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When the Game Was War

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I enjoyed this stroll down NBA memory lane.  The author believes the 87-88 NBA season is the best in history - and spends the book trying to prove his point.  I won't say I'm convinced and as a superfan there wasn't much in the book that was new to me but I still enjoyed it.  Thanks to the publisher and NetGalley for a free copy in exchange for my honest opinion.
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In “When the Game Was War,” it is Rich Cohen’s contention that the NBA’s 1987-1988 season was the greatest ever. This was the time of the Magic Johnson / Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Lakers, the Larry Bird Celtics, Isiah Thomas’s Detroit Pistons, and the soon to be dominant Michael Jordan Bulls. Also, as the book’s title suggests, we were seeing the transition from the “showtime” brand of play to a rougher, much more physical playing style, as each team muscled-up to defeat the champion ruling before. 

There are back stories of each of the star players of the time, much of it pretty well known. 
More interesting is the strategy of the front offices in putting together the teams, the rosters best suited to capitalize on the strengths of franchise players. This was particularly true of the Bulls, as Jordan’s amazing star power did not translate into an NBA championship until his seventh season.   

Rich Cohen grew up in Detroit and admits he is a lifelong Pistons fan. He watched Isiah Thomas play in high school and college and states a number of times he believes Isiah has unfairly been underrated as one of basketball’s all-time greats…based on “blood and guts.” 

“Consider this book a revisionist history. It’s not that I wish to devalue Jordan or Johnson or Bird, all of whom were just as great as people say, but that I aim to return Isiah to the pantheon , where he belongs.”

Cohen lays it on a little thick in his effort to elevate Isiah, and it seems a little misleading to present this as a study of the “greatest season in NBA history,” when so much of it seems to only serve as a backdrop to pump up his role in it. It is a short book, kindle listed at 288 pages, but a third of that is documentation of sources and the index. I think I have learned more from longer magazine accounts and documentaries than I have here, other than about the exploits of one very good player. 

Thank you to Random House Publishing and NetGalley for providing an advance reader copy in exchange for an honest review.
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One of my vivid memories from childhood is watching the NBA playoffs at my aunt’s house. My brother and I were the only 2 really interested in the games, but I loved it despite the fact that “our” team, the Lakers, seemed to be perennial runners-up to the Celtics. During the 1980s, after I had moved away from Southern California, I went to games when I could, and still loved watching the amazing players perform…and possibly the best years for me as a fan were the Showtime Laker teams that peaked in the latter half of the 1980s. So I was thrilled to have the opportunity to read Rich Cohen’s When the Game Was War, thanks to Random House and netGalley who provided a copy in exchange for this honest review. 

As well as being a columnist for the Wall Street Journal, Rich Cohen is a  bestselling author who is about twenty years younger than I am, so he has a generationally different view of the NBA. Despite his Chicago roots, he appreciates the game in geneal and chose to tell the story of the 1987-88 season, focusing on four teams:  the Boston Celtics (with Larry Bird), the Showtime Lakers (Magic Johnson), the Detroit Pistons (Isiah Thomas), and the Chicago Bulls with young Michael Jordan. These four superstars all took  different routes to the NBA, and Cohen traces each of them. In addition to the big four named above, Cohen covers Bill Laimbeer, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Danny Ainge, and Charles Oakley – all terrific players in their own right, each of whom played a huge role in the success of the more celebrated individuals with whom they played. Cohen also includes fascinating details about how those players made their way to successful careers, both as individual stars and members of champIonship teams.  

Cohen was 11 years old in 1988, and his favorite player of those listed above was Larry Bird. Rather than cover every single game of the season, he went in depth to bring four individual games to life: Lakers – Celtics 12/11/1987, Pistons – Bulls 01/16/1988, Pistons – Lakers 02/21/1988, and Bulls – Pistons 04/03/1988. Finally, he goes over the playoffs and the finals between the Lakers and the Pistons.

I loved it. I’m curious as to how the book will be received by people who didn’t experience that season, or don’t particularly care for any of the four teams or their superstars. It’s a fun read, and I’m sure any basketball fan would enjoy it. (I’ve always said that anyone who says they don’t like professional basketball has never been to a GOOD NBA game). Four stars.
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According to Rich, the greatest NBA season was 1987-1988. He primarily focuses on Magic Johnson and the Los Angeles Lakers, Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls, Isiah Thomas and the Detroit Pistons, and Larry Bird and the Boston Celtics. He also provides a lot of background on how those players came to be on those teams as well as the rest of the players on those teams.

Me, I was 11 years old in 1988, and I remember my favorite player of those listed above was Larry Bird. A friend of the family worked for the Boston Celtics around that time, and for my Bar Mitzvah, he was able to get a signed picture from Larry Bird.

