A couple of years ago, my then 10 year old son was constructing a rather elaborate Christmas gift list. To my surprise, at the top of the list was a Kareem Abdul Jabbar jersey--signed, of course. My first few thoughts were: 1. How cool that a LeBron era kid would acknowledge an iconic player from long before his time! 2. All that TV watching of ESPN secondary channels is paying off! 2. I'm a librarian for Pete's sake--does he really think I make enough money to buy a signed Kareem jersey!?
So, I settled on a framed poster. Kareem(Lew Alcindor) in his Milwaukee Bucks uniform. Forget the Lakers era. My love of Kareem started with the coin flip in 1969, when the only hazard coinage posed in my life was choking. But I wanted my son to know Kareem the Buck, so it was important to me that he was donning green. Anyways, the poster came with a promise we would find Kareem someday and get it signed, but we're still getting around to that.
Anyways, it has been fun sharing with my son the story of Kareem. It's not just a story about who he was as a player, but who he's become in the era afterwards. After all, the measure of an athlete is not the highlight reel from the court, but the wake of influence that he leaves while flying into the sunset. It's amazing to me just how much of an influential author Jabbar has become. I truly don't think many people realize the catalog of books he has put out since his playing days. Known as a reclusive figure in his Buck days, I'm not sure the Milwaukee crowd has a fair grasp as to just what a champion of the human spirit this man has become.
My most anticipated book of the year has been his latest book, Coach Wooden and Me: Our 50-Year Friendship On and Off the Court. Just released a week or so ago, the book details the intersection of two basketball legends, Coach John Wooden of UCLA and Kareem. Those of us who have read Coach Wooden's They Call Me Coach or The Pyramid of Success know of his unique ability to mentor basketball players not only in the game, but in life. Jabbar opens the curtains into his playing days at UCLA and his successful life afterwards and let's us see just how much influence the brilliant John Wooden had on him. It's a book of basketball, coaching, mentoring, philosophy and respect sewn into one. One thing is clear, we cannot grow into the people we wish to become without powerful mentors in our life. I'm sure Jabbar appreciates Wooden as a great sage and hand who graced his life, and whose spirit will continue to nudge him to greatness.
It's noble to hand a book like this to any teenager. It needs to be in every high school library. At a time when teens need to know that mentors are real and people can still be trusted in this world, Jabbar shows them that wisdom is found in relationships. Just because Jabbar and Wooden are not as freshly present in the memory of kids like LeBron or Coach K doesn't make their story any less important. There is no truth that wisdom ever ages out of style.
I want my son to appreciate Coach W, Kareem and their relationship, and the power of positive people in life. He will read the book with me this summer, and just maybe Santa will be watching so next Christmas he doesn't forget to load that signed jersey on the sleigh!
Moncrief. Cummings. Nelly. Hodges. MECCA. There never was such a beautiful time for basketball in my life. As a teenager, I basked in the glory of my Milwaukee Bucks, who as Hodges wisely noted, were one of the top NBA teams of the 80's. Every kid in Wisconsin emulated those teams. On the battered hoop hanging from my garage, we would drive to the hole in the classic Sidney Moncrief two handed, what we'd call "old-man" approach. We'd shoot short range "pancake" jumpers emulating that odd but effective Terry Cummings shooting stroke. And of course, we'd migrate to the outer reaches of the court-in my case, the sideyard lawn and my mom's prized flower beds, to shoot jumpers like Craig Hodges. We'd rise up mimicking Hodges textbook high-forehead pre-release ball carriage and loft bombs from beyond the arc, in a day when the NBA 3 point line seemed like half-court. Not since Brian Winters had I loved such a shooter!
I had forgotten about Craig Hodges. My teenage years are long in the rear view mirror, and the post 80's Bucks have been a revolving door of mediocrity. When I saw Hodges was coming out with a book, I was surprised to say the least. What was it about--shooting? Hodges wasn't Bird, or Magic, or Dr. J. He didn't have those credentials, so why would he put out a book?
In your teenage years, you fall into the trap of only seeing the player--not the man. Stats are king, image is everything. Happily, as I discovered in his new book Long Shot: The Triumphs and Struggles of an NBA Freedom Fighter, there was much to learn about Craig Hodges--and much to appreciate.
