While I am given to dismissing sports books as trite and one-dimensional (a bias that seems to linger), more and more, narratives about sports, sport figures, and singular sporting events seemingly are being better written and their subjects better chosen.
As is the case of former University of Arkansas and 1994 NCAA championship basketball coach Nolan Richardson’s story. Dave Zirin, who writes about sports for The Nation (which may be like writing about ice hockey for Vogue), intones in his blurb:
I’ve never read a sports book I would describe as operatic until now. Nolan Richardson’s story, both unique and universal, would challenge the most seasoned biographer, but Bradburd’s libretto is heartbreaking and inspiring. This is the finest sports biography I’ve read in years, hands down.Biographer Bradburd has his own story to tell, having worked for pioneering round-ball coach Don Haskins at the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) when Haskins shattered a racial taboo by starting five black players and winning the 1966 NCAA basketball championship, trumping the dyed-in-the-wool racist University of Kentucky basketball mentor Adolph Ruppa story told in the 2006 film Glory Road. Nolan Richardson had been Haskins’s first black player at UTEP.
Of all the basketball coaches who have won national basketball championships, none had the deck stacked against him like Nolan Richardson. He grew up in the poorest neighborhood in America’s most remote city, and not one black man was working the sidelines in major college basketball when he began coaching in 1967.Richardson’s tenure at Arkansas ended after his explosive outburst at a 2002 press conference accusing the university of discriminating against him.
Richardson was an innovator whose teams performed at a frantic and furious pace. His style of play was nicknamed Forty Minutes of Hell.
Facing a Richardson team was physically and psychologically exhausting. He recruited players who were overlooked and had plenty to prove, then he conditioned them with a regimen of near brutality until they were as hard and sharp as swords. During breaks in practice, between workouts, before games and at halftime his speeches made it clear to his team that no one in the basketball hierarchy respected himor any of themand the only possible retribution for the snub had to be found on the basketball court. By game time they were so emotionally wired they seemed to give off sparks.
Former NBA All Star and big mouth Charles Barkely pays homage:
This is a great story about America and its hidden histories. Nolan Richardson understands the struggle because he did the heavy lifting. Every black college coach with a good job today owes Nolan Richardson a measure of respect for the fearless way he kicked down doors. Every American should thank him for showing us it was possible.