I liked how he organized the book as he didn’t focus on every single game that season, rather just four games: Lakers at Celtics 12/11/1987, Pistons at Bulls 01/16/1988, Pistons and Lakers 02/21/1988, and Bulls at Pistons 04/03/1988. He also dissected the playoffs and the finals between the Lakers and the Pistons.

I enjoyed reading the book.
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I'm a huge sports fan but only a casual basketball fan but, even so, I really loved this look at the 1987-1988 NBA season, which the author calls the best season ever. 

This entertaining book had a fun, lively focus on four key teams of that era: the Boston Celtics, the L.A. Lakers, the Chicago Bulls, and the Detroit Pistons, as well as the players and styles that made them great, including Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, and Isaiah Thomas, as well as their supporting casts.

I'll watch an occasional Chicago Bulls game so I'm familiar with them but the look at the Celtics, Lakers, and Pistons was very informative (and the look at the Bulls brought back some memories). 

Highly recommended to pro basketball fans.
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Rich Cohen's passion is clear in When the Game Was War. He is a fan and isn't afraid to admit it. His arguments are emotional rather than logical and he's not aiming to be objective. It's a style of argument that will be recognizable to any sports fan. You get the sense Cohen has been practicing out the premise of this book in bars for the last 35 years. He places himself into the narrative at times to give the fans perspective from a young man in Chicago. I thought it was great. It was a looser feel to the story of a season book than you usually get. I appreciated that. It's sports, and it's supposed to be fun, not life and death serious.

When the Game Was War was fun. That's the best way I can describe it. It reminding me of attending a single game. You enjoy the twists and turns of the action and when it's over you leave happy. It may not be long term memorable but it was a fun use of time.
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Thank you to Net Galley for the advanced copy of 'When The Game Was War' by Rich Cohen. Random House will publish this book on September 5, 2023.

I love sports non-fiction books, especially basketball. I began watching basketball around 1982. I was a youngster, but the men in my family watched whatever game was on for football, basketball, and baseball. I instantly became a basketball fan. My stepfather loved watching the Lakers and Celtics because they were considered must-see TV by the media and fans alike, and they were most likely the game shown on NBC. This book title spoke to me because I felt the game was a war back then.

'When The Game Was War' takes us back to 1988 through the eyes of four teams (The Detroit Pistons, Chicago Bulls, Los Angeles Lakers, and Boston Celtics). I appreciated the author sharing each team's needed context and history as constructed till 1988. The author shared the details and game in such a vivid way. It felt like you were at the game as it was being played and around the team during critical moments described during the season. The author also tells some of the stories of what happened to the teams and kept players after 1988 so readers will not leave the book curious about what came next for those discussed.

I plan to read Rich Cohen's catalog, which includes Monsters: The 1985 Chicago Bears and the Wild Heart of Football and The Chicago Cubs: Story of a Curse. Readers will walk away with a balanced view of each team discussed and will have the level of familiarity necessary just by the details provided by the author. Readers can enjoy this book, even if they do not know basketball history. This book elevated my passion for the NBA in the late 1980s. The book also gave me a perspective I didn't have before for a few teams in this book that has me looking at those teams in a new light.

