We are in one of the greatest times of year for sports, with the NHL and NBA Playoffs roaring on, baseball in full swing, and a host of other attractions including major golf and tennis championships. There are four books out now that will be perfect to deepen your history of the games we watch: 1996 A Biography, by Jon Finkel; Sparring with Smokin' Joe, by Glenn Lewis; and The Masters, by David Sowell.
By Jon Finkel
Diversion Books; paperback, $17.95
Here in New York City, when someone mentions 1996, you instantly think of the Yankees, who won their first championship since 1978 and started a new dynasty.
It also was a year that saw the Chicago Bulls reclaim the NBA crown and win the first of what would be their second three-peat in the 1990s, on their way to winning six championships with Michael Jordan.
The Dallas Cowboys, led by Troy Aikman and Emmitt Smith, won their third title in four seasons, and seemed unstoppable. Who knew that would be the last one America's Team would win for at least the next quarter century?
It also was a year for incredible debuts, as Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter won Rookie of the Year, and became an instant team leader; Tiger Woods started on his path to glory on the golf course; Kobe Bryant and Allen the Williams sisters, Serena and Venus, took over the tennis world; Majoe League Soccer (MLS) and the WNBA were unveiled; and with wrestling at its peak, The Rock and Stone Cold Steve Austin burst onto the scene.
In celebration of the twenty-fifth anniversary of this iconic year in sports history, Jon Finkel has written 1996 A Biography. He is also the author of Hoops Heist, The Life of Dad, The Athlete, Heart Over Height, and "Mean" Joe Greene, and has written for the New York Times, GQ, Men's Health, and Yahoo! Sports.
In addition, it also was a great year for sports movies that are still quoted today, especially "show me the money!" from "Jerry Maguire," which presaged the increasingly large role agents would play in sports going forward. There was also "Space Jam," which starred Michael Jordan, Bugs Bunny, and a whole host of characters; and "Happy Gilmore," with Adam Sandler playing a new type of golfer, a hockey player with an attitude arriving on the staid golf scene.
Finkel writes of what that time felt like to a sports fan: "'Now let me welcome you to the Wild Wild West, a state that's untouchable like Eliot Ness...'
Dr. Dre's lyrics slide out of your white Sony Dream Machine as you flick the rectangle snooze button to cut off your alarm. You might live in the Golden State, but probably not. You love California because of 'California Love,' and anything is better than the radio stations that won't stop playing 'Macarena.' You hop out of bed wearing your black Orlando Magic basketball shorts with the stripes dropping from the drawstring and the stars from the logo on the side of each thigh. You probably don't live in Orlando, but no matter. Shaq and Penny's uniforms are dope.
As you open your blinds to let the sun pour in on this fine, early summer morning in 1996, you flip on Sports Center to catch part of last night's 'The Big Show' with Dan Patrick and Keith Olbermann, two men whose voices you've heard more the last few years than even your own father's. Hell, throw Stuart Scott and Rich Eisen in the mix and you've listened to these sports anchors speak more than anyone in your whole life. You can recite their catchphrases (en fuego, cool as the other side of the pillow) better than the Pledge of Allegiance...
As you throw on a white 'No Fear' t-shirt with the blue logo and slide on your Nike Air Zoom Flights (because you'd have to mow 4,000 lawns to afford a new pair of Air Jordan VIs), you're excited because tonight is the first game of the 1996 NBA Finals between Jordan and Pippen's Bulls and Shawn Kemp and Gary Payton's Sonics. You can't believe the year is only half over. It feels like New Year's Day was a lifetime ago, when you watched Bobby Bowden's All-NFL Florida State defense, Steve Spurrier's Fun 'N' Gun at Florida, and Tom Osborne's Tommie Frazier-led Nebraska battle it out in bowl games in a race for the decade.
Then in quick succession, as if blessed by the sports gods, nearly every major star from every sport had their moment. Troy Aikman, Michael Irvin, Emmitt Smith, Deion Sanders, and the Cowboys capped off their third Super Bowl in four years on January 28, and then two days later Magic Johnson miraculously returned to the NBA after his hiatus due to HIV. The next week, the NBA's past and future collided in the All-Star Game when Shaquille O'Neal, Penny Hardaway, and Grant Hill joined Pippen and Jordan in the East's starting line-up (MJ's first All-Star appearance since his return from baseball.)...
It was an embarrassment of sports riches, and every day you woke up, a new generational legend was performing a new sports feat - and you didn't even know how good you had it. Of course, every year has its icons; but dammit, it felt like 1996 was loaded from top-to-bottom with them."
Sparring with Smokin' Joe: Joe Frazier's Epic Battles And Rivalry With Ali
By Glenn Lewis
Rowman & Littlefield; hardback, $24.95; eBook, $23.50
When one thinks of Joe Frazier, your mind immediately turns to his rivalry with Muhammad Ali. They both became boxing legends and cultural touchstones for an era, and this book comes just as we arrive at the fiftieth anniversary of the Fight of the Century (Ali-Frazier I). Sparring with Smokin' Joe is a penetrating, and at times brutally candid, look at Frazier.
Glenn Lewis spent several months on the road, in the gym, and in verbal tussles with Frazier in 1980, when he was at a crossroads in his life and career. There is Frazier's candid take on his still-recent Hall Of Fame career, wars with Ali, and hard-scrabble roots.
