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Wednesday Book Review: Fall River Dreams

If you like what you read check out previous book reviews:
The Last Shot
Sole Influence
Unfinished Business
Let Me Tell You a Story

The book is officially named Fall River Dreams: A Team's Quest for Glory - A Town's Quest For Its Soul. That strikes me as an incredibly transparent attempt by a publisher to make the book appear profound in the hopes of appealing to a wider audience. That's not to say the book is not profound. But I wonder if adding "A Team's Quest for Glory - A Town's Quest For Its Soul" was an attempt to get the book into education curriculums around the country. It does not change the way I feel about the book. It just seems unnecessary. And yes I was just about to say that Friday Night Lights did just fine without the sappy title. Alas it was called Friday Night Lights: A Town, a Team and a Dream. This is a terrible development in the world of sports books. Long story short, I'm going with Fall River Dreams or FRD from here on.

In a developing tradition at Green Bandwagon this review, inspired by Jack McCallum's sensible work, is divided into themes:  

  1. High school sports
  2. Massachusetts towns in general, Fall River in particular
  3. Coach Skippy Karam
  4. Chris Herren
  5. Glory Days and Michael Herren
  6. The white The Last Shot: City Streets, Basketball Dreams?

High school sports.

In the early 90s Bill Reynolds was a sportswriter with a problem. He was beginning to hate sports. And then miraculously he attended a Fall River basketball game, albeit against his will. And a funny thing happened. He loved it. Since Reynolds is a professional writer, and a good one at that, I'll let him take it from here,

"But when I walked into the gym in December 1991 it was as if I had stepped into a time warp, thrown back to some lost day thirty years ago, when high school sports were important. Roughly three thousand people were packed in the Durfee gym, an astounding number for a high school basketball game in the Northeast. Most of the fans were adults, many over forty-five. It instantly reminded me of the early counterculture and all the other late-sixties events that changed America, forever, when I played high school basketball and thought it was the only thing I would ever do. The sense of urgency. The buzz of the crowd. The frenzied passion of the players. Everything."

To be fair bad high school sports are tough to sit through. And I have seen and played in some bad high school sporting events. Yet I can identify with Reynolds' experience. In fact here are my top 3 high school games:

  1. I saw Scoonie Penn tear it up at the Worcester Centrum during the state tourney while playing for Salem High School. He was awesome. That said some Salem fans took major issue when my dad compared Penn to Dana Barros. In their opinion Penn was a thousand times better.
  2. I attended a game during Mike Bradley's senior season where he led the Burncoat Patriots to an emotional, come from behind victory, at St. John's of Shrewsbury. I realize most people are not well versed in the Worcester, Massachusetts sports scene. Put it this way. St. Johns of Shrewsbury is the Cobra Kai of central Massachusetts high schools.
  3. Jerry Azumah's senior season in general, Thanksgiving Day in particular. Azumah's St. Peter Marian squad played its Turkey Day game against the aforementioned St. John's at Holy Cross' Fitton Field. St. Peter Marian had the ball, the lead and no timeouts with less than 30 seconds left in the first half. It was third down and since they never passed St. Peter Marian was content to run out the clock. And then inexplicably St. Johns called a timeout. The result? A 50-yard TD run by Azumah. As a side note, is there any doubt in your mind that the Worcester Telegram & Gazette called him Azoomah? There shouldn't be.

Bonus scenario. Check out a basketball game at Bridgton Academy (Maine) some time. Technically it is not high school basketball, as the school is comprised entirely of post-graduate students. But it still feels like a high school game, albeit an elite one. And the Bridgton fans are merciless. They pick on opposing players, cheer loudly and create an environment that had me eyeing the exits and wondering what exactly I, coupled with the small contingent of adults, would do if they started a riot. Needless to say the basketball is intense and it is a tough place to win.

But that is the thing about high school sports. They're like pick up basketball games. You may have to deal with a lot of mediocrity but when things go well it is worth the wait. The entire side minutia that comes with big time college sports and the pros fades away. I love it. And Reynolds did too. So much so that he followed the Fall River team around for a year and wrote FRD.

Interesting side note - When Boston College decided that Mike Bradley's AAU running mates (I forget their names) would not get in it set off a chain reaction in which Bradley went to Kentucky and Jim O'Brien left for Ohio State, taking Scoonie Penn with him in the process. Rant over.  

Massachusetts towns in general, Fall River in particular

Would I enjoy FRD as much if I were not from Massachusetts? Probably not. Why else would I have followed Chris Herren (more on him later) as much as a kid? And there is no other logical explanation for my obsession with Massachusetts' towns. Granted I don't know how other states work. But in Massachusetts, just saying town names brings to mind reasonably accurate stereotypes of the people that inhabit them. For example if someone claims to be from Boston push for more detail. Growing up in Brookline is not quite the same as coming from Dorchester. Or consider the fact that, identities unknown, I'd fight a guy from Hamilton over a guy from Wakefield. Is that reasonable? Maybe not. I'm sure there are guys from both towns that would give me a beating. But I'm not changing my decision. Meanwhile, Fall River's reputation becomes pretty clear after reading Reynolds' description of it,

"Fall River has virtually no means of support. Twenty years ago it had the highest dropout rate of any school system in America. The unemployment rate hovers at about sixteen percent, over twice the national average."

