by Rick Reilly, Doubleday, $23.95
Ring Lardner was one of America's greatest writers of sports fiction, and his most memorable character was pitcher Jack Keefe in the book You Know Me Al, a small-town huckleberry who was as dumb as a pair of cleats. SI's Reilly has concocted an end-of-the-century update of Lardner's classic riff, switching the setting from baseball to the NBA. Of course nowadays it's hard to imagine anyone growing up as naive as Keefe, unless he lived in a cave. But that's precisely where 7'8" Maurice (Slo-Mo) Finsternick comes from: a spelunking cult of cave dwellers. By a series of events too complicated to describe here, Finsternick learns to make long-range hook shots with such proficiency that he finds himself in the pros.
There is one key difference between Slo-Mo and Keefe: Keefe was an arrogant jackass, and when someone suckered him, it served him right. But Slo-Mo is a cartoon sweetie pie (think Bullwinkle Moose in hightops), and one cringes as NBA sharks surround and devour him, mouthful by gory mouthful. His agent, a former Roto-Rooter man, robs him blind; fans mercilessly jeer him (Geek! Wimp!/Dork and punk!/ Fin-ster-nick/Can-not dunk!); and the wicked Barter Soals, a footwear executive, blackmails him into endorsing Bombs: blue-and-black bomb-shaped shoes that make insufferable ticking noises as Slo-Mo runs the floor.
Reilly's heavy-handed moral—that mutual respect and decency ought to rule pro sports as much as any other sphere of life—doesn't make the book any less funny. But something else does, at least to this reader: Slo-Mo's depraved, true-to-life teammates, whose naughty jokes are so adolescent, only an adolescent could enjoy them. But that is also why, in all seriousness, this could be a wonderful book for teenagers, especially those who idolize pro athletes to excess. It might lead them to ask themselves the same question Slo-Mo ends up asking: Given the greed, egomania and just plain cruelty in pro basketball today, how much do I really love this game?
by Tim Green, Warner Books, $24.00
In this grim, violent potboiler by Green, a sports-caster and former Atlanta Falcons defensive lineman, the heroine, lawyer-agent Madison McCall, says, it's hard to find "someone who can play in the NFL or the NBA who's still a decent human being."
Here, too, a footwear executive is cast as Mephistopheles. This time it's Kurt Lunden of Zeus Shoes. To plug his new line of Killer shoes he needs a spokesman who embodies "sex, drugs, perversion, profanity and irreverence...." He finds that spokesman in Trane Jones, an unstoppable running back who wakes up with a dead woman in a blood-soaked bed before the reader gets past page 5. Sucked into the ensuing evil machinations is Clark Cromwell, a Fundamentalist Christian fullback who is only marginally brighter than Slo-Mo Finsternick. Can this simple-minded lug survive the swirl of corruption that sucks him ever downward? You won't much care.
But you might care that Green and Reilly, two very different authors, both of whom know the backstage realities of pro sports, apparently see the NBA and the NFL as Sodom and Gomorrah, respectively. And Madison McCall leaves us with this warning: "It's getting worse."