Friday, December 15, 2023

Books: Biographies Of Pioneering Sports Figures Mike Tomlin & LeBron James

In this review of sports biographies looking at trailblazers within the game, there is a new biography on one of the longest-tenured NFL coaches, Mike Tomlin of the Pittsburgh Steelers, in Tomlin: The Soul of a Football Coach, by John Harris, with a Foreword by Tony Dungy, and a look at the impact basketball superstar LeBron James has beyond the court in The Book of James: The Power, Politics, and Passion of LeBron, by Valerie Babb.

Tomlin: The Soul of a Football Coach

By John Harris, with a Foreword by Tony Dungy

Skyhorse Publishing; hardcover, 480 pages; $26.99

John Harris is an award-winning journalist who has covered sports, culture, race, and the executive search industry for various outlets including the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, Philadelphia Inquirer, Tampa Bay Times, ESPN's Andscape, and CBS Sportsline. He is the co-author, with former NFL running back Edgerrin James, of From Gold Teeth to Gold Jacket, and the former co-host of The Ike Taylor Show, with the former Steelers defensive back.

In the new book, Tomlin: The Soul of a Football Coach, Harris looks at the mystique behind the "coaching unicorn" who was a wide receive at William & Mary before he spent several years in the college coaching ranks. He then was hired by Tony Dungy, who wrote a Foreword for this book, as a defensive backs coach in 2001 when Herm Edwards left to coach the New York Jets. He spent five years in Tampa Bay before becoming the defensive coordinator with the Minnesota Vikings.

After just one season in Minnesota, Tomlin got one of the most coveted of jobs in the NFL, really in all of sports, when he was named the head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2007, at just thirty-four years of age, when Bill Cowher retired after fifteen seasons at the helm, and soon after he led Pittsburgh to a Super Bowl victory in 2005.

Harris covered the start of Tomlin's tenure with the Steelers for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, and from the start there were many questions about this surprise hire. Was this young coach able to lead a veteran group that still harbored championship hopes? Could the soft-spoken coach fill the shoes of the great Cowher, who was known for being brash and outspoken? Was his hiring based solely on the "Rooney Rule," the brainchild of Steelers owner Dan Rooney which states that every team must interview at least one minority candidate for their open head coaching position?

Tomlin kept the franchise's reputation for success going, as they won the Super Bowl in just his second season at the helm in 2008, and returned to the Big Game just two years later, when Aaron Rodgers won his only ring in Green Bay. The Steelers have never had a losing record in his 16 seasons at the helm, a big reason he is the second-most tenured head coach in the NFL, behind only Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots, who began coaching there in 2000.

Harris interviews many former players, coaches, and executives to let readers in on what it's like to play for Tomlin, why he is beloved (or not) in Pittsburgh, and how his continued success has helped change the landscape for what NFL franchises look for in a head coach. Tomlin is known for giving all the success to his players and coaches before himself, which is what every franchise hopes for from the leader of their team.

Tomlin is also known for giving little to the media and keeping his thoughts and opinions private, which means those outside the locker room and Steelers offices know very little about the future Hall of Fame coach. This means the question of who Tomlin is remains largely unanswered, as much of what is written and reported about one of the most successful African American head coaches in NFL history is above the surface.

In this excerpt, Harris writes of how Tomlin was viewed when he was hired: "The question on many people's minds - both those in Pittsburgh and across the NFL - was, Who is Mike Tomlin? On the surface, he was young, black, and had only a few years of professional coaching experience. What did the Rooney family know that nobody else did?

Now going into his seventeeth season at the helm, Tomlin brought a championship to Pittsburgh in just his second year as head coach (in Super Bowl XLIII), led the team to Super Bowl XLV two years later, and has never suffered a losing season. Yet the same question in 2007 still rings true:

Who is Mike Tomlin?

To understand Tomlin is to read through his 'Tomlinisms' to the type of person he is, the obstacles he's faced, and the mindset that has allowed him to fight of the constant barrage of doubters to his success - both on an off the field.

Five years after the creation of the 'Rooney Rule' - named after former Steelers chairman Dan Rooney, which stated that every franchise was to interview at least one minority candidate for their open head coaching position - Tomlin's hiring was only the tenth of a black man in league history, and the first since the Cleveland Browns tabbed Romeo Crennel in 2005. It was also the same year that two black head coaches - Tony Dungy of the Indianapolis Colts and Lovie Smith of the Chicago Bears - made history when they faced off in Super Bowl XLI.

More than twenty years later, the issue of race in football still casts a shadow over the NFL (as well, as, it is to be assumed, some of the ire and criticism directed toward Tomlin).

While that's not the goal of this book, it must be noted, as it's part of his story.

From day one, he had skeptics questioning his age and experience level; perhaps focusing on his skin color instead of respecting his ability to communicate, teach, motivate, and connect. Maybe they were just reading his book by its cover.

Yet, at the end of the day, the NFL is a results-driven league. If you win, you stay. If you lose, you're out. So it goes without saying that Tomlin's tenure in Pittsburgh could have gone sideways if he didn't connect with his veterans.

