Court Vision: Unexpected Views on the Lure of Basketball


Nobel laureats on the fast break?Symphony orchestra conductors on the alley-oop?Astronauts on the free throw?

Bestselling New York Times writer Ira Berkow presents a unique look at America's premier sport—and its fans—thorugh interviews with a remarkable cross section of widly known and extraordinarily accomplished individuals in a variety of fields, who explain what the lure of basketball is for them. Berkow talked with Chris Rock, Woody Allen, Tom Brokaw, Saul Bellow, Johnnie ...

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Nobel laureats on the fast break?Symphony orchestra conductors on the alley-oop?Astronauts on the free throw?

Bestselling New York Times writer Ira Berkow presents a unique look at America's premier sport—and its fans—thorugh interviews with a remarkable cross section of widly known and extraordinarily accomplished individuals in a variety of fields, who explain what the lure of basketball is for them. Berkow talked with Chris Rock, Woody Allen, Tom Brokaw, Saul Bellow, Johnnie Cochran Jr., Walter Matthau, Nikki Giovanni, Donald Trump, Julia Child, Frank Stella, Erica Jong, Grover Washington Jr., Seiji Ozawa, and Sharon Stone, among others, to uncover fresh, funny, controversial, and often surprising opinions about the teams and players who make the game intriguing.

"My height was insufficient for a serious career. But to this day, if I play in a game with kids eight years old and under, I'm a tremendously effective shot blocker."—Woody Allen
"A basketball game is a two-hour version of life, and that's the beauty of it. You have a start, you have a middle, you have a finish. The nice part is that you don't have to go eighty years."—Donald Trump
"I always say that the most dangerous play in basketball is the open white man. It's because there is nothing more surefire. . . . A white guy open behind the arc is frightening." —Chris Rock

The interviews also offer compelling insight not only into what makes basketball transcendent, but these luminaries view the world of basketball how their own particular expertise and learn from it.

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Editorial Reviews

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Our Review
Hoop Dreams
Ever imagine Red Auerbach as a general? Pat Riley as a commander? Absolutely, says Secretary of Defense William Cohen. In Court Vision, bestselling New York Times writer Ira Berkow interviews movers, shakers, celebrities, dancers, poets, and even a renowned chef on basketball. These uncommon observers share a common connection to hoops, often beginning when young. Distinguished and accomplished now as adults, they all glory in hardwood athleticism, personalities, and rivalries, their various perspectives revealing a true love of the game.

Abstract painter Frank Stella, even more than most, sees artistry in basketball: "There is a famous Caravaggio painting in which the head of Holofernes is held right out in your face. It's the same way that Michael Jordan used to hold the ball out in front of him, palming the ball, and tantalizing his defender."

Woody Allen, longtime Knicks aficionado and Madison Square Garden courtside resident, speaks of his own motivations as a fan. "Drama," says Allen, is what he values most. "Drama and aesthetics. I'm more interested in those aspects than in who wins or loses."

Meanwhile, the late Walter Matthau cared very much for who won and lost, particularly when he had money on the game: "I find working -- acting in a film -- easier than when I'm in the middle of a bet. When making a movie, you can have a number of takes to get the scene right. Whereas in a bet, it's that day, and you either win or lose. There's no fooling around. Yeah, it's a rough number."

Novelist Erica Jong, ever the sensualist, sees basketball a bit differently: "It's sexy to see these gorgeous young hunks jumping around for your benefit. I don't think Woody Allen would say that. But I think most women would. And I think there's something really visceral about getting that ball in the basket."

If not attending the games, many of the interview subjects prefer to watch basketball at home while listening to classical music. The players' movements and the music synchronize. Basketball, in turn, informs musicians' work. An orchestra conductor, glancing at a soloist, sees himself as a point guard.

Comparing the conditioning of basketball stars with ballet stars, celebrated dancer Edward Villella singles out the grace and agility of Kobe Bryant. "This guy is so economical in his moves, so smooth. He's got timing. He can change direction. He can go in two directions at the same time, which is another thing that ballet dancers work really hard at." His further analysis of Bryant's athleticism is downright mesmerizing.

Berkow's subjects, all from beyond the realm of professional sports, offer fresh metaphors and comparisons, far livelier than the hackneyed prose filling column inches in the sports section. Sharon Stone likens the chemistry between Magic Johnson and Pat Riley to that between Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese. A famous psychiatrist contemplates Freud's reaction to Dennis Rodman. Meanwhile, Chris Rock boldly contrasts Allen Iverson and Shaquille O'Neal: "I think Allen Iverson is the best player in the game. You can say Shaq, but he's a center. Playing center is like hitting home runs from second base."

