New Sports Books About the Knicks, Rickey Henderson and More
One day this spring, Gregg Giannotti showed up to work dressed as a leprechaun. Giannotti, better known as Gio, is one half of WFAN’s morning show “Boomer and Gio.” He supports the New York Knicks, who finished the season 37-45, safely out of playoff contention. Dejected, Gio channeled his energies into rooting against the crosstown Nets in their opening-round series against the Celtics. Boston was once itself a formidable Atlantic Division rival. But the Celtics and Knicks haven’t played much meaningful basketball this millennium; since 2001, no N.B.A. team has lost more games than the Knicks. So Gio donned the green pants, green vest and green hat of Lucky, the Celtics mascot. He even found himself a shillelagh.
Such is the sad state of New York Knick fandom in 2022. The faithful may take some solace in BLOOD IN THE GARDEN: The Flagrant History of the 1990s New York Knicks (Atria, 368 pp., $28.99), Chris Herring’s new book about the franchise’s last golden era. Of course, those Knicks came up short — repeatedly, painfully short. Six times in the ’90s New York was eliminated from the playoffs by the eventual N.B.A. champion. In 1991, they were trampled by a Bulls team charging toward the first of six titles; in 1999, New York lost in the finals to the rising Spurs dynasty. In between came a now-mythic series of missed opportunities. Charles Smith’s futile put-backs in 1992. John Starks’s leaden 2-18 performance in 1994. Patrick Ewing’s errant finger roll in 1995.
Herring covers the Knicks the way Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein covered the Nixon White House in “The Final Days” — the book spills over with delicious detail. In one scene, the executive Dave Checketts has the unenviable task of dismissing a trusted lieutenant. Checketts arranges dinner at a favorite restaurant. The men split an order of penne vodka, Herring reports, then cuts of steak. Only when dessert arrives does Checketts find the resolve to drop the ax.
More ruthless was the man Checketts hired as coach in 1991. Pat Riley had developed champagne tastes while winning four titles with the Lakers: Herring writes that among his contract demands were that his team-issued polo shirts be manufactured by Ralph Lauren and that the team cover his dry-cleaning bill. (Checketts drew the line at the latter request.) But Riley had a different vision for the Knicks. They would be bullies.
It was a style of play well suited to the Knicks’ musclebound roster and to a more permissive era of professional basketball. It also suited Riley, a son of blue-collar Schenectady and a natural martinet. He drilled the team relentlessly, stressing conditioning, defensive intensity and unapologetic toughness. This group would win, Herring writes, by “making teams pay for having the audacity to wander into the paint.”
When the Knicks failed in this regard, Riley saw to it that his own team paid dearly. In Game 5 of the 1992 Eastern Conference semifinals, Michael Jordan cut the Knicks defense to ribbons. Before Game 6, Riley wheeled a television set and VHS player into the locker room. The team watched a clip of a single play in which Jordan beat Starks off the dribble, juked Charles Oakley and dunked over Ewing. Then the clip started again. And again. The tape contained only this one play, on loop. “This makes me sick to my stomach,” Riley pronounced, when the tape finally stopped. “One of you is gonna step up, knock Michael Jordan to the floor and not help him up.”
No player embodied the swaggering ethos of the ’90s Knicks more than Oakley, whom Herring describes as “the most physical player in perhaps the N.B.A.’s most physical era.” In 1992-93, he led the league in flagrant fouls, racking up more such calls individually than 15 entire teams.
Some athletes melt under Broadway’s stage lights; Oakley thrived. His gritty play befitted the city’s “if I can make it there” self-image. He could be as brash as Mike Tyson and as cryptic as Casey Stengel. (“Just because there is some glass in the road doesn’t mean there was an accident,” he once said, after being fined $10,000 for leveling Reggie Miller.) He was even something of a gourmet, notorious among teammates for sending back food when it failed to meet his discerning standards. “This isn’t German chocolate cake!”
