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Book Review: Golden Days

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Jack McCallum’s latest book looks at the teams that featured Jerry West, who helped usher in the Warriors’ Golden Era.

NBA: Finals-Cleveland Cavaliers at Golden State Warriors Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

If there was a Mount Rushmore of pro basketball writers, Jack McCallum’s countenance would certainly be there, etched into granite. He has written books about the greatest (Dream Team) and most important (:07 Seconds or Less) teams in basketball history along with countless exemplary pieces for Sports Illustrated.

McCallum’s latest book focuses on the greatest and most important team of the past few seasons—the Golden State Warriors. In Golden Days: West’s Lakers, Steph’s Warriors, and the California Dreamers Who Reinvented Basketball, McCallum tells the story of the present-day Warriors by intertwining their narrative with another of the NBA’s greatest teams—the late 60s and early 70s Lakers.

In the book’s prologue, McCallum writes:

“This is a tale of yesterday’s Lakers—a historically significant team led by West and Wilt Chamberlain— and today’s Warriors, a team that is rapidly building its own legend [...] In their respective eras they were distinct for the way they played the game, fast yet fundamental, spontaneous yet studied, entertaining yet educated. But both flourished only when a steady hand seized the controls, someone who corralled the abundant talent into a cohesive whole.”

While also noting that “[t]his is also a story about very different times,” McCallum finds common ground between these two teams, both through the kind of basketball they played, the successes they had, and, most prevalently, a figure that both teams shared.

Go West, young man

The framing device of Golden Days is Jerry West, who unifies the two franchises. McCallum constructs “a tale that speaks to the ebb and flow of franchises, and of the league itself” while “[o]ne man [West] was there for all of it, a subject of history both modern and ancient.” West is a Los Angeles Lakers legend, winning titles with them as a player and a general manager.

But the West Virginian created a legacy for himself beyond the Forum blue and gold. After a brief stint as the general manager of the Memphis Grizzlies, West joined the Warriors front office shortly after the team was purchased by Peter Guber and Joe Lacob and was an active contributor to the resurrection of the Warriors franchise.

When I read the book’s introduction that was published in Sports Illustrated in early October, I worried McCallum might lean a bit too heavily on the connection. Given that he'd been involved with the league, in one way or another, for the bulk of its existence and his silhouette provides the logo with its shape, it wasn’t far-fetched to worry that West might overshadow things in this book ostensibly about the Warriors. But my fears, obviously misguided when one remembers that McCallum is one of the best writers in the business, were allayed as I read the book and understood how the connection functioned.

Golden State Warriors Announce Plan To Move To San Francisco
After purchasing the team, Peter Guber and Joe Lacob would bring in Jerry West as an executive and basketball advisor and the former Lakers great would help change the culture of the Golden State Warriors
Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Rather than being the “focus” of the book, McCallum uses West as a framing device or like one would use a narrating character in a work of fiction. West functions like the Nick Carraway to the Jay Gatsby of those 60s and 70s Lakers teams and the present-day Warriors. There have been many great books about West (Roland Lazenby’s Jerry West: The Life and Legend of a Basketball Icon and the memoir he co-wrote with Jonathan Coleman, West by West: My Charmed, Tormented Life) and Golden Days has a place amongst those works. But McCallum’s book does not allow West to overshadow or dominate the narrative.

Super teams in Northern and Southern California

By talking about West and his Lakers teams, McCallum finds an interesting analogue for the present-day Warriors. Both teams mounted impressive in-season win streaks and win totals with some of the most impressive collections of talent in basketball history. McCallum writes this about the Warriors,

“[n]o matter how many Silicon Valley ‘Moneyball’ references were attached to the Warriors, they had in fact grown into a team no longer fueled by low-salaried, high-performing scrappy B-listers [...] They were a superpower with a superstar.”

McCallum highlights how, while the way the Warriors play is an evolution in basketball, a team like this in terms of the collection of basketball talent is nowhere near new. By having the narrative of West, Elgin Baylor, Gail Goodrich, and later Wilt Chamberlain’s Lakers run alongside the current Warriors, McCallum makes it clear that super teams and the consolidating of talent on certain teams is nothing new.