I highly recommend this book for everyone, from basketball history fans to those new to learning about this time in the NBA.
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I am a basketball "junkie", having played the game at one level or another for the first 40 years of my life and having watched it since the early 1960s(and listened to it in the mid-to-late '50s when my home town Minneapolis Lakers would square off against the Celtics in the NBA Finals.  I am always leery when I pick up a book that purports to label one year or another as the "Greatest".  And so, my skepticism was aroused from the get-go and Cohen had a huge presumption to overcome to convince me that his thesis was true.  Alas, he didn't quite make it.  But, that doesn't mean the book isn't worth reading.  His description of the main characters--Larry, Magic, Isaiah, and Michael---is spot on and worth of reading as are the various "battles within the war". I tend to believe that best years of the NBA were the years when the Celtics and Russell and the rest of the crew dominated the NBA with excellent basketball skills, strategy and tactics---but, hey--I'm not writing a book to convince you of that.  In the end---a good read for basketball junkies!
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Just as there are many arguments between sports fans about who is the greatest team, athlete or event in a particular sport, this can also come up about the greatest season for a league.  This book by Rich Cohen makes the case that the 1987-88 season was the greatest for the NBA.  While it may not convince every reader that 1987-88 was the best season (including this reviewer – I chose another one in his honorable mention list, 1976-77), Cohen does make a compelling case for this argument.
The book reads better as a long editorial than as a history of that basketball season.  Not only does Cohen make his case about the 1987-88 season, he also makes a case for Isaiah Thomas to be included as one of the greatest players not only of that time – to be included in the conversation with Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan – but also of all time.  While I did see a point to the main topic of the book, I do not agree with this assertion and at times, it feels like Cohen is writing more as a fan than as an author or historian when talking about Thomas. Bringing up Thomas’ infamous quote about Larry Bird more than once and defending it by saying it was a thought many Black players had felt like a defense of Thomas.  Cohen does point out his own biases toward not only Thomas and for the reason he felt 1987-88 was the best one, hence why I called the book more of an opinion piece. 
I will also note that I have read reviews that point out many factual errors, a few of which I caught without needing to verify them.  Because I read an advance review copy, these were not detrimental to the goal I had for this book, which was to see why Cohen felt this was the best season.  There is also the matter of referring to a season by the latter year (i.e. 1987-88 would be 1988) which is inconsistent throughout the book.  Again, something that will hopefully be cleaned up in the final edition.
But…the positives far outweigh the negatives in this book, especially if the reader is a fan of basketball in that era.  The season is viewed through four teams – the Los Angeles Lakers (who ended up winning the championship), the Detroit Pistons (who lost in the Finals to the Lakers), the Boston Celtics (who lost to the Pistons in the Eastern Conference finals) and the Chicago Bulls (who lost to the Pistons in the Eastern Conference semi-finals). These four teams made the most sense to include, especially looking back now.  There was the reigning champs (Lakers), the old dynasty ready to end (Celtics), the hungry (and physical) team ready to take over (Pistons) and the new kids on the block getting ready to crash the party (Bulls).  Each team had a compelling chapter in the book and made for excellent reading.
Reading about the matchups during the season and in the playoffs between two of the four featured teams was also great.  Enough detail to truly feel how close the game was, and in the case of many Pistons games, how physical and even violent the play went. This was an era when the game’s big men played in the paint and not often out on the perimeter as Cohen notes.  While he doesn’t explicitly say this, I get the impression that he preferred this type of basketball.  I did as well and why despite the reservations I wrote earlier, I really enjoyed this book and fans of that era of professional basketball will as well.
I wish to thank Random House Publishing Group for providing a copy of the book via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
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A fast-moving, spirited, fun recap of arguably the finest era, even the finest year, of the NBA.  Cohen focuses on the Lakers, Pistons, Bulls and Celtics, and Magic, Isaiah, Jordan and Bird in particular, though all key players get their moments.  

Even if you feel that Cohen may be just a little in the bag for Isaiah, that’s fine - Cohen writes like a fan in the best way - energetic, enthusiastic, and even admittedly myopic about the era, which coincided with his own coming of age.  

Well worth your time.  Many thanks to Random House and NetGalley for the advance readers copy.
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Rich Cohen turns out yet another interesting read. I was younger than Rich in 1987, so my basketball watching coincided with the early '90s era: Jordan's Bulls, Ewing/Starks' Knicks and Barkley's Suns. Bird, Magic and Magic have been written about a lot, so there wasn't much new to learn here, but Cohen never really misses with his enjoyable, highly readable style.
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I received a courtesy eARC from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

This was a quick, fun read about the "heyday" of late 80s early 90s NBA history (and in part, an Isiah Thomas appreciation/apology tour, of sorts).  I would describe it as an extended opinion piece, but in a personal, and not preachy, way.  It was not particularly memorable or something I would feel the need to revisit, but if you're looking for a detail-oriented, fun way to pass time and are a sports fan, you can do no wrong with this one.  There were some bits and pieces in here that I didn't know, but overall, it was an enjoyable but not newsworthy piece.  It's like if some friends were arguing about the topic, and one felt so strongly about it that he went to the extreme and wrote a fun book about it, if that makes any sense.

I was on the way to giving it four stars, but did not do so for two main reasons: (1) this isn't necessarily the author's fault, but a lot of interviews he relied on seemed to be ones he did not conduct himself, which for some reason stood out to me and made some of the arguments less persuasive in this context, and (2) I happened to see a pretty detailed review on Goodreads that questioned many of the facts in the book.  I checked two of the facts cited in the review as incorrect, and while they are arguably nitpicky, the reviewer was correct.
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I adored this book. I'm a newer fan to the NBA so this covered a lot of history that I wasn't familiar with, especially when it comes to Isiah Thomas and the Detroit Pistons "Bad Boys" reputation. It's a topic covered in a lot of media where they are portrayed as foils and antagonists to the Chicago Bulls, and it was interesting to hear a different take and their impact on the league. The author describes the games in vivid and exciting detail, I felt as though I were there watching it live.