A childhood friend calls Oakley “arrogantly honest,” a description he embraces, and that captures the appeal of his new memoir, THE LAST ENFORCER: Outrageous Stories From the Life and Times of One of the NBA’s Fiercest Competitors (Gallery, 288 pp., $28.99), written with Frank Isola. Oakley is a great perceiver of slights, holder of grudges and all-around curmudgeon. “I think that 20 percent of today’s guys would be tough enough to play in our era,” he writes. “Maybe not even that many.”
Such crankiness ought to be more grating, but Oakley (mostly) punches up, and even in high dudgeon he has a sense of humor. “I’ll admit that we do share some common ground,” he writes of Charles Barkley, an old nemesis. “I’m better looking, but we both wore number 34.” (The rivalry merits its own chapter, titled “Barkley and His Big Mouth.”) Oakley makes a point of defending Charles Smith, noting that Starks and Ewing also had key misses down the stretch in what is still known as “the Charles Smith game.” “How are you going to put that on Charles Smith? This was a team loss. A bad team loss.”
If Oakley is the quintessential ’90s Knick, he has also experienced the team’s tragic arc most acutely. Whereas many of his peers remain fixtures at Madison Square Garden, Oakley was exiled, thanks to a long-running feud with James Dolan, the team owner who has presided over two decades of Knick futility. In 2017, Dolan had Oakley ejected from the Garden for alleged belligerence. Oakley was escorted out of the building in handcuffs and charged with counts of assault, harassment and trespass. “The organization has this saying, ‘Once a Knick, Always a Knick,’” Oakley writes. “But it only applies to certain players.”
The Knick fan base, however, honored the credo. The Times’s Scott Cacciola reported that “a police officer at the Manhattan precinct where Oakley was being processed stood on the steps and shouted ‘Free Charles Oakley!’” Even Reggie Miller took his side. In the end, the ejection may have been a small mercy. The charges were eventually dropped, and all Oakley missed was a 119-115 loss to the Clippers.
“A baseball life is fragile and absurd,” Ron Shelton says. “It’s also wondrous and thrilling.” Shelton is the writer and director of “Bull Durham,” the 1988 film that Sports Illustrated has called the best sports movie of all time. The movie plays as a broad satire, but in THE CHURCH OF BASEBALL: The Making of Bull Durham: Home Runs, Bad Calls, Crazy Fights, Big Swings, and a Hit (Knopf, 256 pp., $30, to be published in July), Shelton’s new memoir, we learn that it is firmly rooted in the author’s experience playing in the Orioles farm system. When he reports for rookie ball, the first player he meets is another guy named Ron Shelton. It only gets more absurd from there.
Shelton’s love of film was nurtured as a young ballplayer. With time to kill before games in dusty towns, he would repair to the movies, taking in whatever matinee happened to be playing. “There’s a kind of film education in going indiscriminately to movies, whatever the rating, whatever the reviews,” he writes. “‘Rio Lobo’ to Russ Meyer to Alain Resnais.”
His appreciation of the high and the low shaped the writing of “Bull Durham.” Crash Davis, the veteran catcher played by Kevin Costner, is based on a stock figure from the western, the hired gun. The idea that a sex-starved pitcher might throw nastier stuff came from Aristophanes.
That anyone agreed to make this movie is a credit to Shelton’s talents as a writer, but also a stroke of dumb luck. When he makes his unlikely elevator pitch — “‘Lysistrata’ in the minor leagues” — it’s to Thom Mount, perhaps the only producer in Hollywood who would appreciate it. “He knew ‘Lysistrata’ and he knew the infield fly rule — that’s a small group to find in Hollywood — and he owned a piece of the Durham Bulls baseball team in the Carolina League.”
