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Book Review - Unfinished Business

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I started book reviews on my old site with The Last Shot and Sole Influence. Click on the latter if only to see me misspell the title of the book even though I inserted a picture of the cover, with the correct spelling, nearby. Fun stuff. It was meant to be a monthly project that I am finally getting back into 8 months later. On the bright side I spent a decent amount of time on this one and recently read Operation Yao Ming. Hopefully I can get my act together and do this more often. And if I really get in a rhythm I will finally finish Pat Conroy's My Lost Season. It really is an excellent book that just so happens to be the most depressing sports book I have ever read. If they made that into a movie it would make Brian's Song look upbeat. But I digress. Enjoy.

I originally read Unfinished Business three years ago and loved it. I breezed through it again last month and realized two things:

  • Jack McCallum is an excellent writer. The book as a whole makes me think about some of my old posts and cringe.
  • It is a harsh reminder that as great as the Internet is, books provide a lot more information.
That second point is why I never understood the traditional media vs. blogging debate. There is plenty of room for both. It is good to have people interviewing Tony Allen after a rehab session while other people photoshop the pictures from that same workout. Consider the following example. I spent years trying to choose a winner between Hostess and Little Debbie. In the end it dawned on me - they are both relevant and necessary. I challenge you to choose between HoHos and Zebra Cakes. Now that we've cleared that up, on to the book.

Introduction

McCallum hit the ground running with a 12-page introduction that neatly outlined the book. Based upon the intro I broke my review into seven major themes/stories:

  1. The firing of Jimmy Rodgers and the search for a new coach.
  2. Dave Gavitt's hiring, which represented a crossroads for the Celtics franchise.
  3. The decrepit state of the Boston Garden.
  4. The youngsters in the Celtics organization or as McCallum calls them - "the kids" -  Brian Shaw, Reggie Lewis, Dee Brown and to a lesser extent Kevin Gamble and Kevin Pinckney.
  5. Race in the NBA and Boston.
  6. The cast of somewhat forgettable characters that McCallum immortalizes in the book.
  7. The trials, tribulations, and health of the Big Three or as McCallum calls them - LarryKevinandRobert.
McCallum gets huge bonus points for including the following exchange between assistant coach Jon Jennings and a random dude:

"'What are you thinking, Jon?' someone asked.

'I'm thinking that it was a great season,' said Jennings. `But, in the end, it was all unfinished business.'"

I'm a sucker for any movie or book that blatantly uses its title. And that's borderline "Snakes on a Plane" territory. Awesome.

1. Search for a Coach
The C's went 52-30 during the 1990 regular season before bowing out in the first round of the playoffs against the hated New York Knicks and firing their coach, Jimmy Rodgers. Keeping with tradition Red Auerbach wanted to elevate someone (Chris Ford) from within the Celtics family, while Dave Gavitt (more on him later) wanted to explore other options. The newly hired Gavitt got his way and wooed Mike Krzyzewski. Coach K turned down the C's and, unlike Rick Pitino several years later, did not get a Godfather style offer. Meanwhile Ford remained in limbo from May 7th until he was finally promoted on June 12th. Strangely the Boston press was squarely in Ford's corner. In fact it was not until March of the following year that the media finally went negative with Ford. For a town like Boston that's an amazing honeymoon. Other than that Ford's promotion was interesting for several reasons:

  • Much like current Celtics coach Doc Rivers, Jimmy Rodgers gave lip service to fast break basketball. However, when push came to shove the C's walked the ball up the court. Ford was determined to take a page out of Tommy Heinsohn's book and actually run. This included cutting ties with the popular Dennis Johnson as well as a conscious effort by Ford to prevent Larry Bird from bucking the system and destroying the newly installed offense. In fact after one pre season game Ford went on a tirade about how the Celtics would run and finished by saying, "Do we understand each other, LARRY?" Not one to defuse a situation Bird responded with the following: "Fuck you, Doc." They then proceeded to yell and swear at each other, Ford got the final word and it was over.  
  • Ford had the interesting task of coaching some of his former teammates. Furthermore, McHale and, to a lesser extent Bird, were his friends. They even called him by his nickname "Doc", which he earned in his Celtic days by throwing down a windmill on Dr. J. In the three years since I initially learned that it has not ceased to amaze me. I know Dr. J's knees were shot and he was not a lock down defender. But still...
  • As Ford noted, his predecessor was fired after winning 52 games. Just making the playoffs and winning a series or two was not enough for the Celtics head coach. Those were the days.
2. Dave Gavitt on the Scene
By 1990 the Celtics organization was at a crossroads. Red Auerbach had a hand in 16 titles, outmaneuvered the league for decades and installed a mystique and sense of tradition in Boston. At the same time he was 72 years old, did not understand the salary cap, despised agents, had never spoken to most of the league's general managers and had recently drafted Michael Smith over Tim Hardaway. Granted no one wanted to kick Auerbach to the curb. That would be ungrateful and soulless. Insert Pitino joke here. But by 1990 it was clear that someone had to do the things that did not interest or concern Auerbach. Thankfully Red saw it the same way and was happy to bring in Gavitt. In fact Auerbach spoke highly about the new CEO,  
"Hell, I wanted a guy like that years ago, but I couldn't find the right person. Here you got Gavitt, a basketball man, experienced in administration, organization, negotiation. Plus on top of it all he was a former player and coach. Ideal."
 
