Thad: Paying Tribute to Halberstam

It remains one of the coolest pieces of mail I've yet received, and one I've held on to for nearly a decade.

It's not every day you get a handwritten postcard from one of the great, publicly significant journalist-authors the American twentieth century produced. Yet, there it was, a short, scribbled but legible note thanking me for the clips about Michael Jordan I'd sent him as well as the congratulations I'd expressed on the occasion of the publication of his new book about the former Tar Heel. "It's one of my best, I think," read the note, which was signed "David Halberstam."

I had written Halberstam care of his publisher after reading a Vanity Fair excerpt from his forthcoming book on Jordan, "Playing for Keeps," published in late 1998. I got the book for Christmas that year, and was carrying it with me, about halfway through, a few weeks later in the East Chapel Hill High School gym when I bumped into Bill Guthridge, who was there scouting Chris Hobbs.

Guthridge asked me if the book was any good -- he hadn't time to read it, being busy coaching the Tar Heels and all -- and I replied without hesitation that I thought the book captured Carolina basketball better than anything I'd ever read.

I still think that's the case. Chapters Six and Seven of "Playing for Keeps" do a remarkable job not only of chronicling Jordan's UNC career, but of showing how Dean Smith helped make Michael Jordan Michael Jordan.

Thus Halberstam: "What Dean Smith did with Michael Jordan . . . was nothing less than brilliant. He brought him along slowly...but he never bent his program or his rules for him. He made Jordan work his way to stardom through the program. Michael Jordan would have to play by the Carolina rules; he would have to earn everything. He would have to be willing to excel at all the hard, gritty work of practice drills. As a result, he became an infinitely more finished player who, for all his wondrous natural talent, respected authority, and was unusually easy for a series of coaches to reach once he turned pro."

There's more along these lines in those chapters, but I'll let interested readers discover those nuggets for themselves. What made Halberstam's commentary about Carolina particularly meaningful was not simply the clarity of his writing and thought or the characteristic depth of his reporting. Rather, it was the fact that a highly intelligent, rigorously minded "outsider" to the Carolina program had taken an objective look at the relationship between Dean Smith and Michael Jordan and reached many of the same conclusions that us Carolina fans had long previously reached: that Dean Smith was one special coach, and so was the program he built.

Of course Halberstam wasn't just any outsider. He was one of the great reporters on national affairs of the past forty years, a model of the serious yet publicly accessible writer. He was a brilliant writer about sports in particular -- as a Red Sox fan, I loved everything about his "Summer of ‘49" book other than how it ended (and that wasn't his fault).

And he was an especially insightful and incisive writer about professional basketball. "The Breaks of the Game" is a classic of sports literature, and stands not simply as the definitive chronicle of the Bill Walton era in Portland but as a living testament to a different era of professional basketball, when it was possible for reporters to truly get to know players and coaches as persons and as equals.

"Playing for Keeps," among other things, is a lament of the commodified world of the modern game, including the relationship between players and the media. It's also the best, most insightful look at Michael Jordan and the obsessive, occasionally disturbing competitiveness that drove him to six NBA crowns.

And, last but not least, it's a tribute in its own way to Carolina basketball.

There are many reasons (basketball being among the least of them) for Americans to mourn the death Monday of David Halberstam at age 73.

Personally, for years I've held Halberstam on a pedestal as a model of someone capable of writing compellingly both about public affairs and about "less important" matters having to do with baskets and balls as well. I regret there that the steady stream of interesting books has come to an end (the only comfort being that I haven't yet read all the ones he did publish).

But Carolina fans in particular have a special reason to feel an ounce or two of pride in reflecting on Halberstam's life and work. Here's a guy who wrote about the Vietnam War, the power structure of American society, the legacy of the 1950s, and the meaning and future of American values -- yet also found it worth his while to take some time to write about Michael Jordan, Dean Smith and Carolina basketball, not in a superficial, fleeting way, but in a in-depth, enduring way that captured the very essence of the thing as well as or better than any other writer before or since.

The fact that he did speaks to the larger cultural significance of Carolina basketball. It also speaks, one might argue, to the good judgment of David Halberstam, a friend of Carolina basketball, the most insightful writer on sports of our time, and above all, a great American.


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