For the part of Nuke LaLoosh, the cocky pitching prospect eventually portrayed by Tim Robbins, Shelton wanted Charlie Sheen, but he was already attached to “Eight Men Out.” A year after the release of “Bull Durham,” Sheen would play a different pitcher with control issues, in “Major League.” Costner’s next role was Ray Kinsella, in “Field of Dreams.” It’s a measure of baseball’s diminished cultural capital that such a slate is impossible to imagine in the present.
A funny thing, though, about “Bull Durham”: There’s not all that much baseball in it. This reflects a maxim of Shelton’s: “The biggest mistake a sports movie can make is to have too much sports.” At the movie’s heart is the love triangle of Crash, Nuke and Annie, the sultry Bulls booster played by Susan Sarandon; command of the infield fly rule is not required to appreciate their chemistry. Shelton was pleased that his former peers in the minors liked the movie, but he knew he had a hit when Billy Wilder, master of the sex farce, summoned him to his table at a restaurant on Sunset Boulevard. “Great picture, kid,” he said.
At the end of “Bull Durham,” Crash is thinking about taking a job as a manager — there may be an opening next season in Visalia. What would have awaited him in the California League? Visalia was an early stop for the umpire Dale Scott, the author of a rollicking new memoir. The games were sparsely attended, he reports, save for one couple who never missed an inning, or an opportunity to rain abuse on the umpires.
One night, Scott and a crewmate go out for ice cream after a game, only to discover that the couple are the proprietors of Visalia’s ice cream parlor. The umpires decide to exact a bit of sweet revenge: “You call that a scoop?” they heckle. “That’s not a scoop.” The couple is duly chastened. “The rest of our games in Visalia, we didn’t hear a word.”
It’s a rare victory for the blue. In THE UMPIRE IS OUT: Calling the Game and Living My True Self (University of Nebraska, 312 pp., $34.95), written with Rob Neyer, Scott is cheery yet candid about the indignities of umpiring. Sparky Anderson sprayed tobacco juice on his face. Billy Martin once attempted to kick dirt on him, but struggled to dislodge a clod equal to his ire. “Billy then bent down, scooped as much as he could with both hands and shoveled it right on my classy American League sweater.” In Baltimore, Scott was hit below the belt by a wild pitch, requiring a trip to the E.R. The bright side: Taking a ball to the groin “might be the only time when every player on the field, no matter which team, actually sympathizes with you.”
Scott had a long, illustrious run in the majors, calling All-Star games, playoff games, World Series games. But he’s an important figure not just for his work behind the plate. He was also M.L.B.’s first openly gay umpire.
For decades, however, Scott kept his sexuality to himself, fearful that his secret could cost him his career. “I was so in the closet when living my baseball life that I would take what now seem like ridiculous and (frankly) demeaning precautions,” he writes. At one point, he enlists a beautiful woman, a flight attendant, to meet him for dinner at an umpire hangout in Tempe, Ariz. Scott’s peers are duly impressed, unaware that his date is in fact the sister of his longtime partner, Mike.
Scott came out publicly in 2014, shortly after he and Mike were married. Between innings during his first spring training game after the news broke, the Cincinnati Reds’ Marlon Byrd ran up to Scott and gave him a bear hug: “Buddy, I’m so proud of you. You’re free! You’re free!”
Perhaps few players in baseball history have taxed the umpire ranks as severely as Rickey Henderson. His batting stance, a tight crouch, shrank the strike zone. “The guy is impossible to pitch to,” said a pitcher for Visalia, who faced Henderson when he was coming up with Modesto. “He drives me crazy, and the umpires too.” Then there was his distracting habit of chattering to himself — in the third person — in the batter’s box. “Come on, Rickey. He can’t beat you with that. … Is that all he’s got? … He better hope it isn’t. Ooooohhh, he better HOPE it isn’t.” The umpire manning second base had it easier. Henderson was usually safe by a mile.
