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Book review: The Victory Machine

The debut book from Warriors reporter Ethan Sherwood Strauss hits stores this spring.

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On March 13, 2019, The Athletic senior columnist Marcus Thompson II held a chat on his publication’s website. The Golden State Warriors were well on their way to the West’s top seed, and a fifth consecutive trip to the NBA Finals. They employed arguably the two best players in the world.

You wouldn’t know it from the questions asked in the chat.

This was only a month after Kevin Durant’s long media absence, and the surrounding speculation that cloaked him. The team appeared in low supply of chemistry and locker room verve; the castle felt held up by popsicle sticks and superglue. Durant and Draymond Green weren’t long removed from an intense altercation. And reports - specifically from Thompson’s publication - painted the franchise as already coming to grips with Durant’s impending departure.

In the chat, enthusiastic reader “Eric S” posed the following question: “What percent of what you know is actually reported?”

“Probably 30 percent,” Thompson responded.

Basketball fans are lucky for that 30 percent; thankful, even. But if we’re being honest, no one buys the puzzle to see what the border looks like. It’s the intricate inner pieces that we crave.

In basketball, fans are rarely given those pieces on the inside. If the puzzle is 750 pieces, the box comes missing 600 of them. We work with what we get, build the border, and fill in the rest with our imagination, our deduction, and more than occasionally our optimism.

If we’re keeping with this equation, Ethan Sherwood Strauss’ debut book might as well be called The Remaining 70 Percent. Instead, The Victory Machine: The Making and Unmaking of the Warriors Dynasty will have to suffice. I’ll admit it’s a much catchier title.

Now a Thompson colleague at the aforementioned The Athletic, Strauss has covered the Warriors closely for years; even by beat writer standards, it’s safe to say that his 70 percent is a more potent gas tank than most reporters’.

The Victory Machine dances inside the puzzle, revealing captivating detail after captivating detail as Strauss depicts the luck, skill, and brashness required to construct arguably the greatest team in NBA history, followed by the inevitable return to earth.

Thompson, in that nearly year-old chat, expanded on his answer as to what reporters share, adding that “Ethics, the desire to preserve relationships and timing prevent most stuff we know from getting out.” To that I would add that much of what a beat reporter knows is borderline fruitless in a vacuum.

Garlic is hardly an enjoyable ingredient when served alone on a plate, but, when added to the right dish, it can transform a meal.

It’s with all of that in mind that Strauss regales us with tales of Andre Iguodala ruthlessly hazing Justin Holiday, reminding us that the 2015 Finals MVP is both a fan favorite and an overwhelming asshole; the former in large part due to the latter.

It’s with all of that in mind that we hear of Jerry West’s blunt evaluation of Harrison Barnes’ footwork (“Feet are all fucked up,”); of Stephen Jackson’s calculated facade that earned him big paychecks; of the team’s numerous attempts to trade Steph Curry before he was Steph Curry.

And, of course, it’s with all of that in mind that we read about the central character, Durant. Many will take umbrage with Durant’s jersey gracing the cover of the book rather than Curry’s. Yet if we’re discussing the intricate blueprint and subsequent toppling of one of the sport’s greatest teams, Durant is, without question, the leading actor.

There have been few moves in NBA history as monumental as the two Durant made with the Warriors. One of the league’s all-time greatest players leaving a title contender, to join a 73-win team with the reigning MVP is wholly unprecedented. Leaving that same team, after three straight Finals visits, two championships, and two Finals MVPs, for a far lesser franchise? Even more surprising, even if, by the time it occurred, it was considered fait accompli.

Strauss - who will forever be linked to Durant following the superstar’s viral media session a year ago - doesn’t disappoint with his KD chapter, aptly titled “Kevin and Me.” There’s insight into the often-tense relationship between Durant and coach Steve Kerr; details on what makes the former MVP succeed on and off the court; tales of Durant admonishing other reporters behind the scenes; and stories of Iguodala trying to smooth the water between reporter and star, while Kevon Looney cackles in amusement.

They’re not secrets per se. But they are morsels - many previously untold - that rather significantly color the pictures of Durant, the Warriors organization, and how the NBA operates as a whole.

I like basketball books. I’m a basketball writer, so that shouldn’t be surprising.

But, if I’m being transparent, I often find myself a little disappointed by them. Too often basketball books read less like standalone books, and more like a reporter’s version of the end-of-year portfolio assignments from your freshman year poetry class. Sure, the book is good, but if you’ve already read most of the author’s articles, you’re not left with much to pique your interest.

That’s not the case with The Victory Machine. It’s not a conglomeration of Strauss’ greatest articles, or a repackaging of his most juicy stories. It’s a combination of new information and stories, and flushed out prior reports.

Perhaps most importantly, its pieces fit together such that it’s not a collection of essays so much as a thrilling and holistic depiction of what an NBA franchise really looks like when you strip away what little the camera actually sees.

The Victory Machine: The Making and Unmaking of the Warriors Dynasty, is available on April 14 from PublicAffairs. You can pre-order ($28) here.

Disclaimer: Just as the NBA is a small world, so too is NBA media. I’ve had multiple interactions with Ethan, both online and in person, and am a fan of his work. I also briefly worked for his current publication.


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