You can't emulate activism in the driveway, and what fan has time to notice a player fighting for rights when there's a 7 game series with the Celtics to worry about. Hodges takes the reader through his life--from his start in Chicago, to his college days in California at Long Beach State, and through his pro career and beyond. Hodges highlights not only his rise as an exceptionally talented basketball player, but his mission as an activist for the rights of players and African Americans. He also spends time weaving in the importance of family and other role models in his life. One of Hodges best known moments was during the 1992 Chicago Bulls NBA title visit to the White House, he delivered a handwritten letter to President George H. W. Bush demanding that he do more to address racism and economic inequality. I was personally fascinated by the chapters about his time in Milwaukee, which ended in an odd trade to the Phoenix Suns. Discovering the truth that the Bucks traded him because they did not like his outspoken activism was a shock to me. In a way it was this type of outspokenness that most likely cost Hodges the recognition he deserved during his time in the NBA.
As many athletes have discovered, speaking out comes at a cost. But guys like Hodges have paved the way. The Andrew Maraniss telling of Perry Wallace as the first Black basketball player in the SEC in his book Strong Inside is another recent book that addresses heroic examples of athletes fighting for justice in society. Spawning from this(hopefully), is a vein of athletes who are not simply content to skate by on their athletic resumes. They know there is a higher calling in the world, and perhaps they have a bigger pulpit than us everyday joe's to call attention to injustice.
Hodges book is extremely readable. At times it seems like a cool conversation he is having with the reader around a kitchen table. Hodges is a very honest narrator. There is not a preachy tone to the book, but rather an undertone of awareness and curiosity that Hodges breathes throughout his life. In this manner, I feel it would play extremely well with teens. I have faith that there are many young teenage athletes out there who are curious about what's going on in the world. They have no time for someone bullying them into activism. What Hodges urges in his book is for kids to be naturally curious about their world, and if there are things that they feel are wrong or unfair, don't be afraid to take a stand. Hodges came to these understandings through his heart. He wrote letters, he petitioned, and talked to authority figures. He showed the same tenacity with the rock as he did his rights.
I don't think kids will recall Craig Hodges. He's not Jordan or Bird. But that shouldn't stop any school or YA librarian from buying this book. Kids will quickly discover Hodges as an example of an athlete standing up fairness, equality and a better society, which is a lesson every kid could benefit from. I miss you Craig!
The 1942 Wisconsin Badgers football team had a host of individual stars, including two-time All-American end Dave Schreiner, fullback Pat Harder, and halfback Elroy "Crazylegs" Hirsch. Their coach was the stubborn and respected Harry Stuhldreher, best known as the one-time quarterback of Notre Dame's Four Horsemen. In the final-fling atmosphere typical on college campuses as the first year of U.S. involvement in World War II was winding down, the Badgers climbed their way up the rankings and ultimately became one of the greatest college football teams of all time.Stars and benchwarmers alike knew that each game brought them closer to military service. The Badgers scattered into the various branches-and around the world-shortly after the season. Not all were asked to be heroic in battle, but many were, and they answered the challenge. Not all of them returned, and the circumstances of at least one battle death have been shrouded in mystery for six decades.
It has been a fantastic year for school aged kids who like sports books! As I have spoken before, there is an important trend of authors developing young adult versions of nonfiction sports stories. These authors are tackling tough social issues through the lens of sports history, giving younger audiences who may struggle with such adult concepts a story on their own level.
In December, Andrew Maraniss completed a young reader edition of Strong Inside, the biography of Perry Wallace who was the first black player to compete in the highly segregated SEC. This past winter, author Steve Sheinkin published a fantastic book called Undefeated: Jim Thorpe and the Carlisle Indian School Football Team. Sheinkin has written numerous books highlighting important historical events with a knack for unfolding them in an appealing manner for young readers (which is no small task). Undefeated looks to be his first truly tied to sports. Like Maraniss, Sheinkin is masterfully nudging kids to become socially conscious citizens through these emotional and gripping stories.