“Baseball is about homecoming,” A. Bartlett Giamatti famously wrote. “It is a journey by theft and strength, guile and speed.” By that definition, is there any question that Henderson must be considered one of the best to ever play the game? No player has had more guile or speed: Henderson holds the career record for stolen bases. He also journeyed by strength, hitting 297 home runs, more than many of the sluggers he competed against over his long career. Indeed, no player has had more homecomings than Henderson. He holds the record for runs scored, with 50 more than Ty Cobb.
Henderson is the subject of RICKEY: The Life and Legend of an American Original (Mariner, 448 pp., $29.99), by Howard Bryant. Bryant’s most recent books, “Full Dissidence” and “The Heritage,” have been studies of sports and race, an intersection he covers with moral urgency. While his new book is a biography, it is remarkable for the way in which it tells a broader story about the social and political forces — starting with the segregation that divided Oakland, where Henderson grew up and made his name — that shaped this player and the way he was perceived by his peers, the media and the fans.
Despite his unimpeachable numbers, Henderson was routinely accused of privileging flash over substance. Bryant sees instead a man unwilling to bend to tradition. “The Black fans and players knew that pitting charisma against winning was a false, often racist choice — and a way to punish the Black players for playing with Black style. More than any other sport, baseball demanded that Black and brown players adapt to the old ways of playing the game, which is to say, the white ways.”
Henderson did things at his own pace (“Rickey Time”) and in his own way (“Rickey Style”). “Rickey was all legs and thrust and ferocity,” Bryant writes. “Batting leadoff, a position in the order that was supposed to be largely inconspicuous, the table-setter for bigger things to happen, he demanded to be recognized.” The sportswriter Ralph Wiley coined a term for the damage Henderson could do all on his own: the “Rickey Run.” He could “walk, steal second, either steal third or reach it on a grounder, then come home on a fly ball. With Rickey, the A’s could score without even getting a hit.”
After watching a Rickey Henderson highlight reel, a Yankees executive once remarked, “I’ve never seen a guy look so fast in slow motion.” The same might be said of a Formula 1 driver as he maneuvers through a chicane, the elegance of the alternating turns belying the car’s speed. The success of the Netflix series “Drive to Survive” has led to an explosion of interest in F1 in the United States, a country long immune to its charms. It is said that the seven-time world champion Michael Schumacher loved to vacation in the States — because no one ever recognized him.
The suddenness of this change in fortunes has left the publishing industry on the back foot, as they say in the paddock. Surely waves of books are in the making: a collection of earthy wisdom from Kimi Raikkonen, perhaps, or a behind-the-mic memoir by the beloved Sky Sports commentator David “Crofty” Croft. For now, F1 HEROES: Champions and Legends in the Photos of Motorsport Images (Skira/D.A.P., 192 pp., $42) isn’t a bad way to bide the time. Though largely a compendium of photographs, the book, edited by Ercole Colombo and Giorgio Terruzzi, also offers capsule histories of each of F1’s seven decades — a helpful cheat sheet for those newly minted fans who can’t yet tell the difference between Phil Hill, Graham Hill and Damon Hill, former champions all.
Formula 1 is a fantastically photogenic sport, owing to the beauty of the cars, the globe-spanning venues of the races and the glittering people it has traditionally attracted. Here is Juan Manuel Fangio in Pedralbes, Spain, in 1951, in an Alfa Romeo that looks like a soap box compared with today’s menacing machines. Here is Jim Clark in Riems, France, in 1963, strips of plaster affixed to his face to provide protection from flying debris. Here is Jochen Rindt with his wife, the Finnish model Nina Rindt, in Monza, Italy, in 1970, looking philosophical in the moments before the practice session that will claim his life. Here is Pope John Paul II granting an audience to Team Ferrari; here is George Harrison granting an audience to Damon Hill. One hopes the Motorsport photo pool was on assignment at this spring’s Grand Prix in Miami, where American royalty — Michael Jordan, Tom Brady, the Williams sisters — saluted the nation’s new favorite sport.
John Swansburg is a managing editor at The Atlantic.