Thank you to NetGalley and Random House for providing an ARC in exchange for my honest review.
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Great book breaking down the history of basketball at the time with the biggest stars and most interesting stories. Some of the book may feel repetitive if you've followed the players careers, but the story of them all intertwining puts it together. Any NBA fan owes it to themselves to look back at history, especially at a time that set up today's game of star power and storylines driving the competition.
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This was fine. It was a short, quick read, and I did not find anything disagreeable about it. I also don’t think I found anything in there real great. I highlighted a couple phrases that I really liked, but all in all it was fine. There’s nothing wrong with that. It reminded me a little bit of one of the ESPN “SportsCentury“ pieces that they would put out from time to time. They weren’t as well-made as the 30 for 30 series would be, and you wouldn’t necessarily remember them, but as you watched it, you enjoyed it. That’s how I felt about this book.

Based upon the bibliography, the author did extensive research for the things he focused on, but I felt like I was missing context for why this was such a great season. We had the focus on the Celtics, the Bulls, the Pistons, and the Lakers, but if this was truly the greatest season ever, then we should’ve heard more about the rest of the league. The author does admit that some of his opinion is tied up in the fact that he was 19 years old that season, but I still would’ve like to see some evidence to back up his statement. Even if it was cherry picked, I felt like that would’ve made the book more enjoyable. He could’ve even leaned into the cherry picked stats as part of the fun.

It’s hard to go wrong when you’re writing a book about this era of the NBA. Cohen didn’t go wrong, but I also don’t feel that he went right either.
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A compelling narrative if you’re a basketball fan. It claims to be about the ‘greatest season in NBA history, but should be called ‘the Apology of Isiah Thomas.’ The author grew up in Chicago but is old enough to remember Thomas as a Chicago youth player, and his attachment to him drives the entire narrative. The focus is on Thomas’ Pistons and their three main opponents in the 1988 playoffs (the Bulls, Celtics and Lakers). He mentions the documentary The Last Dance, and in a way this book is the anti-Last Dance, taking issue with its portrayal of Thomas and the Pistons as villains. But that ship has sailed. They were villains. You can try to paint other teams as villains that maybe escape that brush. But you can’t unpaint the Pistons, who are universally reviled by contemporaries.

Before I go further, I should mention that I read a galley copy. There were lots of errors in facts that hopefully will be corrected prior to publication:

In the bird section, it says bird was born a year before magic, but he was actually three years older (when they faced off in the famous ncaa title game, bird was a fifth year senior and magic just a sophomore). 

It says when describing bird’s time at IU that freshmen weren’t allowed to play varsity. 1974-75, bird’s freshman year at IU, was the third season since the NCAA started allowing freshman to play varsity. And IU coach Bobby Knight used 6 freshmen in 1972-73, the first year the ncaa allowed it, including quinn buckner, the team’s third leading scorer and leading playmaker. In 1973-74 knight only used one freshman, kent benson, but he was the fourth leading scorer and leading rebounder. In bird’s freshman year knight used three freshmen.

Referring to bird’s first year as ‘1979’ is misleading; usually seasons are referred to by the latter year, so 1979-80 (bird’s actual first year) would be referred to as 1980, even if bird’s first games occurred in 1979. Later in the paragraph 1979 is referenced as Bob McAdoo’s last season with Boston. But mcadoo’s last season with boston was 1978-79. Referring to both 1978-79 and 1979-80 as ‘1979’ causes obvious problems. Cohen does this a lot, seemingly switching back and forth between how he refers to a season. Calling it by the latter year is the accepted standard today and should be what he sticks to.

In the magic section it said that he took everett high to the state quarterfinals as a senior, when in fact he won the state title.

When discussing the 1979 draft he said the Lakers traded up, which isnt true. They had been awarded Utah’s pick as compensation for Utah signing away the Lakers’ Gail Goodrich years earlier.

Magic’s first game, when Kareem won the game on a last second shot and magic embraced him, was against San Diego, not seattle.

‘The Lakers had signed [Kareem] in 1975’; they actually didnt sign kareem, they traded for him.

In the Isiah section, he claims Isiah won the Rookie of the Year award, when in fact he didn’t even finish in the top 3 or win a single Rookie of the Month award (Buck Williams was ROY in 1981-82). Its particularly egregious since the author is such a self proclaimed Isiah super fan. 

In the Jordan section, he mistakenly says that Michael’s brother Larry was five years older than him, when he was only one year older.

David Thompson was only 6’4 (listed, may have been smaller) not 6’6.

When setting up the end of the 1982 ncaa championship game, he says Georgetown was up 63-62. But that was the final score, with the teams reversed. So it should say 62-61.

