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Book Reviews

King of the World: Muhammad Ali and the Rise of an American Hero

by David Remnick

Playing for Keeps: Michael Jordan and the World He Made

by David Halberstam

All Heart: My Story

by Michael Clemons

There’s nothing like a good sports biography to get a fan’s blood pumping. A well-written account of the sporting life can prompt fond reminiscences of one’s own athletic past, call up daydreams where you’re the one with the ball and only five seconds on the clock. However, good sports biographers extend their scope beyond a description of what fans see on television or witness from the bleachers. They go beyond the individual players and coaches – even beyond the sport itself – to reveal larger truths about society and the scope of human achievement.
New Yorker editor David Remnick takes this larger view in King of the World: Muhammad Ali and the Rise of an American Hero, writing that Ali is “an American myth who has come to mean many things to many people, a symbol of faith, a symbol of conviction and defiance, a symbol of beauty and skill and courage, a symbol of racial pride and wit and love.”
Ali didn’t always carry such symbolic weight. In the 1960s, he was the brash-talking black convert to Islam who was stripped of his world championship title for refusing to fight in Vietnam. He taunted opponents in the ring and via the media. In the days when a black boxing champion was expected to be a mute front-man for Mafia interests, Ali spoke his mind and made his own decisions about whom he’d fight and when he’d fight them. At a time when the best heavyweight fighters were slow-moving brutes who won by landing The One Big Punch, Ali was light on his feet and in perpetual motion; he tired his opponents, then went in for the kill. Remnick captures all of this in magnificent detail, and keeps Ali’s irrepressible personality in the forefront.

When he was king
As talented and outspoken as he was, Ali, whose detractors always said he was “too light” to be a real heavyweight champion, never could have become the boxer he was by himself. So Remnick takes a penetrating look at the careers and personalities of the men who preceded Ali as champions, Floyd Patterson and Sonny Liston, as well as the many low-lifes, hangers-on, and money-men that surround the world of boxing. He also devotes considerable attention to the leaders of the Nation of Islam, who initially condemned boxing as a sport that exploited blacks, but later, as Ali rose to prominence, embraced it. In many ways, King of the World is as much about a country’s reaction to Ali – and the swirling currents of sport, civil rights, religion, and politics that changed American society during the 1950s and ’60s – as it is about Ali himself. It makes for a marvellous read.
Remnick begins and ends the book by paying a visit to the present-day Ali, suffering from Parkinson’s disease and confined mostly to his farmhouse in Michigan. This back-and-forth narrative – from the cocky kid with the boxing world’s fastest reflexes and sharpest tongue, to the whispering, trembling man in the armchair – is a pointed indication of the brutal toll boxing takes on its champions. Indeed, Remnick only lets on near the end of the book that he himself is not a fan: “Boxing, a sport designed to stun the brain, is finally indefensible,” he writes. “There is beauty in it [but] if you meet enough former fighters . . . you begin to wonder. What beauty is worth this?” What beauty, indeed.
If Muhammad Ali created the role of the modern sports superstar, then basketball star Michael Jordan redefined it. In Playing for Keeps: Michael Jordan and the World He Made, journalist David Halberstam takes a fascinating in-depth look at one of the most dominant and financially successful athletes of modern times.
Halberstam’s narrative jumps back and forth over a 20-year period beginning in 1979, and includes sufficient bounce-by-bounce descriptions of on-court action to satisfy even the most ardent basketball fan. Unlike other Jordan biographers, however, Halberstam focuses on how Jordan’s success on the court and carefully controlled image helped to create the most successful marketing personality in sports history. Halberstam argues convincingly that the global success of the Nike shoe and apparel company, the emergence of all-sports cable networks like ESPN, and basketball’s huge growth in popularity relative to baseball and football (it is now the highest-paying, most richly sponsored sport in North America) are all directly related to Jordan’s stellar career. Halberstam also makes the case, persuasively, that sports agent David Falk, filmmaker Spike Lee, Jordan’s coach Phil Jackson, and fellow players like Dennis Rodman and Scottie Pippen all have Jordan to thank, to some degree, for their own success.
Despite the media’s fascination with Jordan, there are still plenty of unanswered questions about the athlete’s personal life, and Halberstam does not shy away from them. While kids all over the world can imitate his signature, tongue-wagging drives to the basket, very few people know much at all about how he spends his time off the court. There have been vague but persistent rumours about his fondness for gambling. His father’s murder a few years ago cast a pall over the entire sport, and his premature first retirement to play baseball (horribly, as it turned out, proving that he’s human after all) is still one of the sports world’s great mysteries. He never took a stand on the much-publicized exploitive labour practices of Nike in southeast Asia. And although Jordan’s wife and kids occasionally appear in public with him, nobody knows much about them.
If Jordan ever opts to reveal these details, he could do a lot worse than to follow the lead of Canadian Football League player Michael “Pinball” Clemons, whose All Heart: My Story provides a balanced, first-person account of his life and football career. Since coming to Canada to play in 1989, Clemons has proven equally adept at returning kicks, running from scrimmage, and catching passes, and his writing exhibits the same jitterbug energy and enthusiasm as his on-field play.
Beginning with his sometimes violent formative years in Dunedin, Florida, Clemons recounts, with humility, his development into a gifted athlete and one of the most exciting players ever to have worn a CFL uniform. For much of his early football career, Clemons considered ditching the game for a corporate job. Mindful of his small size and poor chances of making it to the pro leagues, Clemons studied hard and worked during summer breaks from college for Honeywell Industries. Today he co-owns Cableguard Marketeers, a cable television business based in Barrie, Ontario that employs hundreds of people.
A devout Christian, Clemons believes that professional athletes should be careful how they conduct themselves because of their high profile among young people. To his credit, he’s intelligent and well-reasoned on the subject without being preachy or overbearing.
On the sports side, he provides details about everything from contract negotiations to workout techniques and motivational pre-game prayer sessions. He provides a season-by-season account of his career with the Argos, including interactions on and off the field with teammates Paul Masotti and Doug Flutie and coaches Don Matthews and Adam Rita. Particularly interesting from a football standpoint are Clemons’ observations on how he was transformed from a kick return specialist into a running back and receiver – a key cog in the Argo’s total offensive game plan. (And, notably, he doesn’t let a discussion of “look at how I’ve succeeded when I’m so small” dominate the narrative.)

Teen spirit
Kids and teens are often among an athlete’s biggest fans, but few sports biographies are written specifically with younger readers in mind. Enter Warwick, a Toronto book packager and publisher, which has produced a series of short-format bios that describe the lives of four well-known athletes – Muhammad Ali, Michael Jordan, Michael Schumacher, and Martina Hingis – without indulging in candy-coating or hero-worship.
The books offer enough action to keep things interesting for young readers, but don’t go overboard on play-by-play accounts. They also provide a social context for the athlete and sport in question, and don’t shy away from controversies. As well, each contains a glossary of sporting terms and a chronology of the subject’s life, making them a useful complement to the brief TV clips that provide the standard introduction to most of today’s sports heroes.