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Book Review: Playing For Keeps by David Halberstam

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‘Jackson was certain that the coming 1997-1998 season, win or lose, was going to the last time around for this team – the Last Dance he called it’

Released in 1999, ‘Playing For Keeps: Michael Jordan & the World He Made’, written by renowned writer and historian David Halberstam, gives a unique and fascinating look into the career and life of Michael Jordan – the greatest basketball player of all time. Equally fascinating as it is smooth to read and with a particular focus on the 1997-1998 season, ‘Playing for Keeps’ is an absolute triumph of basketball literature.

As well as being the best Michael Jordan book ever written, ‘Playing for Keeps’ will form the basis for the highly anticipated 10 part documentary series produced by ESPN, entitled ‘The Last Dance’, on the final season of Michael Jordan’s career as a Chicago Bull set to release April 19th.

The author of the book, David Halberstam, is one of the most well renowned and critically acclaimed authors of the 20th and 21st century. Both ‘Breaks of the Game’ and ‘The Education of a Coach’ are must-reads for any fan of U.S. sports. As a fan of both aforementioned texts, as well as excited for the upcoming Jordan doc., I immediately had to get my hands on ‘Playing for Keeps’.

Halberstam presents an extensive look into the career of Jordan, without ever feeling too exploitative. Through a collection of interviews with key, distinguished figures such as former Bulls head coach Phil Jackson, head of NBC Sports Dick Ebersol, former college teammate and lifelong friend of Jordan, Buzz Peterson and former Bulls GM Jerry Krause, Halberstam affords the reader an insightful and enriching look into not only the career of Michael Jordan but the evolution and growth of the NBA as a whole.

Due to the inclusive and thorough nature of the book, the enticing minutia of the inner workings of the 90s Chicago Bulls runs side by side with the story of Jordan. The relationship between Jerry Krause and Phil Jackson being especially juicy. Krause is quoted by Halberstam as saying to Jackson during the coach’s contract negotiations prior to 1997-1998 season, ‘I don’t care if its 82 – 0 this year, you’re fucking gone.’


Moreover, Halberstam’s retelling of Scottie Pippen‘s tumultuous final season with the Bulls is equally as fascinating. Pippen was said to have been enraged at the upper-levels of Bulls management for the lack of respect in the form of a new, lucrative contract, which the star had not yet received.

Outside of the Bulls, Halberstam allocates a fair amount of focus and emphasis to the evolution of the NBA in the 1980s under the leadership of former commissioner David Stern. Thought to be ‘too black’ by Madison Avenue to attract any real advertising revenue. Stern worked tirelessly with the players and front offices of the NBA to make the NBA more consumer-friendly and enticing to middle-America viewers. Halberstam eloquently ties this key moment of NBA history into the career of Michael Jordan, coming to the conclusion that Jordan was every bit responsible for the commercialisation of the NBA as Stern was. Only Jordan did it with his on the court play and his off the court demeanour, compared to Stern’s work behind the scenes, as Halberstam wrote;

‘Opposing teams got the killer, and the fans watching the Nike commercials got the charmer, a man of humor and intelligence, someone everyone seemed to like.’

It is easy to come away from ‘Playing for Keeps’ with a revisioned look at how the character of Michael Jordan was so interconnected in the evolution of Nike, the NBA as a commercial success but also the birth of the ‘player empowerment’ era as by the time Jordan retired the NBA had begun to become more star-driven. You finish this book with an appreciation for Michael Jordan and the world he made.

‘His talent, Jackson said, was not merely that of a great athlete but transcended athleticism to become an art form. His gift was along the lines of Michaelangelo, Jackson said, and therefore Jordan at the least had to understand that it belonged not just to the artist but to those millions who stood in awe of the art itself and derived, in a life otherwise filled with the mundane, such pleasure from what he did.’

‘Playing for Keeps’ is a must-read for any avid American sports fan. Halberstam manages to tie together the meteoric rise of Jordan and the Bulls, the growth of the NBA and the expansion of capitalism and the culture it brought to America. Prior to ‘The Last Dance’ releasing on Netflix in the UK and Ireland on April 19th, there are few better books to sit down, especially at this time of year.

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