Though split on their opinions of Iverson and Rodman, the interviewees unanimously (save for chef Julia Child) deify Michael Jordan. "A person should act as an inert projectile once he's left the floor," explains Nobel Prize-winning chemist Kary Mullis. "Michael Jordan just might be floating."

The late film critic Gene Siskel, a season-ticket holder with front-row seats to Bulls games, recalled, "One time Jordan made a fantastic clutch shot against the Miami Heat, and their coach, Pat Riley, called to Jordan as he ran past him, 'You rat!' It was like something out of an old James Cagney movie."

As for Child, she lost interest in the game after her playing days ended and has never been to the Boston Garden or the Fleet Center to sample their cuisine. However, she does have a culinary critique of Fenway Park franks: "They were very good, but the bun had no character. The bun was kind of mushy, not very good at all. Oh, I had everything on it, but it still didn't improve the bun."

Brenn Jones is a freelance writer in New York City and a frequent contributor to Barnes &

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
True basketball lovers will use any opportunity to expound on the meaning of the game. In this light-hearted collection of interviews with popular personalities, Berkow, New York Times sports columnist and author of To the Hoop: The Seasons of a Basketball Life, revels in the chance to make as many connections as possible between the life of the game and the game of life. He talks to an amazing array of cultural forces, from some obvious fans of the game, like Woody Allen and Mario Cuomo, to some surprising sources of hoops wisdom, such as writer William Goldman and conductor Seiji Ozawa. At their most philosophical, the conversations reveal how basketball models creativity and can mirror society and life. The banter hits the zone when the talk turns to players, coaches and opportunities taken and lost. Berkow misses a few opportunities of his own here. In particular, his conversations with women (only three of 27 subjects) feel perfunctory; his focus on the NBA cuts out the ripe women's game; and the seemingly verbatim and repetitious q&a format gets tiresome and doesn't allow for thematic synthesis. He turns to the same topics too often, especially when he repeatedly brings up Sprewell's nasty temper, Rodman's general badness and Jordan's perfection. Still, this is an entertaining gathering of strong, interesting opinions--and real fans of the game will love the give and go. (May) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
Library Journal
A sports columnist for the New York Times and a noted author (e.g., Red: A Biography of Red Smith), Berkow has interviewed people notable in various fields who share an abiding love for basketball. Those interviewed run the gamut from movie stars to astronauts, from government officials to novelists, and each of the contributors gives a different, nuanced, and intriguing look at the game. Readers do not have to be rabid fans to enjoy this work, as many of the interviewees see the game as more than just wins and losses. This reviewer found Woody Allen's comments the most interesting. Long known as a New York Knicks fan, Allen recalls the teams of the 1960s and 1970s, featuring Willis Reed, Walt Frazier, Bill Bradley, and, in particular, Earl "The Pearl" Monroe. He is less complimentary of today's Knicks but still appreciative of their skills. A great many of the other interviews are equally perceptive. Of interest to all basketball fans, this book is highly recommended.--William O. Scheeren, Hempfield Area High Sch., Greensburg, PA Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\
Boston Globe

“Berkow might be the Phil Jackson of basketball writers. . . . [A] lively, coherent collection that not only provides fascinating insights into the game but reveals surprising information about the celebrities.”—Boston Globe

“Wonderful reading.”—Booklist
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780688168421
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 4/6/2000
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 288
  • Product dimensions: 6.12 (w) x 9.25 (h) x 0.97 (d)

Meet the Author

Ira Berkow is a sports columnist for the New York Times and has been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Distinguished Commentary. He has written numerous books, including the national bestseller Red: A Biography of Red Smith, and most recently a memoir, To the Hoop: The Seasons of a Basketball Life. He lives in New York City.

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Read an Excerpt

Woody Allen

Born Allen Stewart Konisberg on December 1, 1935, in New York City, Woody Allen has become one of America's most respected filmmakers. Annie Hall won an Academy Award for Best Picture, and he for Best Director, in 1977. Allen has also had a highly successful career as a stand-up comedian, actor, and writer. He won an Academy Award for Best Screenplay for Mighty Aphrodite in 1996. He has had several bestselling collections of short stories published, including Without Feathers and Getting Even, with most of the stories appearing first in The New Yorker. He has had season tickets to Knick games for nearly thirty years and attends games regularly, sitting unobtrusively, often with his wife, Soon-Yi, at courtside. The following interview was conducted in his film studio on the ground floor of a hotel-apartment complex on Park Avenue. His shirt, slacks, and shoes were casual and neat and apparently nondesigner, a wardrobe that may well have been unchanged since the 1950s.

