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House Chatter Highlights "Top of the World"

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A Daily Babble Production

Confession: I'm a sucker for the single-season team insider account book. 

There are few more enjoyable ways to learn about the intricate workings of a ball club than to read the work of a reporter who has dedicated himself to following the progress of a team from start to finish.  Those who work to build relationships with coaches, front office and players and cover teams from the angles of what goes on in practice, in the locker room and in the away-from-the-arena lives of these folks over whom many of us spend so much time obsessing often provide a special window into the dynamics of a business and game whose main characters we often only know on the most peripheral of levels.

It's no surprise then that so many of my favorite books fall under this classification.  Sam Smith's The Jordan Rules and Michael Leahy's When Nothing Else Matters painted intriguing albeit largely unflattering pictures of Michael Jordan in his first title season and Wizards comeback respectively.  Jack McCallum's Seven Seconds Or Less turned me into an Eddie House fan back when the gunner was with the Suns, and the book brought insights into Mike D'Antoni, his staff, Shawn Marion and many more members of the 2005-06 Phoenix Suns.  John Feinstein may be the patron saint of this genre with his immortal A Season On the Brink about the 1985-86 Indiana Hoosiers, which he has since followedwith (among his many masterpieces) The Last Amateurs (about the entire Patriot League) and Next Man Up (the 2004 Baltimroe Ravens).  This list goes on.

All that said, you can imagine my excitement when I recently received a promotional copy (thank you, Sean Maher) of Peter May's Top of the World, which is billed on its front cover as "The inside story of the Boston Celtics' amazing one-year turnaround to become NBA champions."  A single-season narrative that happened to be about our beloved team winning a championship seemed a perfect combination.  After work around here bogged me down longer than expected, I finally was able to take the last few days to consume May's work, which left me with mixed feelings.

On one hand, it's hard to argue too much with any book that allows me to relive a season like last year.  Without a doubt, May captures the overlying themes of the season.  I reread the part about Game 1 of the Finals while sitting on a bus yesterday afternoon, and it's a good thing there was no one seated next to me as i actually shivered just thinking about Paul Pierce coming out of the tunnel to make his return.

May clearly did a decent bit of reporting as it appears that he spoke to the big three, Doc Rivers and Danny Ainge at length.  He clearly conversed to some extent with the rest of the players and a myriad of others involved with the team, notably Leo Papile, the Celts' assistant executive director of basketball operations.  The recollections of closed-doors discussions between coach and players are interesting, and May does provide some new information.  There is a bit of intriguing back story on James Posey's pregame hug ritual, an unexpected explanation for Ray Allen's arm sleeve that we won't spoil for you (unless I missed it when this came out last year) and perhaps my highlight, some commentary from fan favorite Eddie House.

Celts fans won't quickly forget the mini-drama that occurred when Sam Cassell strolled in and almost immediately assumed Eddie House's well-maintained role as backup point guard and had his share of ups and downs through the first couple of rounds.  Cassell had his moments, but what kept the situation from becoming a full-on controversy was House's willingness to do anything asked of him and to remain prepared for any opportunities he got.  May details how House came up particularly large in the great comeback of the fourth game of the Finals, and he completes that segment of the narrative with this bit from Eddie:

"The hardest thing about it was getting the rug snatched form under my feet when I didn't feel I did anything to warrant me losing my job...I can live with it if we had competed every day and he outplayed me.  I can live with someone being better than me.  But that wasn't the case...

...That rubbed me the wrong way at first.  But then I realized i couldn't have all these negative thoughts, all day, come to practice thinking about it, going home, thinking about it, and not thinking about doing my job and being prepared.  You can't be in that mode.  So I set it aside; I can't control that.  What I can control is coming to work every day early, getting my shots up, running on the treadmill, staying in shape, lifting weights, and just working on my game, and taking care of my body so when I did get called, i was ready.  In my mind, I was always in the game."

Reading that made my heart swell as an Eddie fan. That along with some earlier comments about House's background and career alone might well make the book worth it.  For all the reasons to love this guy (his instant offense, boundless energy both on the floor and off and non-stop yapping), finding out how he reformed himself from his younger days (you'll have to read the book for that part of it) and what a true professional attitude he has might be the best of all.  So thanks to Peter May for shining that light on Eddie.

But the problem for me was that this sort of true insight seemed more the exception than the rule throughout the book.  It's one thing for an author to fulfill the adage of leaving the audience wanting more, but May has a twofold problem in leaving us wanting too much more: detail and fact-checking.

