Author David Halberstam has covered a lot of teams. For the 1979-1980 NBA season, Halberstam was with the Portland Trail Blazers. That season occurred at a time when the NBA was considered the leper of the four major American professional sports.
Halberstam’s account of that year, chronicled in The Breaks of the Game, went on to become a literary classic because of how he was able to discuss a single team, while also covering each of the major problems that the NBA had faced. Breaks is as much about Halberstam’s year with a team as it is a snapshot of an entire league that had been struggling to stay relevant.
Almost 20 years later, Halberstam authored his second basketball book, Playing for Keeps: Michael Jordan and the World he Made. The project – like Breaks – was a two-pronged concept. It was part basketball biography of Michael Jordan, part narrative of the league and its changes since his first book.
Halberstam shows that the league’s resurgence follows almost the same graphic arc as the evolution of Jordan’s North Carolina days to becoming the world’s most famous American as the star of the Chicago Bulls. Jordan even rivaled the popularity of this country’s president.
What makes Playing for Keeps so different from Breaks is Halberstam’s ability to examine events after they happen, thus providing a more complete perspective. For example, Halberstam credits Jordan for some of the league’s resurgence, but he is careful about giving credit to other NBA greats Magic Johnson and Larry Bird and the league’s commissioner, David Stern.
Halberstam’s ability to touch on Jordan’s lesser-discussed tendencies, including his gambling habits and his bad-teammate qualities makes Playing for Keeps a complete book. These are things other Jordan biographers tend to downplay.
At the same time, Halberstam pens more about Jordan’s work ethic off the court, than he writes about Jordan’s countless great games and the impact he had on even the normal, regular season games.
The author reveals Jordan’s passion for practice and his competitive fire, something that was so great that he would never quit until winning it all. Though that attribute looks good on the surface, that part of Jordan was probably the worst quality to have, especially since he was a gambler.
Writers often write books completely with bias. John Feinstein is notorious for picking one or two people, and going out of his way to take shots at them. Halberstam is no exception. It seems as if Halberstam was determined to take as many shots at former Chicago Bulls general manager Jerry Krause as possible. He harps on how Jordan would make fun of Krause in front of his teammates.
Sports columnists and ESPN’s talking heads talk about the diminishing number of great players and the legacies they’ll leave behind.
For a perspective that does not include his two-season NBA comeback with the Washington Wizards, Playing for Keeps is the definitive Michael Jordan book. The book always seems to come back to the 1997-98 season, and has points where it reads like Breaks. In the end, Playing for Keeps is a great look at Jordan’s final season as a Bull, his fine career and an in-depth look at how he made the NBA what it is today.