Halberstam's Full Court Press

The Breaks of the Game By David Halberstam '55 Alfred A. Knopf; 362 pp.; $15.00

DAVID HALBERSTAM would never write a book about baseball. The national pastime moves too gently, takes too long and lacks the urgency and anxiety of a true Halberstam subject. Nor is football fit for his treatment, because it is played in an anonymous, helmeted blur, where players can't poke their emotions outside their face masks. And hockey? Well, no adult American could care enough about hockey to write a whole book about it. Certainly not David Halberstam.

Basketball meets the specs. Basketball has the grand gestures, the open conflict, the darkness of the soul visible. Leave baseball to The New Yorker and those who pine for a simpler time; leave football to Howard Cosell; leave hockey to Canada, Only basketball wears the problems of America--of all America--on its sleeve. From drugs to inflation to (especially) race, basketball has them all. It is a troubled institution in a troubled time--Halberstam territory.

His writing asks for parody. David Halberstam has unashamedly decided how he is going to write and he has written that way. He even has a world view, so rare among authors today, that shapes what he sees and tells. He believes in Great Men, not good men, in people whose ambition and drive (a favorite DH word) change the circumstances around them. He seeks these men out and writes, I suppose, the way they think--in long, powerful and uncontrolled sentences, in roman numerals. Let the historians worry about the economic and social forces that shaped the world. Halberstam wants the men who sculpt that world to their liking. Maybe those men don't change the world, but Halberstam thinks they do and his work--in its inevitable bulk--challenges anyone to think otherwise.

The Breaks of the Game, Halberstam's splendid new book, comes as a sort of breather after its two mammoth predecessors--The Best and the Brightest, his magnificent study of how arrogance bred disaster in Vietnam, and The Powers That Be, his un-magnificent but still good investigation of the modern media empires. To his credit, Halberstam realizes that basketball, for all its symbolic and actual importance, is not the metaphor for contemporary America. Halberstam's humility, at least about his subject, comes as a welcome surprise.

The author takes as his focus a single team in a single year, the Portland Trail Blazers in 1979-80. The book proceeds in typical Halberstam style, roughly chronologically, with long profiles of the principals welded elegantly into the text. The story, in sum, is of failure. This is not a good season for the Blazers, a team that had won the league championship just two years before with an exuberant and earnest young team. Much has changed since then. The star player, Bill Walton, has succumbed to his imperfect body, been traded and turned against his former employer for treatment of his injuries. Maurice Lucas, the powerful forward, has grown embittered over his unsatisfactory ($300,000) salary, and his play has suffered. Jack Ramsay, the coach, has tried to adapt his kind of basketball, based on old-fashioned team play, to the new players of a new game. He is wondering whether he, or the game itself, can succeed in the new era.

THE HIGHLIGHTS of Breaks, as of any Halberstam book, are the profiles--long and sensitive, almost stream-of-consciousness journeys into a character's past. In them Halberstam examines this book's dominant sub-text, race. Basketball today is a Black game played (in the pros) mostly by Blacks. Halberstam's discussion of the use of basketball as a route out of the ghetto is familiar to anyone interested in the sport, but he tells it with grace. More important are his examples of how race--not racism, exactly--still shapes the professional game: Owners who demand at least a few white players; a good white who commands more pay than a good Black; players who remember the days when Blacks were considered undisciplined and unreliable in the clutch.

The analysis of race works best in the story of a single player, Kermit Washington. Washington emerged from a shy and awkward childhood in the Washington, D.C., slums to become a top draft choice with the Los Angeles Lakers. Initially, he failed in the pros, but through a combination of good coaching and hard work almost unrivaled in this selfish era, he had become a star. Then, in an instant that any fan, and many non-fans, will long recall, he punched Rudy Tomjanovich in a brawl and nearly killed him. This gentle man, this hero, had marked himself forever with the memory of his black hand destroying Rudy T.'s white face. Two years later, the punch haunts Washington and the game. Halberstam writes, "Even now, rehabilitated, accepted by teammates and fans in two different cities, he was aware that he had been part of something terrible and frightening, that he was on the edge of having committed, however involuntarily, a dark deed."

THE STORY of the Washington punch is one of many in Halberstam's ledger; he is, of course, the Olympic anecdote champion. No one gets the gossip he gets--the recruiters visiting Bill Walton's mom and dad, the notorious Marvin "Bad News" Barnes taking off on another binge, the team trainer enduring the petty humiliations. Halberstam traveled the entire season with the Blazers and it shows. He knows the patterns of big league life--the hotels, the planes, the soap operas (both televised and intramural)--and the reader's appreciation of the game is richer for it. The basketball story, plus the profiles and the assorted other history, make The Breaks of the Game a quick and zesty read for even a casual fan.

Breaks does have the occasional (and perhaps inevitable) excess, the overripe prose, the gimpy metaphor, the Jabbar-sized sentence. An example: "Indeed, Paxson, who was white, looked like the star of a new television sit-com about a healthy happy-go lucky midwestern college student who was always trying to borrow his parents' car and getting into trouble, but the kind of trouble that is easily rectified. (That is, no hard drugs.)" The book definitely suffers, too, for its lack of photographs, which would have helped in keeping the many names straight.

Quibbles aside, The Breaks of the Game ranks with the best sports books of the recent past (unfortunately not an immense group) and solidifies its author's title as the best journalist in the nation. A Halberstam book always takes chances, makes big claims and cuts through the nervous, "objective" froth that passes for most contemporary newswriting. The man breatnes fire and, yes, occasionally burns himself, but no one brandishes as incisive and ambitious a talent. When Halberstam is on, as the ball players say, the man can play.