By TERRY LYONS, Editor-in-Chief
BOSTON – As followers of the National Basketball Association, we’re accustomed to having a guide to walk us through the vast wilderness of games, events, playoffs, personalities and information. N.B.A. broadcasts on TNT are guided by the able hands and voice of Ernie Johnson Jr. and Marv Albert while the venerable Mike Breen of ABC/ESPN takes us through the Finals.
As the NBA enjoyed an amazing period of growth from 1980 through the present day, much was written about the rise to prominence and global awareness/slash/relevance of the League.
In a new book – Elevated: The Global Rise of the N.B.A., veteran New York Times sports columnist Harvey Araton, much like Ernie or Mike Breen, acts like the most accompanying Maître D’ and takes us on a tour of more than four decades of N.B.A. history through his work of hoop art in editing and annotating the very stories that were written – usually from Courtside and right on-site – by the award-winning Times staff.
Coinciding with the relatively short timeframe of the N.B.A.’s history was an incredible changing of the times, both on and off the court.
“The most telling thing I came away with from the book is while the sport has changed so dramatically and the game looks so different from when it began, many of the same issues–especially how the sport remains a virtual laboratory with glass walls for social and cultural issues that sometimes plague the NBA but mostly lift its players above other team-sport athletes in terms of their visibility and popularity,” said Araton when he was asked for the “a’ha moment from his work. “One moment that made me stop and think was when I paired a George Vecsey column on the Lakers’ 1984 visit to the White House with a John Branch piece comparing the NBA’s dealing with Trump as opposed to the NFL’s. The Vecsey column in particular saddened me because it’s a look back that makes painfully clear how polarized and divided we have become as a nation.”
Yes, the times changed but Araton was on it.
To his credit, he chose to start with the simplest but most important milestone in N.B.A. history when he began the 483-page journey with a chapter on the Godfathers of the Modern Game, specifically underlining the impact of the late Danny Biasone, the League pioneer and franchise owner of the Syracuse Nationals, who orchestrated the concept and eventual adaptation of the 24-second shot clock.
In that opening chapter, Araton highlights the very foundation on which the League was built, whether it be through the lens of Boston Celtics team patriarch Arnold “Red” Auerbach or the League’s first Commissioner, Maurice Podoloff.
The NBA is sometimes sliced into decades or various note eras of time, and in Elevated, Araton covered it all.
“The book is nearly 500 pages, which allowed me more leeway than I initially thought I would have,” noted Araton. “That said, while we wanted to cover the obvious generational periods–Bird/Magic, Michael, etc–we didn’t want it to be too linear.
“Many of the chapters address the various eras, per se, as well as how the league impacted on social issues, the entertainment culture and the like. For instance, one chapter pairs the death of Len Bias and effect it had on the dangers of cocaine use with the story of Micheal Ray Richardson’s banishment from the league but ultimate triumph over drugs,” he added.
As the decades of basketball march on, Araton paves the way and then turns it over to the NYT columnist or reporter who was on the scene. In each instance, Araton carefully chose the iconic moments in the N.B.A.’s history.
One such example are the words written by NYT great George Vecsey when he witnessed “Bird Stole the Ball,” back in May of 1987.
I can remember helping Vecsey situate himself, alone, in a small locker room at the old Boston Garden to complete his column that night. The crowd frenzy, crowded working conditions and general hustle and bustle forced Vecsey to leave the auxilary work area and sit non the hard staircase in the corners of the long-gone building. His column that night told a better story.
If there’s one thing that sets this book apart from others written, it’s the fact Araton, recognized by the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame as a Curt Gowdy Award winner as one of basketball’s very best reporters/columnists/story-tellers, was THERE for so-many of the moments.
Within Elevated, Araton provides insight, perspective and keen perception, and – when he wasn’t there himself – he tells the story through the solid reporting of his colleagues and contributors to this great book on the N.B.A.’s most interesting and glorious period in time.
Topics like: The NBA on NBC, the rise of Michael Jordan, NBA lock-outs/work stoppages, Yao Ming, the Olympics, controversial issues such as the New York Knicks fielding their first “All-Black” team or the N.B.A. having to face violence and racial bias (former team owner Donald Sterling), Araton touches the rim on every single topic.
Araton even reaches to the 1979 NCAA Final Four in Salt Lake City to have the great Malcolm Moran provide the memories from a column entitled, “Johnson: Magical by Nature.”
What many of us can’t believe? That story was written 40 years go!
What can the younger generation believe?
Simply buy the book to find out.
Here’s what Araton thinks:
“The take away for those who buy this book, I believe, is that it will be the most entertaining and penetrating basketball history book they will come across,” he said. “With chapter introductions, author postscripts and the way the book is structured, you can read it the old fashioned way, start to finish, or browse it, depending on what catches your eye.”
Our suggestion? As you watch the 2019 NBA Playoffs unfold, you might do so by reading a single chapter of Araton’s book every night from Game 1 of the First Round right through the 2019 NBA Finals. To do so, simply order the book HERE.
Note: The author of this book review worked at the N.B.A. from 1980-2007.