by Weston Cutter
I liked Michael Weinreb‘s Game of Kings enough—liked it plenty to finish it fast, and to push it on a friend or two. That book—a story of a high school chess team from NY—was enjoyable, an easy and quick read, etc. What that book did not at all prepare me for was this, Weinreb’s Bigger Than the Game, which is one of the smartest, fastest, best sports books I’ve read in some time. Bigger/Game announces Weinreb’s entry into the ranks of Must-Read writers, regardless of what subject he’s covering—and, better, Bigger/Game shows that Weinreb can write about anything.
Meaning what? Meaning here’s your subtitle: Bo, Boz, the Punky QB, and How the 80′s Created the Modern Athlete. If you’re at all like me, you’re buying the book the second you see the picture of Bo Jackson (true: the first bio I ever read was Bo Knows Bo, and all I retain from it is the story of him spotting, through windows, some adult couple getting intimate)(I read it when I was 14). However, even if you’re not inspired to read by a picture of one of the best athletes of the last half-century, what you find soon is that the last bit of the subtitle, How the 80′s Changed the Modern Athlete, is where Weinreb’s gonna be spending the bulk of his time. For instance, here’s the start of “We’re Not Here to Start Trouble,” chapter 4:
Something was happening in Chicago that fall, something weird and dynamic and compelling, the origins of which could be traced back to the Thursday night in Minnesota when a woozy and petulant Jim McMahon nagged his way into a football game. It wasn’t just that the Bears were winning week after week after week (though, considering their fans had endured two decades of routine futility, that was strange enough). It was that the bears were winning with such naked audacity; it was that they actually appeared to be reveling in their own very public dysfunction. In the same city where a morning-show host named Oprah Winfrey was in the process of refashioning the tabloid talk show into a syndicated group-therapy session, the Bears were quickly becoming an affirmation of the new American ideal: a motley group of individualists who embraced capitalism and celebrity, who embodied nothing so much as immoderation and self-regard.
What’s cool about Weinreb’s fantastic Bigger Than the Game is the same thing that’s cool about the best sports writing (I’m looking at you, Mahler): he’s got a philosophic framework he’s fitting this stuff into, and so the sports under examination and discussion suddenly are larger by being contextualized. Like most of my peers, I, early on, bought into the notion that I absolutely needed to possess pairs of Air Jordans, and then, later, I realized the heat of that fervor was misplaced, was the result mainly of awe at Jordan and perfect work by Nike and the various ad agencies it worked with. What I didn’t consider, not once until Weinreb pointed it out, was that the mid-80′s allowed a terrifically strange cultural moment for folks like Jordan (and Bo, and Boz, and whoever Len Bias could’ve been) to take the stage.
And what was the cultural moment? Weinreb’s got suggestions, namely Reagan and Stallone movies. Before you balk at the notion, consider it for just a second more: Reagan was, yes, old enough to be a fossil, yet he was always canny, and he—Mr. Morning in America, the Gipper—led America with his image as much as anything else. And his image was, of course, old Hollywood, the rugged individual, that western ideal of self-sufficiency and -reliance. Rambo and Rocky were, of course, cut from much the same cloth. Nothing’s inherently wrong with this individualistic framework, but Weinreb points out how things got strange because of it: rugged, radical individualism came to be considered a legitimate form of citizenship. Think, for a second, of Rocky, fighting the Russian (Dolph Lundgren may as well be nameless, he’s just the Russian, but, of course, Stallone wrote the screenplay: dude’s name’s Ivan Drago) in Rocky IV, and the movie’s end, him wreathed in bruises and blood, wrapped in the flag, doing the whole thing for his country.
It’s hard to do this level of philosophic work justice, this stuff Weinreb does. His point is that, in the 80′s (mid-80′s, specifically: 85/85), there was a sudden twining of notions of wild inviduality(/-ism) and patriotism. Think otherwise? Think Joe Namath: he was a celebrity QB, and his style certainly gave rise to McMahon and the rest, later, but Namath wasn’t co-opted, instantly, by brands or a country’s hunger for authentic heroes. And don’t think that means nothing, the country’s hunger: ’85 was the middle of Iran/Contra stuff, was a decade after Watergate, Greed is Good and 9 years into what T. Wolfe called the Me Generation: Bo Jackson, Brian Bosworth, Michael Jordan, Jim McMahon—these men took the positions in culture they did because we needed them there, we need sports stars who, through self-interest, served everyone. It’s a scary but not serious stretch to think of this stuff in pretty Ayn Rand-ian terms.
There’s much, much more to this fascinating, absolutely devourable book: there’s lots about Len Bias who Weinreb slots in almost as a cipher, as an un-puzzlable clue. In fact, Weinreb almost uses Bias as the perfect example of the rise he’s tracking: Bias was quiet, dedicated, worked his ass off publicly, never drank or smoked or did anything around his teammates and coaches…yet had, according to several folks, another side, a coke-sniffing side. He never got the chance to—like McMahon, like Bo Jackson, like Jordan—be fully Himself (in order: cans of beers clutched on exit from limos; breaking bats over knees and playing whatever the hell sport he wanted; ushering in a whole new wave and level of branding in the NBA) publicly (of who he Himself most was was a drug-user). Bigger Than the Game is a riveting read, and one of the best books—not sports books, not nostalgia books, just books, period—of the fall. Get in on the Weinreb wagon early.