Q: What do you look for in a basketball game?

A: Drama. Drama and aesthetics. I'm more interested in thoseaspects than in who wins or loses. I've always been that way. Forme to see the Knicks blow out the other team, I find this uninteresting. I couldn't care less about that. I like it when the Knicks win, but I like them to win in the last four seconds or something.

And sometimes even if the Knicks lose the game, if it's a beautiful basketball game, if it's aesthetic, I go home more satisfied. If I go to a game and it's one of those where they are playing Milwaukee or someone like that, and I can leave five minutes before the game is over because the Knicks aretwenty-three points ahead, or something, then it's no fun for the evening. But if it's a tight game, then even if the Knicks lose I feel I've gotten a better evening of theater than I have watching them just win.

Q: How does a dramatic basketball game compare to dramatic theater?

A: Basketball is more interesting. In the theater you are almost always ahead of the writer, and in a basketball game you can't be ahead because you don't know that if there is one second left whether the guy is going to make a three-pointer. So the tension is tremendous. What happens is when you get to know the players, just as a fan, and the Knicks are playing Chicago or something, and then you see the game unfold and it's the last fifteen seconds and the score seesaws three times. That's something you can never get in theater. You always sort of know, "Well, Willy Loman is going to die at the end and it is great." But you're just always ahead of the writer. You see it played out and it's wonderful, but you know the outcome of it. Even in a play you've never seen before, the outcome is reasonably understandable to you before it happens.You know where it's going. But in basketball, never.

Q: I understand you once told Gene Siskel that he was lucky to live in Chicago. He was surprised that YOU, a dedicated New Yorker, would say something like that, until you told him that he was lucky to be able to watch all those Bulls home games-that is, in the Jordan era.

A: What it is, is this.Years ago when the Knicks had their great team--DeBusschere and Reed and Frazier and Monroe and Bradley--I went to every single game. It didn't matter if they were playing the last-place team, and it didn't matter if they were winning or losing. I wanted to see the Knicks play because it was a great thing of beauty to watch Walt Frazier play basketball, or Earl Monroe play basketball. If you were in Chicago and you get to see the Bulls with Michael Jordan, it doesn't matter who they're playing. It's just a joy to watch them play and him play. I don't have that with the Knicks now. Now, the best that's happened over the last years with Oakley and Starks is that they'd win, but it would be a kind of brutal, hard-nosed, blue-collar win. Starks would be fighting, and Greg Anthony would get into a brawl. Rick Barry once said that all that brutality takes away from the finesse of the game. As a New Yorker I like the Knicks to win, but there was no beauty to it, no aesthetic satisfaction. So when I'm sitting at a game, and in a fourth quarter Reggie Miner would throw in sixteen Points-as he did in a playoff game at the Garden-it was so exhilarating to watch that, even though the Knicks lost. It was such a demonstration of the art of basketball.

Q: If you had been a pro basketball player, who would you like to have been? Who would you like to have played like?

A: I guess Earl Monroe. He's the most fun that I've had watching. I think Michael Jordan was definitely a greater player, but Earl Monroe was the most fun because he caught the jazz spirit of the game. He made it so aesthetically joyful to watch.

Q: Do you think he was an artist?

A: I do. I thought he was absolutely an intuitive artist. It's that natural thing that he doesn't even know he has. It's just that he can't step outside himself, and appreciate himself, the same way that Brando can't watch Brando on the screen and know what everybody is fussing over. Marilyn Monroe said years ago, "I wish I was a guy so I would know what it would be like to fuck me."

[Laughter.] That's the feeling that you get with Earl Monroe. He can never fully appreciate himself. He was just a great, natural hunk of poetry.

Q: A hunk of poetry?

A: That's what it is. That's what you see with Brando.You see Brando in the middle of On the Waterfront, in the movie, or in the play in a New York theater about a New Jersey dock.There is this big hunk of poetry in it. Brando's not like any longshoreman you know, and he doesn't move like one, doesn't sound like one, but it's pure poetry. The same thing with Earl Monroe. And both took risks. Sometimes they failed, but more often they succeeded.

Q: Could you describe for me how you saw the way Earl Monroe played?

