Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Books from the basement, Volume I

Visiting the family in Minnesota. Have already hit the Dairy Queen. Whined about Dick Bremer. Complained about the humidity. And tonight I engaged in my twice-a-year trip to my parents' basement, where you can find birth certificates, obituaries, congratulations on graduations and sympathies for deaths. There are tax forms, toys, golf clubs and magazines. And books.

Boxes of my parents' books. And boxes of my own books. I still have about eight or nine boxes crammed with hardcovers and paperbacks taking up space in the back area known simply as the junk room. Junk is such a harsh word, though. And misleading, especially when it comes to the books. Someday we'll have to take these back and find space for them and Louise might curse that day, but for now they still sit where they've been for half a decade, safe and secure in their cardboard homes. On every trip back to the Midwest, I like to dig through them for lost treasures and old memories. Sometimes I'll take one home. Usually I read it and return it.

Tonight I pawed through some old sports ones. I found several copies of the old The Complete Handbook of Pro Basketball, which came out every year, profiled each team and player, provided predictions and presented feature stories from NBA writers around the country. I think I bought one every from 1985 through at least 1991. Before each NBA season, I'd scour the Mankato B. Dalton bookstore for the latest issue. As far as I know they're no longer published. Zander Hollander edited the books. The biographies of each player were always my favorite section. These bios praised the greats and buried the worthless. The tone was sarcastic and snarky, long before the latter word became the default setting for way too many writers.

The one I'm looking at now is the 1989 edition. Magic Johnson and Isiah Thomas grace the cover. They're kissing. It's a picture from the previous year's finals, when the two guards and then good friends shocked many with their Morganna-like greetings before each contest. The handbook features stories on Mark Jackson, who was an outstanding point guard long before he started rattling off increasingly annoying phrases involving words like "momma," "there," "goes," "that," and "man." There's a story on great love matches in athletic history, a tongue-in-cheek analysis of the Magic-Isiah coupling. There's a fun collection called the All-Flea Market team, Jan Hubbard's picks for various teams, such as the All-Big-Mac team, which was filled with large fellas like John Bagley, Pearl Washington and Antoine Carr.

The experts picked the Lakers to defeat the Celtics in the Finals, but the Pistons and Magic Johnson's balky hamstring dashed those predictions.

The biographies of each player were the highlight of every handbook. Behold:

Bill Wennington: A great cheerleader. Has excellent technique waving his towel from the bench. Now you know why we don't go to Canada to look for more basketball players.
Uwe Blab: They say he's a long-term project. At the rate he's progressing, he'll be ready to contribute in the league right about the time he qualifies for Social Security. A matching bookend of uselessness for the last two years with Bill Wennington on the bench.
Joe Barry Carroll: A prolific promulgator of polysyllabic palaver. In other words, he likes to use big words. Fancies himself as a real intellectual. It would be nicer if he just worked harder at playing basketball.
Allen Leavell: Like a bad cold, he keeps coming back. As long as he is a starter or a significant performer, then you know his club cannot contend for a championship.

But the profiles gave credit when required. For Michael Jordan, coming off a season where he averaged 35 a game but a few years before everyone started calling him the best ever, the editors wrote, "Words don't do him justice. No one on this team should ever grumble a syllable about him." (Yes, sometimes teammates grumbled about Saint Michael). In Magic's section, it reads, "There is Magic and there is Larry Bird and nobody else is in their class." (that nobody, at the time, included Jordan.)

Still, it's always more fun reading ridicule:

Benoit Benjamin: Sometimes you get the feeling that you'd be better off with the Statue of Liberty playing center.
Jon Sundvold: He looks so cute and lovable, you want to hang him from your rear-view mirror. He'd probably do about as much good there as he would making any NBA club a real contender.
Artis Gilmore: Should hang it up before someone gets killed.

The books really disliked bad centers - Artis, Benoit, Wennington, Blab, Joe Barry - and they had a lot to choose from. Like...

Granville Waiters: This guy never got off the bench in the playoffs. Bulls were eliminated. A connection? Be serious. He's slow, can't jump and is not aggressive. Was a free agent and the Bulls came to him last summer. "They said they needed me," he said. They never said for what.
Greg Dreiling: Stiffer than Julius Caesar. Should be a law passed prohibiting people from wasting seven feet of height.
Stuart Gray: See Greg Dreiling and wasted height. (Gray and Dreiling both played for Indiana at the time. Not that the Pacers had a thing for drafting tall, white guys, but their first-round draft pick that year? Rik Smits. At least Smits could play.)
Danny Vranes: Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. Santa dresses as an NBA businessman and hands out $520,000 contracts to guys like this who average 2.1 points a game.

There was a player named Bob Thornton. He played for Philadelphia when this book came out. He wasn't good. The bio: "Now starting for your Minnesota Timberwolves..."

The Timberwolves were still a year away from joining the league. And, in 1991, Bob Thornton played 12 games for the Wolves. I think the book also predicted the career of Ndudi Ebi.

How can I ever throw a book like this away? I can pick up this 1989 version - or any of the basketball ones, or any of the baseball and football editions - and entertain myself for 90 minutes, reading about bad white centers and below-average middle infielders who should have stayed on a bus in Double-A ball.

No, I'll never toss them, though Louise might do just that some day. It'd be a crime to discard these books, as the world would lose the immortal entry:

Keith Lee: Mr. Disappointment. He didn't play a minute all year with leg injury that resulted in surgery. Probably his best season as a pro.

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