Unguarded: My Forty Years Surviving in the NBA
by Lenny Wilkens, with Terry Pluto/ Simon & Schuster, $25
WILKENS, THE son of an Irish-American mother and an African-American father, recalls proudly that "on the day of the I960 NBA draft," when he was chosen by the St. Louis Hawks, "I was in class." He went on to be one of the league's best point guards, but he faced so much bigotry (racists in St. Louis even poisoned his dog) that he felt a "moral obligation" also to succeed as a coach. He knew he couldn't do it by imitating the coaches for whom he had played: "They just screamed at you," he says. Instead, he became one of the first NBA coaches to treat players as professionals, according them respect while not trying to be their friend. He expects a player to put the team before all else, and he has a simple recipe for any player who doesn't: Trade him. Oh, and along the way he has won more NBA games than any other coach.
Unguarded offers a prescription for reducing outsized egos: Make college freshmen ineligible. This would provide young players with "plenty of minutes in a less pressurized setting" and, more important, "help academics." It's unlikely this suggestion will be seriously considered. Basketball is so far from where Wilkens, who's in the Hall of Fame as both player and coach, would like it to be that many young players are unaware of his credentials. In 1996, while coaching the U.S. Olympians, he showed Shaquille O'Neal a drop-step. Impressed, O'Neal inquired, "Coach, did you ever play at this level?"
Flashing Before My Eyes: 50 Years of Headlines, Deadlines and Punchlines
by Dick Schaap/ William Morrow, $25
"HAVE I broken the world record for name dropping yet?" Schaap asks hopefully on page 6 of his autobiography. It's a record that Schaap pursues as doggedly as Hank Aaron pursued Babe Ruth's. After 50 years in journalism, during which he has produced more than 30 books, edited Sport magazine, appeared on numerous TV shows and written articles for countless publications (including this one), Schaap has bumped into just about everyone you've ever heard of, and he's desperate to tell you about them.
Should you let him? Sure, if you enjoy gossip. Liz Smith is a piker compared to Schaap, who regales readers with scenes of New York Knicks star (and future U.S. senator) Bill Bradley, drunk on ouzo, dancing on a tabletop; poet Allen Ginsberg offering to perform fellatio on comedian Lenny Bruce; and Schaap himself "inhaling" with eccentric pitcher Bill (Spaceman) Lee.
Schaap's problem is that there are times he wants to be taken seriously. Because of the self-aggrandizing tone of this opus, it's hard to grant him this wish. For instance, he laments that "the rapport that once existed between the media and athletes" has been "replaced by mutual distrust." Apparently, despite all the wisdom he has acquired over the years, Schaap has yet to figure out that nobody trusts a blabbermouth.