It was also a time when Frazier was considering a return to the ring, preparing his son Marvis to make his pro boxing debut, talked about Ali's comeback bout against Larry Holmes, and reflected on the impact of racial tensions and cultural upheaval on his fighting legacy.
There are also plenty of never-before-heard stories that give new insights into the usually reclusive Frazier, including how Ali's verbal attacks alienated him from his own people and continued to trouble him long after retirement.
Lewis writes of visiting Frazier at his Philadelphia gym on March 10, 1980: "It was time to cut to the chase. I asked Joe if Ali's plan were giving him thoughts of lacing his gloves up again.
'If Ali made a comeback, it wouldn't make me think twice,' insisted Joe, his voice getting a bit louder. 'Not even one time. No. Enough is enough! I don't have any financial worries. Fighting and retirement have been good to me. I'm watching Marvis and the other young fighters grow, helping to run the business.'
In one more attempt to push a comeback announcement, I asked Joe about all the time he spent working out in the gym.
Joe paused for a moment and then flashed a sly smile. 'I'm just trying to be a good family man as usual.'
This last remark completely broke the mood. Joe cracked up laughing, and Marvis began to laugh as well. I didn't know enough to be in on the joke.
'Can Ali beat Holmes if he comes back?' I asked, not letting the reality check go. That abruptly killed the laughter.
'I don't think he can beat Holmes,' confessed Joe, his bravado suddenly coming way down. 'If Holmes is in shape, he wins easily.'
Then Joe just as quickly tried to back off his surprising admission. He talked about how tricky Ali could be in the ring. He even suggested some big fights that an older, overweight Muhammad Ali should be able to win. He became more animated as he moved from one viable comeback victory for Ali to the next.
'There are plenty of guys around for Ali to fight now, and plenty of those guys that he can beat,' said Joe, with a defiant shrug. '[John] Tate would be an easy fight for him. [It would be] the easiest he ever had. Scott LeDoux could hurt him, but Ali would still win.'...
The 'easy fight' for Alo against John Tate came across as one hell of a bigger stretch. Tate was the 25-year-old, undefeated WBA heavyweight champion at that time. If Tate were going to lose - which he actually did a couple of weeks later to an up-and-coming Mike Weaver - I didn't think it would be to a rounding-into-shape Ali, who was sneaking up on 40.
Yet, despite time and boxing sense, Joe seemed to be working hard to keep Ali's dreams alive. Maybe he was arguing to support his own dreams as well. It was all said like a man with visions of an Ali vs. Frazier IV fight dancing in his head. And that would have been the mother of all dream fights.
So, on that day, I decided to just listen to Joe Frazier's string of debatable winning scenarios for Muhammad Ali's comeback. I would like to think my silence served as a kind of stand-in for every boxing fan's prayer that another miracle fight could be in the offing. On a more practical level, it certainly became an important fallback strategy in dealing with Joe later on whenever things heated up. The best move with Joe was often to just keep my mouth shut and pick my spots."
The Masters: A Hole-By-Hole History Of America's Golf Classic, Third Edition
By David Sowell
University of Nebraska Press; 304 pages; paperback, $21.95; hardcover, $29.95; eBook, $29.95
The Masters is called "a tradition unlike any other." It is revered as the most prestigious tournament in golf and commands international attention, even among nongolfers.
David Sowell's book The Masters: A Hole-by-Hole History of America’s Golf Classic takes the unique approach of tackling Augusta National hole by hole. Each hole had its own chapter, with colorful stories on the greatest shots, biggest disasters, and most amazing events that took place on each.
The legends of the Masters are in full force in this lively look at America’s golf classic. From Bobby Jones and Gene Sarazen to Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus to Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson to Bubba Watson and Jordan Spieth, all the greatest Masters moments of the greatest, and not so great, golfers are here in one book.
"The rise of the Masters, the youngest by far of golf's four major tournaments, is one of the great stories in American sports," writes Sowell. "The game's other three major events - the British Open, the United States Open, and the Professional Golfers' Association of America Championship - were first played in 1860, 1895, and 1916, respectively. During the first full week in April when the tournament annually takes place, millions of Americans who ordinarily can go right on living, even if they confuse a nine-iron with scrap iron, suddenly become consumed with golf, golfers, and Augusta National. As for the millions of golfers and golf fans, it has been said there is a consciousness of the Masters in the air every day of the year.
"Because the Masters is the only one of professional golf's four major tournaments with a permanent home, the game's greatest players have played more holes of major championship golf at Augusta National than at any other course in the world. In the process they have executed some of the game's greatest shots and have also on many occasions been humbled beyond belief.
"Each of the eighteen holes on Bobby Jones's masterpiece is named for a plant or tree that adorns it, and they have all made their mark on what has been so aptly called 'the tournament like no other.' This book will chronicle each of the individual holes' contributions to the excitement, pressure, heartbreak, and exhilaration that is the Masters."
This third edition provides a rich historical view of the course where success breeds legends and where failure can haunt even the most brilliant golfer’s career. He has updated each hole with additional stories of greatness and tales of woe for a new generation of golfers led by Jordan Spieth, Rory McIlroy, and Patrick Reed, as well as from an older guard represented by Bubba Watson, Adam Scott, and Sergio García.