The detail concern has two facets to it, beginning with the issue of providing newer information.  What I loved about reading The Jordan Rules was that I felt like I got to know characters like center Bill Cartwright or general manager Jerry Krause - and nearly everyone else in the book - on an intimate level.  Same goes for Shawn Marion and all the Suns' assistant coaches in 7 Seconds.  And Steve Alford in A Season On the Brink.  It was evident that Smith, McCallum and Feinstein had spent enormous amounts of time with each of their subjects, not only in the arena but in their daily lives outside basketball.  These authors provided well-rounded perspectives of their subjects that aren't going to be found in most day-turn newspaper articles or on game broadcasts and highlight reels.  While May gives that to us in a small dose with a couple of his characters (House and Big Baby Davis come to mind), there just isn't enough. 

What happened in practices?  Was there ever any dissension between guys on the team?  Who spent time together off the floor?  What makes P.J. Brown tick?  How does Brian Scalabrine feel about public perception of his role for this team?  All of those are questions analogous to those answered in the other books I've mentioned, and May doesn't address them sufficiently.  It's my guess that one of the reasons for this is that May likely did not approach this book the way the aforementioned writers did.  Each of those authors set out to write about his respective subject team from the beginning of the season, and each worked to be granted virtually unfettered access to the organization, thus affording readers a truly transparent look at the season. 

In contrast, the feel I got reading Top of the World is that May chose to go back to write this as a retrospective after the fact, once the Celtics had been crowned champions.  Most of his accounts of in-season behind-the-scenes occurrences seem to be based on the recounting of those happenings from players, coaches and the front office rather than his-eyes-to-ours reporting.  There is no doubt that this method would put May at a disadvantage compared to other single-season account writers, but again, this is merely my hypothesis from reading.  If he did have special access to team personnel and was working on the book all season, the lack of intimate detail seems less excusable.

The other detail-oriented issue has nothing to do with access but simply the retelling of the basketball events.  While I would agree with the idea of staying away from becoming too invested in play-by-play rehashing in sports writing, there are certain moments of any season that demand attention.  Two key omissions came to mind right away while reading Top of the World: In discussing Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals - easily one of the five best games of the Celts' playoff run - May makes no mention of the fact that Bennett Salvatore did everything but show up in a custom-tailored Pistons jersey for the first three quarters, culminating with what shall heretofore be known as the Most Absurd Offensive Foul Call Ever Made that wiped out what would have been a four-point play for Paul Pierce in the third quarter. 

There is nary a word about Kevin Garnett's game-sealing putback dunk over Pau Gasol at the end of the opening game of the 2008 Finals.  Similarly, Game 6 of the Finals receives exactly one four-sentence paragraph.  No mention of Ray Allen taking that shot to the face early in the game.  No mention of KG's improbable overhand bank-and-one that set the tone for the type of night this would be.  No mention of Scal's postgame press conference.  These are all moments that I will want my future grandchildren to know about the 2007-08 Boston Celtics, and I maintain that May wasn't thorough enough in chronicling many of those parts of the title run.

The disclaimer for the above paragraph, however, is that the comparison between Top of the World and the other books mentioned may not be completely fair because of the fact that I'm an obsessively immersed Celtics fan.  I breathe, sleep and eat Celtics basketball from January 1 to December 31 every year.  So every 'special moment' is magnified in my eyes for the Celtics' title run, whereas it stands to reason that I might not have noticed if writers about the Bulls, Suns or Hoosiers left out events of parallel significance for those teams.  For those who have read the book, am I being too hard on May here?  Is there enough chronicling of the meaningful basketball moments to provide general audiences for both now and in the future a complete view of what happened?  I'm standing by a verdict of "it's not quite there" for now, but I'll accept the charge that our fan allegiances could compromise our judgment on this one.

The part of my judgment that definitively isn't compromised is my issue with either May's or his editors' fact-checking throughout the story.  It might seem nitpicky, but it frustrates me when I can peruse a supposedly credible book full of information that is of high interest to me and note several factual errors immediately as I'm reading.  A few examples off the top of my head: May is incorrect on the scores of two Finals games.  He cites Game 6 as a 132-91 final (actually 131-92) and Game 2 as 106-102 (actually 108-102).  He also refers to 2000-01 as Rick Pitino's last "full" season in Boston and mentions that the team rallied around Jim O'Brien the next year.  The phrasing is a bit odd since O'Brien took over from a resigning Ricktator after a 12-22 start in 2000-01, making Pitino's season anything but "full." 

I understand that the actual scores of those games and the linguistics of the Pitino remark aren't the most consequential parts of the book.  But there is little if anything more important in journalism than the truth, and the repeated obvious and careless factual errors throughout the book make me as a reader question the verity of May's work as a whole, and that's unfortunate.

By now, you've assuredly noticed why I'll never be a literary critic: because I'll end up blabbing for nearly the length of the books themselves.  The short-short wrap is that I went in to Peter May's Top of the World with super-high expectations (possibly too high), and while many of them were not met, it was still a joy to spend some time reliving the wonderful 2007-08 Celtics season, and there is at least a reasonable if not entirely adequate supply of new information and insight from those associated with the team that brought the green its first title in 22 years.  Not a must read, but worth the time if you've got it.