A FLAME OF PURE FIRE
By Roger Kahn
Harcourt Brace, $28
Of all the icons of the Roaring '20s, from Lucky Lindy to the Babe, the one most commonly and unaccountably neglected is heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey. Roger Kahn has rectified that oversight with this absorbing and unabashedly sentimental biography of the old Manassa Mauler. Kahn regards Dempsey not only as "at his peak, the greatest fighter who ever lived" but also as "mat rare thing: close up, as from afar [a hero]."
Dempsey was also something of a paradox. Outside the ring, he was the quintessential nice guy: friendly, full of fun, even witty, and so generous that he gave away perhaps a fifth of his fortune to indigent ex-pugs. Inside the ropes, though, he was his opponents' worst nightmare: a snorting, snarling engine of destruction with explosive power in both fists. For Dempsey, boxing wasn't so much a matter of winning or losing as of killing or being killed. It was a homely philosophy he learned in the hobo jungles and mining-camp saloons of his impoverished Colorado youth.
Kahn brilliantly recounts Dempsey's great victories over Jess Willard, Georges Carpentier and Luis Firpo, as well as the sad defeats in Dempsey's declining years at the clever hands of Gene Tunney and, in their second fight, from the suspected treachery of "long count" referee Dave Barry. Kahn also provides in Dos Passos-like vignettes a look back at the extraordinary times in which Dempsey thrived.
Just one small cavil: The fact that Kahn actually knew Dempsey gives his portrait added verisimilitude. But must it also give him license to pepper his pages with self-aggrandizing he-told-me's? Is it necessary for the author to depart from a description of Dempsey's first wife as a sometime barroom pianist into an irrelevant account of his own adventure with a woman similarly employed?
But why quibble? This is quite simply Kahn's finest work since he made The Boys of Summer part of the language.
A COACH'S LIFE
By Dean Smith
(with John Kilgo and Sally Jenkins)
Random House, $25
This humble memoir should dispel the notion that Dean Smith is too good to be true. In fact, it's all too true that Smith is good, both as a person and a mentor. In his 36 years as the basketball coach at North Carolina (he retired two years ago), he became the college game's alltime winner: 879 victories, a .776 winning percentage. Of his 245 lettermen, 237 received their degrees—some, like Michael Jordan, after they had turned pro. Smith has a sense of humor, too: Witness the description of his Carolina successor, Bill Guthridge, as "so neat, he could organize a bowl of chop suey."
There is a lot of basketball here and even more of this good man's personal philosophy. A pious man himself, Smith takes gentle umbrage at the notion prevalent among Christian athletes that the Good Lord is up there rooting for one side or the other in sports. Both He and Smith know better.