A: He was just a joy to watch because he was so graceful, but in those jerky motions he had. He was like on dangling coat hangers. He was all bones and lanky and dangling like those skeletons that dangle, the dancing dolls on Broadway. He would come down the court, always with that high dribble and that great look on his face. Now, Frazier was such a beautiful-looking man, with great posture. Monroe was more like a beast. He would have that fiery look in his eyes and come downcourt twisting his body this way and that. Then he would dart into a group of guys and spin and pivot and duck under and turn around. It looked like his hands and feet were going off in every direction at the same time. The ball would go up and he would make the shot. He made it so many times. One of the sportswriters once said that his misses were more exciting than most people's baskets. That's true. Your heart was always in your mouth because he had those bad knees. He just looked so bad when you saw him. I've seen him do so many things. I saw him not miss a shot all night, just 100 percent for the night. I saw him in a shootout with Kevin Porter, when Porter was with the Bullets.

Court Vision. Copyright © by Ira Berkow. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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Table of Contents

Woody Allen : filmmaker 1
William Cohen : United States Secretary of Defense 19
Edward Villella : ballet dancer and choreographer 31
Chris Rock : comedian 43
Erica Jong : novelist 55
Frank Stella : artist 61
Kary Mullis : scientist 71
Gene Siskel : film critic 79
Tom Brokaw : newscaster 89
Donald Trump : business executive 99
Grover Washington, Jr. : jazz saxophonist 109
Colonel Brian Duffy : astronaut 117
Reverend Edward Aloysius Malloy : President, Notre Dame University 129
Walter Matthau : actor 143
William Goldman : screenwriter 151
Julia Child : chef 161
Mario Cuomo : former governor of New York 167
Johnnie Cochran, Jr. : lawyer 177
Nikki Giovanni : poet 187
Richard Meier : architect 199
Alan Dershowitz : law professor 207
Christie Hefner : CEO, Playboy Enterprises 217
Bill Marovitz : real estate developer 217
Seiji Ozawa : conductor 229
Dr. Isaac Steven Herschkopf : psychiatrist 239
Sharon Stone : actress 253
Saul Bellow : novelist 259
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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 22, 2001

    Great Implementation of a Brilliant Book Concept

    This book clearly deserves more than five stars. Seldom do I find a new type of nonfiction book that is an improvement over its predecessors. Court Vision is such a book. The concept is simple. Take famous people from all walks of life who are among our most talented individuals. Find the ones who know about NBA basketball either from a fan's or a player's perspective. Interview them about how they get insights into what they do from basketball, what their field can bring to basketball, and use a common questioning format so that the perspectives build on one another. Edit the results ruthlessly. Although the book is ostensibly about basketball, the result is that you also see these observers in a new way through the common lens of their relationship to basketball. For example, some of the very mild-mannered public figures like Tom Brokaw use the four letter word that begins with 'f' in their comments. Knowing that they were being taped, I am surprised by their language. Obviously, the public personnas and the real person are at variance in some ways. A further example comes from Walter Matthau's addiction to betting on the games, even though he doesn't enjoy it (the winning isn't enough fun to offset the pain of losing). You will have your own favorite sections. If I quote a lot of the best material, it will spoil the book for you. But it may whet your appetite to know who some of the interviewees are: Woody Allen (filmmaker); William Cohen (President Clinton's Secretary of Defense); Edward Villella (ballet dancer and choreographer); Chris Rock (comedian); Erica Jong (novelist); Gene Siskel (film critic); Donald Trump (businessman); Reverend Edward Aloysius Malloy (President, Notre Dame University); Julia Child (chef); Mario Cuomo (former Governor of New York); Alan Dershowitz (law professor); Seiju Ozawa (conductor); Sharon Stone (actress); and Saul Bellow (novelist). In general, the comments by those who played basketball are the most interesting. But the narrow lens that our profession brings to our perspective is also very clear. Few draw on analogies and metaphors from outside their profession. Many people are not well schooled in basketball. Their interest usually starts with the rise of Michael Jordan, so stars of the past are seldom mentioned. No one seems to have an explanation of how Michael Jordan could take off at the free throw line and dunk the ball. One interesting hypothesis presented is that he used some sort of extrasensory power. Basketball players are also looked on as individuals. You get comments on the Latrell Spreewell coach-choking incident, immature behavior on the court and off, and the important potential role of education in these young peoples' lives. Most of the observers either live in New York, Los Angeles, or Chicago, so you get a lot about the Knicks, Lakers, and Bulls. Some residual Larry Bird sneaks in now and then. This book would also make a great gift for anyone who is an NBA fa

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