Over the course of the season Gavitt made several noticeable changes:  
  • He gave the C's practice facility at Hellenic College a facelift.
  • He gave the press doughnuts and coffee. Brilliant move in my opinion.
  • Gavitt became the point person for controversial issues like Bird's back. This was an attempt to streamline communication and prevent some of the embarrassing gaffes that were too commonplace with the Celtics.
  • He convinced the Celtics to finally charter a private plane to make travel more comfortable. This was particularly beneficial for Bird.  
In the end Gavitt only remained with the Celtics until 1994. He made necessary improvements during his tenure, yet the Cs struggled. And they have continued to struggle. Interestingly for all talk about how Red Auerbach refused to embrace the new NBA, he could have been vindicated if the Bird, McHale, and the rest of the C's stayed healthy. Not that a man who brought an organization 16 titles needs vindication. Just throwing that out there.  

3. The Boston Garden
If it had not been made clear in previous years, the 1991 season definitely hammered home the fact that the Boston Garden was inadequate. The cramped locker rooms, treacherous bathrooms, pitiful sound system that thwarted "The Kids" from spicing up pre game with some rap and the fluctuating temperatures were all unfortunate. But when the C's actually had to postpone a November game against the Hawks when unseasonably warm weather resulted in a puddle filled court, the writing was on the wall. Ironically the Garden outlasted Gavitt who was more appalled than most by the crumbling building.  

4.+5."The Kids" & Race in the NBA and Boston

I had to put themes four and five together to avoid any repetition and for the fact that the skin color of "the kids" played a large role in their experiences. Let's look at them individually:  

Ed Pinckney - McCallum does not group Pinckney with the kids and the Villanova product is actually in more of a no man's land. Initially Ford wanted to start Bird, Parish, Lewis, and Shaw and bring McHale off the bench. That left room for one more starter. It was Pinckney's job to lose, which he did. From there McCallum devotes a fair amount of time to Pinckney's demeanor. For example his college coach Rollie Massimino was shocked to learn that "Easy Ed" had not seriously considered the NBA during his sophomore year. And by the time he reached the pros questions circled about him. McCallum noted,

"No one ever accused Pinckney of being lazy exactly, for like Kleine, he put in countless hours off the court. But at one time or another his intensity, competitiveness, his toughness, his concentration, and his confidence had all been brought into question."
 
That stings. Pinckney found much of the criticism unfair. Yet even his wife, a former Villanova cheerleader, gave him a hard time. Ultimately Pinckney lost his confidence, enjoyed a brief hot streak as the playoffs approached and then quietly finished an overall disappointing season. In fact he was one of the few players in the NBA that seemingly lacked an ego.

Kevin Gamble - Gamble wasn't really one of the kids either, even though he was only 25 when the season started. He was a better basketball player than his combine results indicated and spent some time in the CBA. And much like Pinckney he was also soft spoken. That coupled with his occasionally lax defense made Gamble a target of the coaches' ire. Furthermore, he was a tweener that did not necessarily have a position in the NBA. Overall Gamble had his moments, but spent a lot of time in the background on that Celtics squad.

Brian Shaw - He was probably the most controversial member of "the kids" as his presence led to Dennis Johnson's exile. Furthermore, Shaw played in Italy for a year, hired the wildly unpopular Jerome Stanley as an agent and found himself in the midst of a full fledged contract dispute in the build up to the 91 season. Shaw eventually won a new contract but he and Stanley were vilified by the Boston media and obviously did not endear themselves to Red Auerbach. McCallum points out that at least some of the criticism appeared to be racially charged. Stanley and Shaw are both black.

Dee Brown - Brown said all the right things from the moment he was drafted and was viewed by some as the anti Shaw. In fact towards the end of the season a media led point guard controversy erupted. Ford never wavered in his decision to start Shaw and Brown continued to say and do the right things. And that controversy paled in comparison to the two biggest events of Brown's year, which both occurred outside of a regulation game. The first arose when several Wellesley police officers pointed guns at Brown, mistaking him for a bank robber. In reality Brown and the suspect had very little in common appearance wise, outside of their skin color. Meanwhile, the other event, the Slam Dunk Contest, was decidedly more positive. Though it may be a contrived, meaningless event, it did give Brown a great deal of confidence that he carried into the second half.

Reggie Lewis - For some reason people seem to forget how good Lewis was. And remembering him makes me sad. He died when sports probably meant way too much in my life and I was devastated. Let's move on.