McCallum also highlights the hypocrisy as he describes the reaction of everyone else after Kevin Durant signed with the Warriors in the summer of 2016. McCallum writes that “[s]omehow the Warriors became the first team that ever wanted to get better, and Durant became the first player who ever changed teams.” Having the chapters on Durant’s decision to sign with the Warriors and Chamberlain’s trade from the 76ers to the Lakers highlights that.

While Chamberlain’s moves to Los Angeles came via trade rather than free agency, that was the only way player movement could occur. “[T]he movement back then,” McCallum notes, “was mostly via trade, but players lobbied to be moved and there was ring-chasing, too— witness [Oscar] Robertson joining forces with [Kareem] Abdul-Jabbar in Milwaukee.” There are numerous differences between Chamberlain and Durant, almost too many to enumerate. But Chamberlain leaving his previous team to join one that had went to the NBA Finals the year before should remind us that the “super team” isn’t as new an idea as we might think.

The two who made all the difference— Curry and Kerr

Like Erik Malinowski’s Betaball, Golden Days tells the story of the Warriors’ rising fortunes in the past five-plus years. However, while Malinowski dives into the micro of the Warriors ascent, the small changes throughout the organization after Lacob and Guber purchases the team, McCallum is more interested in the macro, the larger narrative.

In that regard, McCallum foregrounds that moment when “the Golden State Warriors called [ Stephen Curry’s] name and David Stern shook his hand, and there was Curry at his first press conference, facing an uncertain future with an uncertain franchise.” McCallum does address Lacob and Guber’s purchase of the franchise, the Chris Cohan ownership that turned the Warriors into a team “where dreams go to die,” and the numerous calamities that befell the Warriors and their fans throughout the years. But McCallum is more interested in what happened on the court and involving those who make the games happen, the players and the coaches.

McCallum highlights Curry’s drafting and the decision to trade Monta Ellis for Andrew Bogut, and the implicit decision to build around Curry and Klay Thompson, rather than the kinds of organization and technical changes Malinowski covers in Betaball. McCallum traces “a journey from [Curry’s being drafting by the Warriors] to that moment in the 2017 Finals when his audacious three-pointer goes through the hoop and the noise goes through the roof” and that getting to that point, by and large, was made possible by Curry.

While McCallum does a masterful job of getting the reader to grasp Curry’s centrality to this Warriors renaissance, the other figure he focuses on as being transformative, and that yields the best material in the book, is head coach Steve Kerr. In the chapter that focuses on Mark Jackson’s dismissal and Kerr’s hiring, McCallum makes it clear that Kerr is, in many ways, as responsible for the Warriors’ ascendancy as anyone. But what McCallum doesn’t do, and what Kerr has sought to avoid as well in his public demeanor, is to create a hagiography of Kerr as a basketball genius or guru.

The title of this chapter, “Kerr: Light Tough, Heavy Influence,” outlines the chapter’s thesis. Kerr is, as McCallum notes, “extremely lucky in terms of the personnel he inherited in Golden State.” But McCallum also makes it clear that Kerr has had such a profound influence, an influence that is largely ethereal or ineffable, that is profound and must be accounted for. McCallum writes of Kerr:

Kerr gave coaching a human side. He owns up to having bouts of anxiety and fear. (And certainly the world saw what pain was doing to him.) He practices yoga and prescribed it for his team. There is something of the nuts-and-berries-early-Phil-Jackson about him, except that Kerr, unlike Phil, never acts like he has it all figured out. He is a searcher, a self-examiner.

Beyond West, McCallum gives the most space in Golden Days to Curry and Kerr amongst the Warriors featured. It is their particular alchemy that creates the unique culture that makes the Warriors play so well (and so well together).

NBA: Golden State Warriors at Orlando Magic
The two men Jack McCallum focuses on when depicting the ascendency of these Golden State Warriors— Stephen Curry and Steve Kerr
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Golden Days is a book you should definitely read

Golden Days is a book that is not just well-written, but written well. By which I mean McCallum’s writing voice is very distinct, very personal, very conversational without seeming too forced. Throughout the book, McCallum offers up humorous asides or parenthetical comments that takes it beyond mere reportage to something much more entertaining and engrossing. It occurs in some of the selections I’ve quoted but is by no means limited to those.

