The beauty of this book is that it combines three elements that almost always lead to a winning read: 1) it’s a passion project expertly developed into a full-scale book, 2) it is extraordinarily researched and 3) Croatto clearly has fun sharing the stories and research he learned. And a bonus 4) he uncovered some GREAT stuff.
I love books where every few pages or chapters I think to myself, “man, how did I not know that?” or “oooohhhh, so that’s how that started.” This book is full of those. If you’re a die hard NBA fan, the stories on Dr. J, the ABA and the 80s NBA are worth the book alone. If you’re into business and you want to get an inside look at how a league went from a fringe sport where playoff games were tape delayed, to the multi-billion dollar, multi-national juggernaut it is today, you’ll enjoy it too. Big thanks to Pete for joining me on this week’s Q&A. You’re going to get some real inside info about how a book like this comes to fruition. Please enjoy his ‘Three Answers’ below.
How did you come up with the idea to write a book on the evolution of the modern NBA? Did you read, research or write something that put the thought in your head?
Way back in 2013, I wrote an article on Marvin Gaye’s version of the national anthem at the 1983 NBA All-Star Game for Grantland. In the writing and reporting, two things emerged: First, there was a ton of material I couldn’t use. Second, the anthem represented more than Marvin taking Francis Scott Key out for a stylistic spin. His performance represented the start of the new, hip, youthful NBA–the one you see today–that actually embraced the players, Black fans, and folks that weren’t middle-aged white people like, well, me. I love that story. I loved working with Sarah Larimer, my editor. She taught me a ton about writing longform creatively in, like, a month. But there just wasn’t enough space to take the story in other directions.
When the piece came out, I was swapping texts with Lon Rosen, a key source for the article who was the Lakers director of promotions back in 1983. At one point, he wrote, “This sounds like a book.” When I talked to my friend, Mark Rotella, a writer and author, he urged me to do likewise.
The more I thought about it, I realized they were right. I’ve read an unhealthy number of sports books, and I couldn’t recall a book that covered the evolution of the NBA into what it is today. There are many, many great books that offered elements of that era. Jackie MacMullan’s book with Larry and Magic, When the Game Was Ours. Terry Pluto’s Loose Balls. David Halberstam’s NBA books, Breaks of the Game and Playing for Keeps. Jeff Pearlman’s Showtime. All the great players have written autobiographies. On and on. But there wasn’t a book that told about the league’s growth into this cultural and economic behemoth. I figured, why not me?
One of my favorite stories in the book is about the Gatorade executive, Jordan and the 1988 dunk contest. Can you tell it real quick and why it was so important to sponsors moving forward?
I’m glad you caught that. Bill Schmidt, who was a fixture at Gatorade for years, spent the moments before the ’88 dunk contest making sure they were capturing the best possible exposure points for the Gatorade logo. That anecdote–which comes from Darren Rovell’s book on the thirst quencher, First in Thirst–is indicative of what the All-Star Game is now. It’s 100 percent about business. All the events have some kind of corporate tie-in. It’s an event where NBA sponsors can take their clients to pitch their version of woo. It’s where the NBA can show off its commitment to its business partners by rolling out the red carpet. All-Star Game Weekend–and I’m using “weekend” very loosely–is the NBA’s Super Bowl, its showcase. It stays in a major city for a week, which makes it a perfect, informal venue for deal-making and glad-handing. It’s also a very low-pressure situation for all the star players. Even someone like Michael Jordan could make a corporate appearance and not feel like he was losing his edge.
What was the one interview you did for the book that when you finished, you thought, maaaan, that was amazing? And why?
I was lucky. I talked to 315 people for this book, and the interviews–with a few exceptions–were great. One interview early on that left me stunned was with Neil Pilson, the former president of CBS Sports, who spent years facing off with David Stern. Neil was incredibly candid about his relationship with Stern from when the NBA was at its nadir to when the NBA was about to reach its pinnacle. We talked for about 40 minutes, but he provided a bushel of anecdotes that painted Stern’s tenacity in protecting and improving the league he adored. I felt like I got away with something.
And the thing is, that happened a lot. There were countless times when I’d hang up the phone–yes, I use a landline for most of my interviews; the cell reception in my basement office is unreliable–and be buzzing from what a person told me, whether it was Barbara Ward describing the genesis of the NBA’s “It’s Fantastic” campaign to Joey Crawford telling me a profanity-laden gem of a story to Tinker Hatfield describing his relationship working on the Air Jordans with Michael Jordan.
Every day working on this book, no lie, was a joy.
What was the single most surprising story or piece of information you learned while writing it? Meaning, did you read/research something and say, “Whoa! I never knew that?”
Pretty much anything involving Larry O’Brien, the NBA’s commissioner before David Stern’s 30-year rule. I didn’t know a heck of a lot about him before I started the research. I vaguely knew he worked for JFK and that his name was on the championship trophy. That was it. So, when I got the green light to write the book, I immediately reached out to Larry’s son, Larry III. Larry could not have been more accommodating or gracious. One of the things I’m forever indebted to him for is allowing me access to his father’s unpublished oral history of his time working in the NBA. That was a friggin’ goldmine, because not only did it provide insights I couldn’t get anywhere else–including how he got the commissioner job–but it provided an invaluable jumping off point for future interviews.
In my opinion, Larry O’Brien is probably the most overlooked influential figure in NBA history. First, his hiring provided the NBA with legitimacy. O’Brien was still a man of importance, only a few years removed from the JFK and LBJ administrations, and that’s what the struggling NBA needed. Second, he hired David Stern full-time and made sure that he got a lengthy apprenticeship before he retired. By the time Stern took over in 1984, he knew the league inside and out, probably better than Larry. Stern was ready to run the show his way. In fact, he pretty much had since 1978.
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Jon Finkel is the award-winning author of Hoops Heist, The Life of Dad, Jocks In Chief, The Athlete, Heart Over Height, “Mean” Joe Greene and more. His books have been endorsed by everyone from Mark Cuban and Tony Dungy to Spike Lee, Kevin Durant and Chef Robert Irvine. He has written for GQ, Men’s Health, Yahoo! Sports, The New York Times and has appeared on CBS: This Morning, Good Morning Texas, and hundreds of radio shows, podcasts and streams.
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