David Halberstam’s The Breaks of the Game surely must hold the title of “Greatest Sports Book Ever.” I can’t imagine anything else comes close. I really enjoyed John Fienstein’s A Season on the Brink, and his Next Man Up is also excellent. But Halberstam somehow made me care deeply about the NBA and the Portland Trail Blazers 1979-80 season, though I usually care very little for either.
Throughout the book Halberstam deals with several different characters, from the owner down to the team’s medical staff. Each time he manages to reveal a new perspective. At first one has sympathy for person ‘x,’ but then 50 pages later you get the other side of the story. Everyone gets a sympathetic treatment, everyone has their turn. Halberstam shows remarkable restraint and the characters get to tell the story.
The narrative’s broad field of vision is another reason for the book’s success. Halberstam wrote just as the merger of sports and tv started to look like something that we might recognize today. So tv executives get their say as well, and the marketing of the game shows up as a supporting actor in the drama that unfolds.
It’s easy to see how tv helped the NBA. Exposure went up, so money went up for owners and players. Fans get to see more games. But Halberstam masterfully shows the other side of the coin. The size of the tv contract came to determine much of the revenue for the league, so the league positioned itself around tv, leading to odd travel schedules and quirky playing times for games. Owners no longer had to sell tickets to make money, so certain teams made no real effort to compete. The best players, after all, were now much more expensive, and tv money usually guaranteed owners a profit. With the league more profitable wealthy businessmen wanted to buy into the league, so we had expansion. But expansion increased travel time as well as watered down the competition, and so on, and so on. “One thing leads to another.”
A quiet desperation seeps through the pages of the text, the feeling that, “this cannot go on.” Reading this, you get the sense that the NBA, and sports in general, is due for a “market correction.” The tensions between money, the “purity” of the game, athletes well-being, and so on, surely cannot last forever. And yet they have. Halberstam may have been a subtle prophet of doom, but apparently not imminent doom. If anything, all of the factors that created the tension in the game have increased exponentially — more money, more tv, more exposure, more games (i.e. the expansion of the playoffs in all major sports), more everything! How can this continue?
As best as I understand, I do not think I am a Keynesian in my economic philosophy. But his quote,
Markets can remain irrational longer than you can remain solvent
seems to bear out in experience. Betting against the future of sports in America seems like a sure winner, if only it will pay off before you go bust.