In other writers, I find this to be a bit grating, too glib in its self-awareness, and I’ll wish they had a bit more gravitas in their writing. With McCallum, especially in Golden Days, he incorporates enough individuality to give the book a distinct voice but not so much that it takes away from the seriousness and rigor that a book by a writer like McCallum possesses.

Golden Days also affected the way I saw West, both on the whole as well as his role in the Warriors organization. Perhaps owing to his close ties to the Lakers, but I’ve always held West at something like arm’s length. There are definitely other players from that era I preferred. But there was one anecdote, one that I had not heard until reading McCallum’s book, that made me feel a kinship to West.

[West] drank a little bit of champagne, accepted all the congratulations, made a few obligatory comments that he wished Baylor had been able to win it with him, returned home, and thought about a song by Peggy Lee called ‘Is That All There Is?’ Winning one after he had already lost eight did not fill his heart with gladness.

“Is That All There Is?,” which was featured in a season 7 episode of Mad Men, is one of the best examples of existentialism in popular music, and popular culture in general, and thus is something I rather enjoy.

This is not the only existentialism-tinged reference to West in Golden Days (McCallum writes of West’s retirement as “this superb, once-in-an-era team, and all vestiges of it, was gone, gone like tears in the rain.”). But those references, coupled with the introspective nature of West and the emotional demons he battled that McCallum depicted, made West someone that I understood and better related to.

In addition, I also underestimated West’s importance in the Warriors organization during his time here and the connection he felt to the team. From the outside, I viewed West’s association with the Warriors as very mercurial. McCallum describes how “Lacob saw West’s relationship with the Warriors as transactional,” and that was the view I shared.

What McCallum makes clear is that “West saw it more like a marriage,” and after the Warriors clinched the 2017 NBA championship, West “look[ed] downcast” saying “You know what I’ll miss the most? [...] Watching these guys play.” McCallum tells a story that shows West as one who did not see himself as attached to these Warriors for the sake of a paycheck or a job. Rather he felt a kinship with these players and this organization, even if it wasn’t the one he is traditionally associated with.

It had become clear that West had perhaps become expendable given that Bob Myers had asserted himself as one of the best general managers and basketball minds in the NBA today. But after reading Golden Days, I felt a great deal of regret that West would no longer be a part of the Warriors organization anymore.

New Orleans Pelicans v Golden State Warriors
Whether by talking about his contributions to the Warriors or the way in which he connected to existential philosophy and ideas, Golden Days made me like Jerry West a lot more.
Photo by Robert Reiners/Getty Images

Above all, what I enjoyed most about Golden Days was that use of West as this organizing figure, the center of gravity for this narrative that gave me a window into this team that I love and find so interesting. As I alluded to earlier, I worried that the yoking together of the Lakers and Warriors might come off as a bit heavy-handed or might take away from the Warriors parts of the book, which is obviously what I was more interested in reading. But McCallum, not surprisingly, strikes a perfect balance.

What McCallum does by talking about those Lakers in tandem with these Warriors is to situate the Warriors within the larger narrative of professional basketball history. As I touched on in an earlier piece, there is this tendency amongst many to see the Warriors, whether in terms of their style of play or the way they were constructed, as not being a part of basketball as we’ve known it. Those who criticize the Warriors for hurting basketball, making the NBA less fun or competitive, are often those with the shortest memories. What McCallum does in Golden Days is to show how, while there is a great deal that makes them unique and special, these Warriors have not upset the apple-cart of NBA tradition but rather continue in (and refine) a lineage going back to the West-Chamberlain-Baylor Lakers teams of those bygone eras.

If you’re a fan of current NBA who would like a little more context, if you liked the NBA of the past and would like to see how it connects to the league today, if you’re a fan of basketball or sports or just good writing, Golden Days is more than worth your time.