While Undefeated is a fascinating look at Jim Thorpe as a person and athlete, it's an eye opening look at how Native Americans were treated in the United States in the late 1800's and early 1900's. The book is almost like studying 3 distinct facets of history that merge at one time. First, there is a look into the Carlisle School itself and how this educational system was formed in order to impose white values on the Native American kids, essentially erasing them of their culture. Next, the book is a neat history of the game of football. I think kids will be fascinated to read about the extremely violent origins of the game and how it was nearly banished because of life threatening and sometimes fatal injuries obtained in matches. Development of wrinkles like the forward pass and misdirection plays are all part of this radical era that matured the game from the brutal thugfest it was at that time.
Finally, main characters like Jim Thorpe and Pop Warner star in their own biographies, proving they are great models for the budding athlete. Thorpe's toughness and will to succeed are the star of Undefeated, and Pop Warner's innovative game management and motivational ability color him as just the right man to work with the young Indians who were willing to go to any length to play the game they loved.
The title may be a little deceiving as the book itself is not primarily about one season. The arc of time will take the reader through the start of Carlisle School and the youth of Thorpe and Warner, unifying them through the bond of Carlisle football and their quest for greatness in the sport. Like most titles in this new "young reader" category, the book is cleverly constructed with historical visuals to guide the way and manageable 5-7 page chapters that move the story along without becoming too weighty for a young reader. Still , the book feels nicely adultish, and I would challenge any adult to pick up the book and not become quickly engrossed in it!
Like Strong Inside, this book will succeed in any library from elementary on up. Not only will the reader who is looking for sports action love the book, but educators, parents, and librarians will value Undefeated for it's call to social consciousness in young adults, and the great example it sets of athletes who made their mark not only in sports, but in the world as well.
In honor of international women's day, I posted a stat this week on my twitter account about nonfiction sports titles and females. Consider this: In my high school library, only 9 percent of nonfiction sports titles are checked out to females. Also consider: Of the nonfiction sports titles I have, only 8 percent feature females as the main subject. How pathetic.
Why is this happening, and is anyone at fault? Like anything else, the answer is complicated. No, librarians are not ignoring girls when it comes to sports--nor are girls ignoring sports when it comes to books. I have a strong hunch that content, or lack of content, is driving this statistic. I could really talk at length about this, but I will leave it here with a simple point: We need more nonfiction books that focus on some of the great female athletes we have seen throughout history and those who are paving the way for female sports today.
With that thought, I want to highlight a new book that has most of the qualities that will win over new young females interested in reading about sports. If you remember Simone Biles, the stunning US gymnast who stole our hearts during the 2016 Rio games with that infectious smile and flawless talent, you'll want to consider her new book, Courage to Soar. With help from award winning author, Michelle Burford, Biles crafts her inspiring life story with the simplicity and grace of one of her fabulous floor routines!
Biles is s strong female role model who has succeeded in her sport. Her book, however, is not a resume of accomplishments nor does it attempt to exist as a self serving "look what I have done" expose that some athletes fall into with biographies. Courage to Soar is more of a manual on how to achieve dreams and life goals. For Biles, sport is the prop, life is the goal. It's the way things should be. Biles shows an amazing maturity for her youthful age, and tumbles through the numerous life lessons she has learned along the way to stardom.
Put out through a christian values press in Vondervan Publishing, Biles makes no bones about her faith playing a huge part in her life. Good for her. It goes nicely along with the current trend of athletes who are not afraid to credit God as the originator of all success. While some of these displays tend to be showy, Biles faith comes across as genuine and sincere.
I read a review about Courage To Soar that concluded it was a great title for young gymnasts. No--it's a good title for ANYONE. You don't need to be a gymnast to get something from this story. If you only see the sport itself, you are missing the bigger picture. Perhaps this is part of the bigger problem. Girls are being told that they can only engage and enjoy a book if it fits their bill. Really? Does one have to be a meth user to appreciate the struggles that a narrator elaborates on in a memoir about drug addiction?
Let's steer all females to a book like Courage To Soar. Couage, faith, values, and life balance are lessons for everyone, not just athletes...and not just guys. Let's allow more female athletes like Biles to work their magic on school aged kids by putting these books on our shelves.