He says Michael hit the shot at 18. But his birthday is February 17 (born in 1963), the game was march 29, 1982, so he was 19.

Portland and Houston didn’t tie for the worst record in 1984 (he refers to the season as 1983). The coin flip in those days was between the worst team in each conference, regardless of record (so tied records don’t matter). Portland, in the same conf as Houston, had actually won 48 games and made the playoffs the year before. Their own pick was #19. The coin flip was between Houston and Indiana, which actually had the worst record in the league (26 wins, three less than Houston, so no tie. Chicago had actually also had a worse record than Houston, but not worse than Indiana and therefore didn’t get to participate in the coinflip). But Indiana had traded their pick to Portland three years earlier for center Tom Owens, hence Portland getting to participate in the flip. 

In the Season section, he refers to the 1987 Eastern Conference Finals as a six game series before later in the paragraph mentioning Detroit losing in game 7.

He refers to Hakeem Olajuwon as 7’2” when he was only 7’ (and some think shorter).

He says Bill Russell went to San Francisco State, he actually went to the University of San Francisco.

In talking about Russell and the Celtics drafting him, Cohen skips the meat of the manouver. He mentions the funny story of Rochester getting the ice capades in lieu of drafting Russell, but Boston didnt have the second pick, they had to trade for it. They were fortunate that their star starting center Ed Macauley was from St Louis, and that they owned the draft rights to former Kentucky star Cliff Hagan (similar strategy to what Auerbach would do years later with Bird), and traded both for Bill Russell (and also lucky that the owners of St Louis, in the cultural South, knew they couldn’t draft a black player). 

He says that the Celtics ‘won sixteen championships in eighteen years’. They won eleven in thirteen years. Their sixteenth title didn’t come until 1986, so it was sixteen in thirty years. The titles they won in ‘74, ‘76, ‘81, ‘84 and ‘86 were numbers 12-16. Later he says they won eighteen titles in twenty five years (which is it, 16 or 18? Neither, actually), which is also false. To this day (2023, before playoffs are finished) they’ve only won 17.

His painting Robert Parish as an also-ran before he was acquired by Boston is also selective memory, particularly the part about him ‘never playing.’ He was literally their best player, leading GS in scoring, rebounding and blocks, and putting up two consecutive double double seasons prior to the trade. He was a borderline allstar who was only expendable bc the warriors planned using the first pick from Boston on picking a center who they thought would be better.

He says Ainge and DJ played beside each other for nearly ten years when it was only five and a half. 

He says the Celtics made ‘the finals in 1981, 1983, 1984 and 1985’ but they didnt make it in 1983.

Describing the Bulls 1987-88 season, he says Jordan averaged 32.5 ppg, but he actually averaged 35. (Here’s where Cohen’s lackadaisical season references hurt him; he’s talking about the 1987-88 season all book, but he seems to want to call it the 1987 season. But officially and in basketball circles its known as the 1988 season. So its like he was thinking ‘1988’ and saw a list of Jordan’s scoring averages and picked the one for 1988-89, which is, you guessed it, 32.5.)

Jack Kent Cooke never ‘poached’ Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Cohen saying that Cooke resorted to free agency to bolster the Lakers. Neither Chamberlain nor Abdul-Jabbar was signed in free agency. Both were acquired via trades.

He mentions that Dennis Rodman’s infamous comments about Bird and race happened right after Bird won the league MVP award. But they happened in the 1987 playoffs, and Bird last won MVP in 1986 (1985-86, not 1986-87, as perhaps Cohen thought 1986 meant).

In the Bulls at Pistons chapter, he mentions Jordan was shooting 42% on the year. But Jordan shot 53%.

Bulls-Pistons game 5 was not at Chicago Stadium it was in Detroit.

In the conclusion he says the Bulls finally won in 1992, they actually won in 1990-91. 

He says Jordan left in 1997 to play for the Wizards. He left in 1998, and didnt play for the Wizards for 3 more years. (Cohen also says Riley left the Lakers for the Knicks in 1990. While he did leave the Lakers in 1990, he didnt do it to go to the knicks, he took a year off, only joining the knicks in the 1991-92 season. But here Cohen may be using hyperbole.)

He says Kurt Rambis played 18 NBA seasons, but he actually only played 14.

Jordan’s ‘republicans buy sneakers too’ line wasn’t from 2020, it was from when Jesse Helms ran for senate in the 1990’s.

He says Dennis played another season for Phil Jackson after Chicago, in LA, but he actually was in LA in the 1999 season, prior to Phil’s arrival.

