Rich Cohen writes … and writes and writes and writes.
This child of Glencoe is among the most prolific writers on the planet and the wonder of it all is that not only does he provide a steady stream of books, they are very good books.
There have been 16 so far, beginning with “Tough Jews” in 1998. Some have been based on his own interesting life, one about one of his sons in 2021′s “Pee Wees: Confession of a Hockey Parent” and another about his fascinating father, 2022′s “The Adventures of Herbie Cohen: World’s Greatest Negotiator.” He’s written about a pirate and a banana business mogul, and collaborated on the memoir of producer Jerry Weintraub in “When I Stop Talking, You’ll Know I’m Dead,” and written about Chess Records and the Rolling Stones.
All the while he has written for such publications as Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair and the Wall Street Journal, where he is currently a columnist. He and his wife Jessica Medoff live in Connecticut where they are raising their four boys.
In his latest, basketball has center stage. “When the Game Was War: The NBA’s Greatest Season,” is a captivating and enlightening journey. His assertion, “greatest season,” is bold, for there have been many great seasons in the NBA since its formation in 1946 and certainly some will argue with his claim. But read the book and you will come away swayed.
This new book focuses on four teams and four transcendent players: Larry Bird of the Boston Celtics, Magic Johnson of the Los Angeles Lakers, Isiah Thomas of the Detroit Pistons and Michael Jordan of the Chicago Bulls.
There is, as with most of Cohen’s work, a very personal feel, as when he writes, “You wouldn’t think a single basketball game could turn a person into a fanatic, but that’s what happened.”
That game, literally the seed of this book, was Game 6 of the 1988 NBA finals. Cohen was 19 when he watched the Los Angeles Lakers play the Detroit Pistons. He watched Thomas, product of our rough and tumble West Side basketball courts, score 25 points in the third quarter. The Pistons lost that game but, writes Cohen, “that’s the night I fell in love with the NBA.”
Part of the reason, he accurately claims, is that “for a Chicago sports fan in the early 1980s, life was pain.” And then the Super Bowl and then, like some sort of miracle, came Michael Jordan.
As you no doubt know, there are thousands of YouTube clips of the on-court past, not to mention the recent deep dive of Netflix’s 2020 miniseries, “The Last Dance.” Some of that is exciting but those clips and program lack the detail, background, texture and driving narrative that Cohen so artfully provides. He is an intimate observer and polished writer.
The Big Four have a marvelous and talented supporting cast. As few have ever known or realized, the 1987-88 NBA season featured the most future Hall of Famers competing at one time in any given season. There were 29 of them. When Cohen told player-coach-executive Danny Ainge, who was a member of the Celtics in 87-88 season, of that statistic, Ainge said, “I haven’t done the math but it doesn’t surprise me. You could feel it. ... That year was the peak of a kind of basketball you don’t see in the league anymore. The physicality, the toughness.”
Ainge, for so long a player easy to hate, comes off appealingly. That’s true of many of the dozens Cohen interviewed. Most of those names — Bernard King, Charles Oakley, Bill Cartwright, K.C. Jones and many others — will spark faded memories. Cohen, thanks to his father’s fondness for the game and his lifelong friendship with Larry King, gave Cohen first-hand memories of seeing Thomas as a high school player and later the chance to share a meal with King and Boston coach Red Auerbach in 1986, down to the “we ate peeled shrimp and gumbo” detail.
There is something to savor on virtually every page of this book. Particularly compelling is its 30-some final pages, a chapter titled “Post-Game,” in which Cohen writes, “On the desk where I write, I have a brick that was once part of the Chicago Stadium. To me, it’s a remnant as sacred as the stones of the Western Wall. ... It conjures a time when the game was better than it had ever been, or will be. … It might be more than basketball I am remembering. It might be my childhood, when my parents were young and my life was new.”