There had to be something there for it to work; for those players to regain their Super Bowl mojo from two years earlier. How much change could there really have been if the Steelers had gone another way? Maybe the holdovers would have continued to play the way they did when the team went 8-8 in Cowher's final season. Meet the new coach, same as the old coach?

When you're talking about a football team - the players in the locker room - they are the ones putting their bodies on the line for the greater good of the team. And to have somebody you want to to bat for? Well, that has to be earned. Is this person a leader for these Pro Bowlers, All Pros, and Super Bowl ring-wearing players earning millions, regardless of who's standing in front of them delivering the message?

'When Coach T walked in the building for the first time, I saw this young face, Afro, he definitely had a swagger about him,' said former Steeler Willie Colon, who played tackle for six seasons under Tomlin. 'He was very direct. Very honest. When you're in a Coach T meeting, he doesn't just stand in front of the podium. He walks the aisles. Kind of like that old-school teacher. And he's not afraid to call somebody out. There was a sense of order, a sense of direction. There was a sense of there was a standard. Like, 'I'm not coming here to be the token black coach. I'm coming here not to drop the torch. If anybody's not a part of what I'm trying to do or the culture, I think you know where the exit is.'

For the Steelers to go to battle for a rookie coach they may not have been familiar with (as most weren't) and buy in the way they did? Well, that's special."

The Book of James: The Power, Politics, and Passion of LeBron 

By Valerie Babb

PublicAffairs; hardcover, 304 pages; $30.00

Valerie Babb is Andrew Mellon Professor of Humanities at Emory University, and she holds a joint appointment in the departments of African American Studies and English.

In The Book of James: The Power, Politics, and Passion of LeBron, Babb examines the unique cultural, social, and political life of LeBron James, considered one of the greatest basketball players ever, who is now in his 21st season, and sixth with the Los Angeles Lakers.

James has been in the public eye ever since high school, when his games in Akron, Ohio, would be televised nationally. There was incredible anticipation of what team he would play for in the NBA since it was an era you could play professionally immediately after high school, and he joined his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers.

To Babb, James is the hero in two very American tales, as he is a success story the national loves, while also the latest installment in an ongoing chronicle of American anti-blackness. Ever since he became famous, every action he has taken, every statement he has uttered, and every fashion choice invites intense scrutiny, which Babb contends is less about LeBron himself and more about a nation still wrestling with social inequities. James has used his celebrity to give Blackness a place of cultural prominence, and the backlash that he receives exposes frictions between Blackness and a country not fully comfortable with its presence. 

LeBron is also known for the business empire he has built, which has given him a platform to speak out on social issues. James' rise mirrored that of Barack Obama, who became President in 2009, which to Babb was a model of the seamlessness of Blackness and Ameircanness. James used his platform to become one of the first athletes to critique the systemic indifference on anti-black police brutality, and that led him to be a major voice in determining whether the NBA should return in the summer of 2020 amidst Black Lives Matter protests. In turn, was a frequent target of President Donald Trump during his administration, as well as the larger right wing of the country.

In this excerpt, Babb writes of the deeper meanings of LeBron's life: "IT'S SUCH AN AMERICAN STORY: poor boy from 'broken' home in poverty-stricken neighborhood makes good. It's such an American story: poor Black boy from 'broken' home in poverty-stricken neighborhood makes good, then at the apex of his career 'n**ger' is spray-painted across the gate to his home. LeBron James is the protagonist in both these very American tales, one a success story the nation loves because it shows its benevolence, the other the latest installment in an ongoing chronicle of racial hatred. James is a particularly evocative example of the ways in which Black athletes are incorporated into American mythmaking, but also of how they put the lie to those myths. As one of the most visible representatives of Blackness in national and global cultures, James is a target for those uncomfortable with the demographic shifts in their known worlds. LeBron hate has roots in the old myths that made mire the US in racial polarization. His presence on the court, in media, in politics, and in the urban landscape he builds in his hometown, Akron, Ohio, provides many opportunities to show how timeworn narratives shape-shift to accommodate themselves to an era when racism increasingly goes by other names.

As a poor boy who made good, James incarnates the American dream and should be America's darling, but the anti-blackness that forces repeated racial reckonings makes him as hated as he is loved. Because of basketball's Blackness, the sport subjects James to a particular kind of antiblack scrutiny, but it also provides him with the means to undermine it...

Over the arc of his career, LeBron James has been variously framed as the Black child of a Black teen mother, a runaway slave, and a Black jock out of his depth in political activism. His tendency to resist these projections by attaching an unapologetic Blackness to his brand has made him both a lightning rod for and a bulwark against antiblack sentiments. His rise to stardom coincided with a growing white grievance that vilified him because of its own fear of inevitable cultural change. When we view James as cultural subject and not just athlete, unresolved tensions between Blackness and antiblackness become apparent. Rather than using celebrity to transcend Blackness, he uses it to give Blackness a place of prominence in American narrative-making, leaving a cultural record of how much Blackness is loved, hated, misunderstood, and just plain cool in an America that has changed and yet not changed."

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