Given the number of high profile players, Ray Allen excluded, who did not want to come to Boston this off season, and Michael Wilbon's theory on this phenomenon, race and basketball continue to be linked in Boston, regardless of what Doc Rivers says. This was definitely the case when McCallum wrote Unfinished Business, as the aforementioned Dee Brown (Wellesley police) and Brian Shaw (contract dispute) incidents illustrate. But it goes deeper than that. Dennis Johnson believed that he and the Chief were more likely to make the front page of newspapers after a loss, while Bird or McHale held it down following victories. And of course Bill Russell's experiences still loom large. In fact around the same time that McCallum wrote his book, this indictment of the C's hit the market. Unfortunately I don't think this story has legs today, which is too bad. It would be great to see players, coaches, and people in and around the league discuss it openly and somehow destroy Dan Shaughnessy in the process. I can dream. Finally, I would be remiss if I did not mention that in practice the C's would sometimes scrimmage blacks versus whites. And obviously Bird, McHale and some of the other white players who at that time were no longer with the C's (Bill Walton and Danny Ainge) could play for anyone. So while race was an issue with fans, the media and possibly management, it seemed to affect the players far less than other issues, such as shots.  

6. The cast of somewhat forgettable characters that McCallum immortalizes in the book.

Joe Kleine - Proof that guys can work hard, be good basketball players and yet ultimately they will not make an impact in the NBA. And Kleine's excessive time on the bench really starts to get to him in the book. While he did not think he was better than Parish he wanted the chance to start elsewhere and blamed the Kings organization for type casting him as a back up. I'm more inclined to think that Kleine was not a starter but respect anyone who has a feud with Jon Koncak.

Michael Smith - I'll sum this up with two points:

  • McCallum notes that "Smith's bigger problem, however, was that his type of athleticism was not necessarily the athleticism that succeeds in the NBA." Translation - You don't need to throw a football into a hoop from the opposite foul line. Ever.
  • Even if Smith were average it would not make up for the fact that he went one place before Tim Hardaway in the 1989 NBA Draft.
Stojko Vrankovic - Classic example of a player getting a shot because he looked like a guy who should play in the NBA. His brief cameos are generally hilarious and make the book worthwhile even beyond the obvious reasons.
Derek Smith - Master of the training room.

7. The trials, tribulations, and health of the Big Three or as McCallum calls them - LarryKevinandRobert.

Robert Parish - I always knew that the Chief hated Bill Laimbeer, cherished his privacy and was awesome. But the book reinforces how much Parish talked on defense. Furthermore, he worked hard in practice and genuinely enjoyed it, even if he always bolted right afterwards. Ironically Parish drifts through the book with the same under the radar approach he adhered to during his playing days.  

Larry Bird - Bird's back was like Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Yankees/Red Sox and every other beaten into the ground sports story from 2007 rolled into one. Meanwhile, his on the court greatness is well documented. Therefore, I'll focus on his insight into the league and other players. Consider these gems:

In response to a compliment about his play in practice: "Shit, well that was only Eddie Pinckney guarding me. You could score on him."

His assessment of J.R. Reid: "I bin gone three weeks. Has J.R. suddenly become an All-Star and I didn't hear `bout it? He'll git his twelve. I'll git my fifty."

All that and Bird used to hang out with the Golden Girls whenever the team went to Denver. True story.

And then of course there is Bird's relationship or lack thereof with McHale, which is the most intriguing off the court issue in the book. They are polar opposites who are not friends. Bird was driven by a single minded approach to basketball. Meanwhile, McHale loved to joke around and hang out as much as, if not more, than he liked the games. Furthermore, they both come off as the leaders of cliques and it is rare for the other players to be friendly with both. Bird was the alpha male of the team and McHale had to sacrifice a bit, black hole nickname notwithstanding. Yet it is unclear if McHale ever actually wanted to be the man. Finally, they were both at a point in their careers where their bodies began to betray them and the end was near. And I did get the sense that they did not undervalue the championships they won together and the fact that they will be forever linked. While Bird was hard on McHale, he did not accept outsiders belittling his teammate. For his part McHale was hyper sensitive about ever being construed as critical of Bird. He wanted no part in any discussions on his teammate's health, shot selection, or other stories that followed Bird around all season. In the end it seemed like Bird viewed McHale as a lesser member of an elite club. While McHale could have obtained more status through devotion or hard work, he was still was a part of something that 99.9% of people are not. Of course I might be way off on that one. Having said all of that, if you really want to understand their complex relationship just read pages 108-116. It is concise, well written and informative.

Kevin McHale - I'm going to pull a Will Ferrell here and say that if you don't think McHale is the break out star of Unfinished Business than I will fight you. In fact McCallum's efforts show how unfortunate it is that McHale's tenure as a general manager has simultaneously destroyed both the Minnesota Timberwolves and his legacy. It is just too easy to forget how personable, funny and insightful McHale was as a player. Outside of the thinly veiled tension with Bird and "Larry's guys" the affable McHale gets along with everyone. In fact Brad Lohaus, one of Bird's friends, was the only one who spoke negatively about the big man from Minnesota. And that was because McHale mercilessly mocked Lohaus's perm, causing Lohaus to say, "Kevin likes to have a good time. But I think he crossed the line." Maybe repeatedly calling someone Fifi is a bit much but here's a thought. Don't get a perm. And if you do, be prepared for people to mock you. A lot. And the material on McHale runs the gauntlet from the serious (recurring foot and ankle injuries) to the entertaining (post practice games, McHale standard time and so on). Just read the book.