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David Halberstam is indisputably one of journalism history's heavyweights of reporting. His name is attached to the Pulitzer Prize, The New York Times, the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement and the Kennedys. But in between challenging the powers that be, he made time to write about sports. And, indisputably, those stories are among the most significant on that side of the bookstore: "The Breaks of the Game," "Playing for Keeps: Michael Jordan and the World He Made," "Summer of '49," "October 1964," "The Amateurs" and "The Education of a Coach." Here is a sampling of his columns from ESPN.com's Page 2 Vault in 2001 and 2002, an era when his encyclopedic knowledge of the heart of sports collided with technology's rush to give us only spectacle:
Halberstam first got hooked on World Cup action while fighting boredom in Paris in 1966 thanks to a bar's tiny black-and-white TV. As someone who has reported on world conflicts, he knows how the power of nationalism plays a part in sparking World Cup fever. But at age 68, he implored the game itself to pick up its pace. It's not like he was some 32-year-old kid with time on his hands anymore.
"Thanks, soccer, see you in four years" (Aug. 2, 2002)
This is something of a confession. It has taken me some 36 years to realize it, but I am a fan of World Cup soccer, but not of soccer itself. For a long time I was loathe to admit this. I realized that I was hooked on the World Cup one morning this year when I got up a little early first to walk the dogs and then to watch the early games, even though the U.S. team had already been eliminated -- thus it was not pure Yankee chauvinism. But truth be told, I do it for the pleasure of the nationalism involved, not for the love of soccer. Nor do I think, as things currently stand, I can be cured.
I like the World Cup, but when it's over, I'm gone. The game itself doesn't hold me. It should, but it doesn't. It's wonderful when two great teams are battling late in a big game and the score is tied. But that happens all too rarely. ... I think the problem is the game itself -- or more specifically, the rules of the game. Very simply, the rules favor the defense against the offense much too much, and they take the game's best players and limit their offensive ability. It allows mediocre players from mediocre teams to bunch up and reduce the possibilities of artistry from the game's best players. A mediocre team can lay back, keep a game close against a more exciting, more talented team, and hope for a lucky score to win. Or at least a score that implied a boring game was close. It's as if Michael Jordan arrived in basketball, and there was no 24-second clock, and opposing teams could keep the score close by simply holding the ball.
So was Joe Torre a successful Yankees manager thanks to George Steinbrenner's treasure chest, or did Steinbrenner become a successful owner because of Torre's unwavering character? Halberstam looks beyond their job titles and finds what made Torre the better man.
"Torre makes a good Boss" (Nov. 12, 2001)
The Steinbrenner-Torre relationship is a fascinating, constantly shifting one of balances and counterbalances. Torre serves, as all managers do, at the owner's whim, and Steinbrenner has more whims than most people, and they come to him more quickly. If he knows he needs this manager, there is also no doubt that he has no small amount of envy for Torre's larger public and media popularity and, as such, we get the occasional reminders of his irritation, the long delay in re-signing Torre, and the occasional throwaway lines that Torre never won until he came to the Yankees, and thus managed the players Steinbrenner signed. There is a good deal of truth to that, but it is also true that the clubhouse ambiance has changed dramatically in the Torre years, making the Yankees more attractive to the free agents Steinbrenner wants to sign.
Torre is, very quietly, something quite different. He is quietly strong -- a strength that comes from a healthy sense of accurately appraised self-value, and a willingness, if need be, to walk away from any situation which might be unacceptably difficult or abusive. As such, there has been an invisible line drawn in the sand at the Stadium without him ever having to draw it. Because of that, he has not only done an exceptional job managing the Yankees, but has also helped do something that a number of us thought once could not have been done -- he has helped turn George Steinbrenner, though still a work in progress, into a good owner.
While Halberstam didn't live to see the day when an NBA free agent could make the sporting world stand still for a live, hour-long TV special announcing his destination, he followed sports long enough to know athletes could have an ever-changing relationship with sports writers that swung from adversarial to cordial. In his mind, a visit with Ted Williams proved the Splendid Splinter was on a plane above all that.
"One Splendid day" (July 19, 2002)
He had been judged in the popular culture of his time (in no small part, because of a particularly vicious Boston press), as being sullen and ungrateful, (even briefly, it should be noted, back in 1942, a draft dodger). He had been raw meat for a number of Boston papers which were dying and which needed to exploit his raw nerves in order to hype circulation. Years later, he had mellowed and those judging him had changed. What stood out then was his love of the game and those who played it well -- an unwavering absolutely true purists' love for the game and the people who played it the right way.
If he had begun to mellow, he still remained skeptical of the media, or as he liked to call writers, "knights of the keyboard." If good things had happened, then his memory was still long. But my intermediary for that interview was Bobby Knight, who having had his own problems with the media, was the perfect ambassador for me.
As a social critic/historian, Halberstam knows a "passing of the torch" moment when he sees one. And at the turn of the 21st century, Halberstam looked past the pop culture distractions surrounding the NBA and focused on that trait that marks the character of great athletes of any era -- loyalty.
"NBA in the 21st century" (June 27, 2001)
Before we go on to the New Kids, let us briefly ponder the era that has so recently passed. If we take the signature players of that era (Bird, Magic, Michael and Isiah Thomas), what we have is an old-fashioned definition of stability and loyalty, one that we might not so readily see in the future. Each man played with only one NBA team. Only Magic had the good fortune to be drafted by a team that was already a winner. Isiah, in fact, was so appalled by the idea of being sentenced to Detroit and the moribund Pistons that he pleaded with them not to draft him.
As former Celtics coach Chris Ford once told me, one of the things that marked the careers of Thomas, Bird and Jordan was their old-fashioned sense of obligation. Joining a bad team was part of the unwritten covenant that they wore: If you were truly a great player, you were supposed to bring a bad team to a championship level. Anything else meant that you had in some way failed. I am not sure, Ford said, that many players out there today feel the same way.
Greg Hardy is a Page 2 contributor. It's all pop culture all the time at Twitter.com/HardyVision.
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