• Joe Pace

Favorite Non-Fiction Books, #6: Drive


Larry Legend

The first entry in another genre we'll see plenty of throughout this list - sports books. I think I enjoy stories of sports heroes for the same reason I enjoy bios of historic and political figures. It's the striving, the clawing from relative obscurities to ascend to the heights against brutal odds and vicious competition. I like to read about the thought process and the work entailed in winning at the highest levels of the blood sports that are professional athletics and professional politics. And the first sports installment I really remember being enthralled by was Larry Bird's first book.

This thing was published in 1989, as Bird's career was winding down, and it became in instant classic among several of my friends in high school. I bet Jason Robertson still has it on his bedside table. I'll also bet that kids throughout New England read it two and three times, reveling in our generation's greatest Boston sports hero, our answer to the Ted Williams of our grandfathers, the Bobby Orr of our fathers, the Tom Brady of our sons. Larry Legend was this improbable superstar, this lanky and languid white dude who looked like he ambled out of the corn fields of Hoosiers to dominate a sport that was evolving from its rural roots to become a faster, more physical, more urban game. Bird and Magic were more than the saviors for a struggling league - they were the missing link, the transition from the world of Cousy and Cowens and Havlicek to the world of Jordan and Iverson and LeBron. Basketball was growing up, and these guys were the last of the old and the first of the new.

Bird resonated with us for his aw-shucks Hick from French Lick persona, for his unmatched skills as a passer and shooter, and yeah, probably because he was a white guy. I have no doubt that just as young black kids have a primal need to see Black Panther hold his own among the celluloid superhero set, white kids saw themselves belonging on the basketball court in Larry Bird. I know the racial politics and implications are far more complicated than that, and there are those far more qualified to opine on that aspect of the conversation. I'll just stipulate that I know it's a factor.

The book itself is pretty standard jock-anecdote fare, co-authored with the Boston Globe's legendary Bob Ryan. Bird has a penchant for rattling off his stats in the midst of breaking down who he liked to play with and against, and he spends a lot of time waxing rhapsodic about the old arenas he liked because of the lighting or the crowds. But he'll also tell us about going fishing with unsuspecting kids on road trips in Indiana, and other fun stories about the last days before pro sports became a 24-hour news cycle obsession.

It's sitting on the desk next to me while I write this, and I'm half tempted to read it again right now.

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