Depressing place and a far cry from the cosmopolitan city Fall River was when the mills were at their peak. Reynolds goes on to stress how much basketball, in particular Durfee basketball, means to the city. It is Fall River's identity. That and Lizzie Borden. I've read this book three times now and I am always struck by how much Reynolds talks about the time Lizzie Borden took an ax...and allegedly committed a brutal double homicide. And yet apparently over 100 years later it is still a big deal in Fall River.  

Coach Skippy Karam

I played for Skippy Karam. Well not exactly. I played for a coach who had the same old school style. I recall my coach saying the following to me on my first day of football, "Why don't you quit? You suck already!" Uplifting stuff. So I was not fazed when I read about Karam screaming, "You asshole!" at Chris Herren during a game. Fourteen years later and I wonder if a coach, a high school one no less, can still get away with that. I'm sure we can debate the merits of such an aggressive coaching style all day long. Whatever side you support there is no denying that there are not a lot of coaches like Skippy Karam left. And personally I'm not sure that is a good thing. For example I still go back and see my high school coach at least once a year. And he's a great guy. Really cares about how I'm doing. Did I hate him when I played for him? Absolutely. Yet in a way it did unite my teammates. Every time I run into a guy from those teams we swap stories about the time coach got us with a great zinger. And Karam seems the same way. Hard as hell to play for but great once you have graduated. To that end two stories stick out about his softer side.

  1. Cynthia Carey, later Cindy Herren, learned she was pregnant with Michael when she was still in high school and unmarried. Cindy was in the hospital feeling like an outcast when Karam showed up with a baby outfit. She never forgot that gesture.
  2. The final encounter between Chris Herren and Karam prior to Herren's departure for Fresno State. Granted it is brief. But you should read the book. I'll leave it at that.

Chris Herren

I'm one of those people that watch a movie for the second or third time and still hopes that bad things won't happen. For example every time I watch Tommy Boy I don't want Big Tom Callahan to die. Never mind how important that it to the plot. Similarly every time I read FRD I hope that Chris Herren will miraculously choose not to attend Boston College. Alas he followed in his brother Michael's footsteps and stayed close to home. And much like Michael before him things did not work out at BC. From there on I followed Herren from afar as stories popped up from time to time. Jerry Tarkanian recruited Chris Herren. Chris Herren is battling drugs and point shaving accusations. Chris Herren is finding redemption at Fresno State. Chris Herren is with the Celtics. Chris Herren is out of the NBA. Chris Herren crashed his car into a Dunkin Donuts drive-through. Chris Herren is playing basketball in Iran of all places, albeit briefly. For someone who followed Herren's career like I did it is fascinating to read about where it all began.  And Reynolds does a great job providing a profile of Herren. It is one of the many reasons that FRD is such a great read.

Glory Days and Michael Herren

Michael Herren was a force of nature. From a young age he was emotional, cocky, charismatic, intense and adamant that he would not step down from any challenge. He lived for Durfee basketball and did not disappoint when he got his shot, leading the team to two state championships. By the time Chris was a star at Durfee Michael had put on some weight, flamed out at Boston College and would still come home to watch the games. He just could not let it go. One of his aunts correctly predicted that things would never be as good again for Michael as they were right after his last high school game at the Worcester Centrum.

Every time I read FRD Michael Herren comes off like the stereotypical jock/borderline villain that fifteen years after graduation some people still hate. And that's not necessarily fair. The book is not really about him and there is nothing there about his interactions with anybody outside of the Durfee basketball family and its opponents and their fans. But his presence and Durfee basketball in general does help bring up a bigger debate about how much high school sports matter to individuals and society in America. On the one hand no one wants to peak at 18. Think about all the things that can happen after that. College, a real job, travel, a family and so on. Ideally life gets better. Hopefully it can be different but still rewarding. However, for some athletes it is downhill. They can't match the highs of winning, the thrill of playing in front of a crowd and the ego boost that comes from being the center of something.

Meanwhile what about society's obsession with sports? Can a town like Fall River justify buying its coach a new car or sending its basketball team to Disney World when it is struggling to pay its teachers? That makes for a great debate. And as big as basketball is in Fall River it does become clear that not everyone buys in.

The white The Last Shot: City Streets, Basketball Dreams?

I can imagine some people calling FRD the white The Last Shot: City Streets, Basketball Dreams. I'm not one of those people. That's an oversimplified way of looking at them. For starters The Last Shot is more player centric with its focus on Darryl Flicking (Russell Thomas in the book), Tchaka Shipp, Corey Johnson and to a lesser extent Stephon Marbury. Meanwhile, FRD provides an in depth look at Coach Skippy Karam. Furthermore, while Darcy Frey astutely describes Coney Island and the challenges it presents, Reynolds seemingly devotes half of the book to Fall River - the rise and fall of the mills, Lizzy Borden, the unemployment rate and the history of Durfee basketball. However, the bigger issue is that they are both great sports books that should stand on their own.

Final Grade: A-

Bonus Points

  • Reynolds writes about one Fall River party he attended with several members of the team where partygoers drank and smoked pot. If FRD came out tomorrow would Reynolds' presence at such an event be an issue? I can see some people flipping out about an adult in the presence of minors breaking the law.
  • Chris Herren actually played at Durfee High School, which of course is located in Fall River. Reynolds explains the whole naming phenomenon in the book. Just wanted to clear that up.