David Halberstam has been retelling recent history as best- sellers for some years— from The Best and the Brightest (1973) to The Fifties (1994)—and Playing for Keeps is another clear demonstration of his exceptional talents. Using his keen historian’s eye, and the broadest possible canvas, Halberstam portrays one of the most phenomenal athletes of modern times, and the sport he has helped raise to international popularity, and reveals the interconnected powers that color both. Halberstam goes behind the television game- of-the-week to show the complex economic and cultural forces which came together in the 1980’s and 1990’s to elevate Michael Jordan to superstardom and professional basketball to one of the most profitable businesses in the world. Halberstam’s history is not always pretty, but it is consistently exciting and well told.
The thirty-plus chapters of Playing for Keeps move back and forth from the 1997-1998 professional basketball season—with its climactic championship series between the Chicago Bulls and the Utah Jazz—to the years leading up to that pivotal moment: from Jordan playing at Laney High in Wilmington, North Carolina (1979-1981), through his years under coach Dean Smith at North Carolina (1981-1984), his early years with the struggling Bulls, to the final and triumphant seasons in the 1990’s when Jordan and the Bulls were the dominating forces in basketball.
Part of the attraction is Jordan himself, not only a consummate athlete, but a competitive man with a very strong work ethic. Halberstam shows readers Jordan’s childhood and the values his parents instilled in him and his brother Larry; “you were not to waste your talent and you were always to work hard.” Jordan turned out to be an attractive, talented, and personable man who, in the end, became the new marketing symbol of his age, and gave Americans “nothing less than a new definition of beauty for a new age.”
Jordan, great as he was, however, is only the tall figure in the foreground of a much more complex picture Halberstam paints for readers. Part of the story is the rise of the NBA itself which, under the canny and inspired leadership of David Stern, grew from the poor stepchild of professional sports to become the economic power it was by the 1990’s. In the early 1980’s, college basketball was still perceived as an extension of mainstream America; the professional game was something closer to professional wrestling. Halberstam dates the modern NBA from the all-star game of January, 1984, when the slam-dunk contest was introduced. Suddenly television networks like the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) and other corporations saw the economic potential of this sport, and were competing to sign up its stars as their spokespersons.
Another part of the story is the colorful history of different franchises, like the Boston Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers, and particularly the saga of Jerry Reinsdorf, the astute owner of the Bulls, his abrasive general manager, Jerry Krause, and the incredibly profitable franchise they built around Jordan, beginning in the 1980’s. Halberstam digs deeply into the economics of this history, escalating player salaries (like Kevin Garnett’s incredible $126 million contract for seven years in 1997), and the lockout in the fall of 1998 when negotiations between greedy players and their agents, and greedier owners—a strike, one newspaper pundit called it, between tall millionaires and short millionaires—threatened to undo all the progress, and profit, the sport had made in the previous fifteen years.
Luck plays no small part in this drama, Halberstam shows—for example, the fortuitous beginnings of ESPN, when Bill Rasmussen, in Bristol, Connecticut, started a small cable company which would eventually take professional basketball, and any other sport, into people’s homes across the country twenty-four hours a day. Luck plays no small part, either, in the story of how Jim Riswold, a copywriter for the small Portland, Oregon, ad agency of Wieden and Kennedy, got the Nike account and then hired a little known filmmaker named Spike Lee to shoot the...
(The entire section is 1705 words.)