the puzzle pieces of a lifetime so as to account for the consistent superiority of the “best-in-the-business” pro football coach…

He has so thoroughly researched his subjects – to about seven layers of separation (the web of associations that led to a 23-year-old Bill Belichick’s first job in the NFL is stunning) – that the background stories and supporting characters occasionally take on a life of their own.

The “No-where” from which Billy Ray Bates came; the evolution and devolution of Kermit Washington; the big-city swagger of Tom Owen, an otherwise innocuous Big White Stiff in a league full of them; the toll taken on so fragile a thing as the human foot by the grind of big-time ball – and the consequent toll on the equally fragile human ego.

Ah, the breaks in the narrative make The Breaks of the Game, you might say.

But those lengthy breaks in the narrative create some herky-jerky “OK, now where were we?” moments. Additionally, Halberstam’s bountiful supply of sources can create occasional confusion regarding just whose little anecdote is being rendered at a given point.

In a closing notation to Summer of ’49, the author observes that any number of male friends would have been happy to conduct the interviews with his/their boyhood heroes. However, having resisted the impulse to play Tom Sawyer, he’s “left with the pleasure of having finished the book and, of course, the even greater pleasure of the doing of it.”

The greatest pleasure, and therefore the ultimate reward, is the opportunity to perform the task in the first place.

That’s what resonates about Halberstam’s work – each endeavor is truly a labor of love. Naturally, he brings to the task the eye and instinct of a trained historical researcher, indeed one of the best and brightest. Of course even the best and brightest of us, when offering explanation or rendering a tale, reach that uncomfortable moment of “Uh-oh, where was I going with all this?”

The cast of characters that peoples our wide world of sports, with their super-human skills and ever-so-human psyches, weaves a tapestry every bit as complex and intriguing as the best of Dickens or Ludlum. It requires a sharp eye to see the inner-workings and a unique voice to deliver the play-by-play.

With the aid of that frazzled editor, David Halberstam was able to pull it off time and again.

I miss that voice.