So back to the actual book. Not many reasons are given for why 1988 is the apparent best season besides variations of ‘it just felt like it.’ He mentions at one point that its when tough physical play met “athletic playground” style basketball. While some use ‘playground style’ as a euphemism for ‘black,’ here I think Cohen is using it more for ‘fast break’ basketball. If so, he missed that the early 60’s were the premier fast break era. The Lakers and other western conference teams brought it back in the 80’s, but teams today play at a similarly high pace. He also inexplicably calls the 1976-77 season talent diluted, when its mentioned as a possible competitor for best year. As he notes, its the first season post merger between NBA and ABA. He also notes that it was after years of expansion. True, the league had roughly 2.5x as many teams in 1977 as it did a decade and a half earlier. But expansion through the 1960’s and 70’s happened to occur when the relative segregation of the league in the 50’s and early 60’s was going into decline. It meant that there had been tons of talented black players who simply weren’t considered for rosters who were now actually making it to the league. One of the reasons for the Celtics’ dominance in the 60’s was Auerbach’s ignoring this unofficial effort to keep the league mostly white. And the merger did the opposite of watering down the talent. Only four ABA squads were permitted to join the NBA, rosters mostly intact. But all other ABA teams’ players were dispersed across the existing NBA franchises. The talent level had never been higher. So that theory is bunk. If the presence of so many stars is the reason, any year from 1985-89 contained all of Kareem, Jordan, Magic, Bird and Isiah. 1988 and 1989 had both Kareem and Pippen, the youngest of the central figures. He eventually chalks it down to being a generational preference, which is sort of ridiculous. Basketball is basketball. He says he grew up in the Cold War, “sitting around, waiting to be nuked.” I grew up in the Cold War too and can assure you that literally no one did this. Life was normal. It didnt feel like it could end at any second just because of geopolitics. It certainly didnt make us like tougher athletes than other eras. I think the golden era of basketball is now. Not because it isnt as rough, and not because I’m younger. Its because the players are better, top to bottom. ‘Positionless basketball’ has allowed centers to embrace guard skills like passing, dribbling and shooting 3’s and lets guards carry heavy scoring loads instead of just being pass-first setup guys. Players dont just shoot more threes, they shoot them so far out players like Magic and Bird wouldnt have been able to fathom it. Players today hit as many threes as some teams did all season in the 80’s. (I wish that were hyperbole, but Klay Thompson holds the single game three point record with 14; in 1979-80 the Atlanta Hawks shot 13-75 from three for the entire season) He does latch on to the logic Lorne Michaels provides for why people prefer particular SNL seasons. That its what they remember fondly. And that’s really the most compelling reason for why Cohen thinks the season is the best. Because he just did. He was young and happy and anything from that time he remembered is great. Fine. Damn the logic.

His defense of Isiah and the Pistons is a little tougher to sweep under the rug. It’s particularly galling when Cohen compares Isiah to ‘what happened to the Jews when Rome converted to Christianity.’ Maybe Cohen thinks he can make the comparison in good conscience because he’s jewish, but as a non Jew I’m offended on behalf of jews, and I imagine a lot of jews would be too. (Of course, Cohen would say that I’m offended bc I’m a millenial and not a tough hardened Gen Xer like him and Michael Jordan. I think non Gen Xers would point out that that’s why other generations tend to dislike Gen X) Jews have been actually persecuted and exterminated in inhuman ways. Isiah has not been persecuted at all. He’s had tons of opportunities in the sport. Commisioner of the Continental Basketball Association. President of the Toronto Raptors. Head coach of the Pacers. President of the Knicks. He flamed out in all of them, and his Knicks tenure scarred a whole new generation of fans. He’s still a commentator on TV, but not a particularly good one. He’s considered an asshole because he is an asshole. So too were Bird, Magic and Jordan. But none of them embraced the persona of being the face of the Bad Boys. People love Isiah and the Pistons for that. But many more loathe them. The Jewish people didnt lean into any villainous persona. And they were persecuted before the empire converted to christianity (as were christians, for the same reason: unique out of the multitude of religions across the empire, judaism and christianity refused to incorporate elements of Roman mythology and deities into their own practice). Cohen says his aim is, not to bring down Bird Magic and Jordan, but to ‘return Isiah to the pantheon.’ I’ll take that challenge. Does Isiah belong in the pantheon? If the pantheon is far below the level that the other three are at, then maybe. He’s a top 75 player all time, probably. He’s not top 50 anymore in all likelihood. He was when he retired. But a lot of other great players have come along since Isiah retired in 94, have ascended to ‘the pantheon.’ The pantheon cannot simply be the top 10 players of all time. If so, Bird and Magic would be in danger of falling out of it. Players who have played their entire careers after Isiah’s retirement who are fairly locks for the top 10 all time include Lebron James, Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan. Shaq and Isiah overlapped for a couple years, but Shaq is in there above Isiah too (I tend to think of those two in completely different eras until I see highlights from the 1993 allstar weekend, when they were both selected). Steph Curry has to be placed above Isiah. Durant probably as well.