To a certain extent, I think you have to be a runner to truly understand Knight. He is like so many that I have known and bonded with. Runners are a race of their own. To a runner, the world is staked on going for a run. Loyalties are tested, friendships cemented, ideas floated, stress managed, life courses altered, and deals are sealed through the sweat of a 6 mile run.
I had a copy of Phil Knight's new book Shoe Dog on my desk at school. A teacher passed by, saw the book, and said, "Everything about them is overpriced and overrated."
A Sophomore walked by, saw the book, and said, "You should see these new KDs they just put out--super sweet!! I love Nike stuff!"
Therein lies the great Nike dilemma. Kids see them as gods of invention, adults see them as gods of manipulation.
I guess for a while I have been one of those adults. As a runner for 35 years, I grew up with Nike. Waffle racers? Had em. Air Max, Pegasus? Swore by em. But I have to admit to growing skeptical of the Nike "meganess" that seemed to abandon the old mulleted runner in me.
When I saw Knight was publishing a memoir, I was eager to get the real story behind this iconic company I grew up with. It was almost like revisiting the question, "Why should I like them?" And while I knew bits and pieces of the rise of the Nike empire, I wanted to hear it from the beginning, and perhaps see things through a new lens.
Boy am I glad I did.
In a nutshell, this is a story of Phil Knight more than it is about Nike. It is a memoir, not a business model. Donald Katz did a book called just do it that examines the rise of Nike and Knight, but Shoe Dog looks more at Knight and Nike. To accomplish this, Knight goes all the way back to the sunset of his college days, which finds him much like every new college grad: In search of the meaning of life and the path to get there. Knight comes out of college armed with a "Crazy Idea" that essentially involves importing Japanese running shoes, but it is far more complicated and immense than that. The book, organized chronologically, traces the development of this Crazy Idea from a college thesis to what Nike is today. And it is quite the story!!
It is hard not to like Phil Knight after reading this book. There's a whole litany of personality traits on display that make this him successful. First, he has unbeatable tenacity. There are a million ways Nike could have failed. Money, lawsuits, personnel, timing, you name it. The challenges Knight faced were extreme, but for every punch he took, he remarkably bounced back up and figured out a way to regroup.
He also displays a humble ability to admit shortcomings, mistakes, and regrets. There are a number of times that he notes his own character flaws and how they may have hurt others, whether it be business partners or family. He is clearly a man who knows himself well--perhaps too well. There is a self deprecating tone present, and it is actually quite refreshing to hear someone so successful wear humility.
Knight insists on mixing business and fun. A central tenet of Knight's friendships and office environments is fun. Knight likes to laugh, and it was evident that while the business dealings were hot, Knight almost demanded that humor be part of the equation. He also stresses loyalty as part of his fabric. His unwavering commitment to quality and striving to be the best really drove him past the big dogs like Adidas and Puma. Knight is quite loyal to his personal connections, specifically people like Bill Bowerman, his father, his wife, investors, and others he respects and trusts. There is a clear sense of not wanting to let those down who influenced him. Many readers have found that these qualities make Shoe Dog inspirational, and I would fully agree.
I personally loved the ethos of the book. From the start, the reader gets a very worldly vibe from Knight. He makes it clear that there is a "search for oneself" phase in life that is not to be denied--one that was the catalyst for Nike. To a certain extent, I think you have to be a runner to truly understand Knight. He is like so many that I have known and bonded with. Runners are a race of their own. To a runner, the world is staked on going for a run. Loyalties are tested, friendships cemented, ideas floated, stress managed, life courses altered, and deals are sealed through the sweat of a 6 mile run. My sister still makes fun of me 20 years later for making a run part of my bachelor party! You'd have to be a runner to get it. I see Knight again in these "runner" terms after this book. He's a runner at heart: A loner, a friend, a competitor, a thinker, an internalizer, a complex simpleton, a sufferer, a loyalist. He's truly one of us. Nothing comes through clearer in Shoe Dog. I think it is something I needed to be reminded of.
This book needs to be on high school library shelves. Get it. The kids will be attracted to it primarily through the Nike swoosh, but they would be well served to read it. The writing is engaging, it is a fluid read, and there is enough drama to keep the pace fresh. As far as life lessons, there could be no stronger book for an age of kids just beginning to form their vision of the future. Knight provides a grand vision.