Top 10 is Jordan, Lebron, Kareem, Wilt, Duncan, Shaq, Bird, Magic, Kobe and Steph. Part of it is the eye test. Part of it is accolades and hardware. Part of it is counting stats. Of the 10, only Wilt has as few as Isiah’s two titles. Shaq and Kobe each only have 1 MVP, while the other 8 all have multiples, while isiah has 0. Of these, Steph has the fewest first team all NBA selections (4), just ahead of Isiah’s 3, but all the rest have 7 or more, and Steph has 3 more second team selections to Isiah’s 2, plus he has those 2 MVPs and twice as many titles as Isiah. Let’s just agree that the ‘pantheon’ Isiah may aspire to isnt the top 10, or else its impossible.

If the pantheon is just ‘top players of the era’, then sure. Isiah is a marquee player of the era. But if it was such a golden era as Cohen claims, he would have to be the first to admit there were other great players beside these four. If the pantheon is simply being the top four of all those great players, even that is too much to ask. Much has been made of Isiah not being selected to the Dream Team in 1992. (Much more should be made of Shaq not being named to it - one amateur player was named, but inexplicitly it was Christian Laettner and not the universally superior O’Neal). Isiah by 1992 had deteriorated. He was out of the league by 94. Part of it was the achilles injury. But he only averaged 14 ppg before the injury. The last season he averaged double figure assists was 1987. Meanwhile, John Stockton, who was named to the Dream Team, in 1992 had just led the league in assists for the fifth of nine straight seasons. Which point guard would you rather have if you’re designing a literal dream team and need someone to distribute the ball to the roster of high scorers you just assembled? Isiah’s lack of longevity is blamed on his size. Stockton was the same size, and despite being just a year younger would go on to play for almost a decade after Isiah’s retirement (putting up big assist totals and taking his team to the playoffs in each year). Let’s look at Stockton, actually. He’s the league’s all time leader in assists (and assist titles, with 9, to Isiah’s 2), a total that has not been even vaguely been approached by others. He’s similarly atop the league’s all time steals list.  He led his team to the finals twice to Isiah’s three times, to at least the conference finals five times, which was the same as Isiah, and to at least the second round ten times, whereas Isiah only managed this six times, and only even made the playoffs nine times (to Stockton’s 19). If you stack up this team success, this ‘sublimation’ as Cohen would call it, you’d give the nod to Stock except for the fact that he has zero rings to Isiah’s two. But in this it’s pretty clear that Stockton had the misfortune to run into alltime great Bulls squads whereas Isiah had the good fortune to sneak in ahead of the Bulls’ greatness. Certainly the Bulls would never have been the Bulls if not for having their mettle tested by the Pistons. Maybe that should be worth more than any hardware. But it belongs to the Pistons all together, not Isiah by himself. 
And Stockton is just one of many in the pantheon who should probably be put ahead of Isiah. His teammate Karl Malone. Jordan’s teammate Pippen. Charles Barkley. The great Hakeem Olajuwon, whose own back to back titles in 1994 and 1995 are conveniently ignored by Cohen when he mentions dynasties in waiting. Patrick Ewing and Clyde Drexler. Maybe Isiah’s own teammate Rodman, who won eight straight rebounding titles, two defensive player of the year awards, and was a key star on five championship teams.

Cohen says its not right that Jerry West, Steph and John Stockton are ranked ahead of isiah on some arbitrary ranking of players. But Stockton is the only one serious basketball fans would quibble about. There’s no question for aficionados that West and Steph are better than Isiah Thomas.  Cohen keeps going back to Thomas’ height, calling him 5’10 and saying he’s the best player under 6 feet. But he was listed at 6’1 his whole career. Not even six even. Maybe it helps the narrative to make Isiah smaller than he really was while listing others as bigger than they were (Hakeem, Thompson), but at some point you have to remember that other small players have played and excelled at the game.

Cohen says the third quarter of game six of the 1988 finals should be enough by itself to make Isiah top ten all time. The most intense hyperbole here, and he might as well just go ahead and claim Isiah is the best ever (he does just a few sentences later when waxing poetic about his lack of height). So maybe we chalk this down to Cohen just being a huge Isiah fan and not very realistic or much of a fan of the rest of the NBA. Fine. I still enjoyed reading it for the well researched passages tracing the four iconic teams. Let’s just agree that 1988 was a very interesting season, fun to watch and remember, and that Isiah is under appreciated today, particularly since he had to overcome three all time great players and teams, even if he didn’t do it to each of them in the same season.
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What a wonderful retelling of the crazy events that happened in the 1980s with professional basketball. For those of us that were around in that time we can remember it. There were wonderful basketball players and teams in the rivalries or sometime is very intense. Interesting book for an interesting time in history.
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Cohen's premise is that the 1987-88 NBA season was the best in the league's history and he makes a strong case while also acknowledging his own biases. That season was certainly a pivotal one for the NBA as it served as pivot from the great dynasties of the early half of the decade in Boston and Los Angeles to the coming ones in Detroit and Chicago. It also was the peak for what is probably the golden age of stars, featuring more future Hall of Famers than before or since. Focusing on four teams--the Lakers, Celtics, Pistons, and Bulls--and their respective superstars--Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Isiah Thomas, and Michael Jordan--Cohen gives a vivid picture of the explosive coming together of the skill, style, and physicality that defined the era and the idea of how the game "should" be played for a generation of fans.
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When the Game Was War: The NBA's Greatest Season, by Rich Cohen, makes a compelling case for 1987 being the best season. I don't believe there is a single season that is "the best," too many variables and ways to define it, but 1987 was certainly one of the best. And Cohen convincingly shows why.

The mix of established stars and ones on the way up, teams at the beginning or end of dynasties, there is a lot to love about the 1987 season. As the title suggests, this was when hard fouls were common, players played through injury far more often, and what we called basketbrawl where I grew up was not an uncommon feature of the pro game. While many of us who loved basketball during this era miss those elements, it is probably better for the players' long term health that some of these features have been curtailed. But man were those some awesome games!

Since my interest wasn't in whether I agreed that this was the greatest season (I don't believe there is a single season that can hold that distinction) but in learning why this should be considered as among the greatest, I came to the book largely for the nostalgia. By 1987 I had been following the NBA fairly closely for about 20 years, so while I hadn't placed every memory into their correct year I certainly remember the events covered here. If you happen to believe in a "greatest season," this may well convince you, I definitely came away with a better appreciation.

For those who remember the season, this will be a fun trip down memory lane. For those for whom many of these names are stars of the past, you may come away with both a better appreciation for what came before as well as a better understanding of how today's game built on the foundation these players laid.

Reviewed from a copy made available by the publisher via NetGalley.
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Before you read my review I want to say that something that really bothered me in your Lakers chapter at the start how Kareem is the all time leading scorer in the NBA but LeBron is coming on strong. Well this is a preview book not set to come out until September. Here it is March/April that I am reading this and LeBron has passed Kareem. Fix it in the book. Why make yourself look bad with this inaccuracy. Now I don't know a lot about the publishing world but in this day and age of digital I would think this is a simple change unless of course you have already gone to press. For whatever reason I found this to be a sticking point with me. It really has and is bothering me. I am not a LeBron fan by any stretch and when you read my review you will see I don't even follow the NBA anymore. This little thing is just bugging the hell out of me. If you are going to put your name to something do it right. End rant here.

This is my first experience with this author.
This is also my first book through the Netgalley program.

I used to be a huge Larry Bird/Boston Celtic fan. I am old enough to have lived through this book. I experienced the events through TV, newspapers and Sports Illustrated. I loved watching the Bird/Magic rivalry. My mother was a huge Magic fan so it was always a heated three hours in my house when they went head to head.

I was never a Detroit fan. I also thought of them as "the bad boys" of basketball. They were dirty and I do believe they truly did try to hurt the stars of other teams. 

Then there was Michael. I was not a fan of Michael Jordan. How could I be? I was a worshipper of Larry Bird. It was hard to watch the decline of the Celtics and Bird and for Michael to be the "next one", how could I possibly be a fan. Don't get me wrong, I acknowledge his greatness but that doesn't mean I have to be a fan.

This book reveals some wonderful behind the scenes information that I did not know of the events of the time. It brought back a lot of memories for me reliving that season and earlier ones as well. It sparked the memory of the fun rivalry my mother and I had watching the games.

I am no longer an avid basketball fan. Once Bird and Magic retired I was done. Not being a Jordan fan there really wasn't much to hold my interest. Basketball today is a totally different animal. It is in a worse place as far as I am concerned. But I don't want to go off on a rant and detract from this book.

This is a very good read. If you are a fan of the game give it a go. Learn how the game was played in the 80's. Feel the passion the players had for the game and their teams. Team first, personal achievements last. It was a different game then, a much better game and this book does a great job of bringing that back to life.
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