The best books are those that take you into a world you could never have experienced any other way. They give you glimpses and insights into places that were previously secretive and hidden. Lots of NBA players have published books. It stands to reason that they would once that sweet, sweet NBA moolah stops flowing. Some have egos that need to be stroked constantly and cannot exist without a spotlight shining on them. the need to become a New York Times bestseller is surely not always motivated by financial necessity.
Whatever their motivations, if the best players want to spill their thoughts onto a page then we’re going to read them.
If we are to truly understand the impact that today’s megastar players have on the game that we love, it’s important to first look back at sports pioneers from the early days of the BAA/NBA.
Those who did the business when the world was a much tougher place in which to do so. Players who faced obstacles that so many of us are lucky never to have had to deal with. Players who faced bigotry and racism, not just from despicable, vapid opposing fans, but from a broken society in general.
Let’s not forget that the day when the first black basketball players were even allowed to play on the main stage is still within many of our lifetimes.
A SOBERING THOUGHT
Men like Charles Henry Cooper, Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton, and Earl Lloyd. These guys became the first African-American players in the National Basketball Association (NBA) in 1950.
They and others like them are discussed in a book we can all recommend:
THEY CLEARED THE LANE: THE NBA’S BLACK PIONEERSRon Thomas
In the modern-day NBA, black players make up over 80% of the total rosters. They are the heart and soul of professional basketball. This was, of course, not always the case. Basketball did not escape the legitimized, state-sponsored blight of racism and inequality.
In this superb book, Ron Thomas tells the largely untold story of what basketball was really like for the first black basketball players. There are anecdotes and historical details galore to be found here.
Thomas also dives into the lives of the league’s first black coaches and offers up fascinating in-depth interviews with players, their families, coaches, teammates, and league officials.
Some books deserve to be read by people from all walks of life and not just those interested in a particular subject.
Sure, They cleared the lane is ostensibly about basketball.
But really it’s about so much more
Some of the stories are heart-wrenching and distressing, All are fascinating and culturally important. They show us how much we have to thank those pioneering athletes and their families for…
But that’s not the main focus of this article. Here we have gathered together some of our favourite NBA biographies, auto-biographies, and other interesting books on the subject.
As always, there was virtually no consensus as to the best ones here in The Jump Hub office, so they are listed in no particular order. Suffice it to say that, for any student of the glorious game we love, all have something to offer. From the salacious madness of Dennis Rodman’s book to the ‘how to do it’ detailed approach of Kobe Bryant. All styles and personalities are represented here, so let’s dive in.
BOOKS BY NBA PLAYERS
Here are some of the most revealing, entertaining books we have come across that were written by NBA players (albeit with the help of some of the best sportswriters and journalists in the business).
Any basketball fan should get something from each one of them. All together they help to give us a better understanding of the game that we love and its iconic, groundbreaking athletes.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Raymond Obstfeld
Beyond being one of the greatest players to ever step foot in a gym, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is a civil rights leader and passionate advocate. Plus, he’s a fantastic writer. Written in a style meant for young readers, this 2017 memoir is a quick read for people of any age to learn about his amazing life and how he became such an exemplary man and athlete.
Becoming Kareem is an autobiography primarily aimed at younger readers. NBA Hall-of-Famer and leading NBA points scorer of all time guides us along his journey. From Lew Alcindor, a straight-A student in the housing projects of New York City to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Global superstar.
Starting as a shy, awkward teenager and transforming into a socially conscious warrior for equality and black rights. KAJ became a truly international celebrity and voice for change. In 1971, as the most iconic black man in sports, Cassius Clay had done in 1964 when he became Muhammad Ali, Alcindor converted to Islam in an America that seethed and roiled with racial tumult. The pair were to meet early in Jacindor’s career and he recounts that story fondly here. Even Bruce Lee helps him along the way!
This autobiography is as inspirational and riveting for adults as it is important for youngsters of all creeds and colors to read. Abdul-Jabbar eloquently and, at times, highly poignantly, describes his experiences, intellectual awakening and development. Both personal and professional.
THE PAINFUL ACCOUNTS OF PREJUDICE AND BETRAYAL
are, sadly, as relevant today as they were then. From tales of white friends turning against him to the coach who thought that the “N” word would be a great motivational tool. The young man grew stronger and more determined as he faced one adversity after another.
This is another story that transcends sports. It is a snapshot of a time that America seemed to have left behind. A sometimes damning indictment of a society that so openly discriminated against individuals based on nothing more than the colour of their skin.
His thoughts and insights into an exciting, frightening time for black Americans highlight the fear caused by racism and police brutality. Even for a millionaire superstar like himself. This is the kind of book that some neanderthal types would try to prevent your children from reading. Whitewash these awkward truths out of existence often enough and the narrative can be painted any way you like. As far as we’re concerned, this book should be on every school reading list in the country. Not just as a reminder of how horrible people can be to each other but as an example of how to use your talent and brain to rise above it and succeed. Truly inspirational. A must-read.
WHEN THE GAME WAS OURS
Larry Bird, Earvin “Magic” Johnson, & Jackie MacMullan
Icons like Magic Johnson and Larry Bird inspired a huge boom in the popularity of the NBA. They also represented a shift in attitudes. The players became the focus of fandom and adoration, not just the franchises themselves. The game would look very different to how it is today and modern NBA stars would never have been able to reach the incredible heights of wealth and fame without those players from past eras who paved the way.
One of the greatest rivalries in NBA history, between Larry Bird and Magic Johnson in the late 1970s and into the 1980s has oft been spoken about and lauded as one of the most important ever.
This is undeniably true and the direction and energy of the league were forever altered by the pair. It is hard to say whether the NBA would have the power and popularity that it does today were it not for Bird and Johnson.
Who better to hear all about it from than the players themselves? When the game was ours is a fascinating insight into a different time when the NBA was a struggling entity and not the unstoppable juggernaut we see today. Many people credit them for the NBA’s current popularity. While it is hard to say where the NBA would find itself without these characters, they certainly played a pivotal role. This is a superb book if you want to see how the rivalry went down in their own words and those of Boston journalist Jackie MacMullin.
The New York Times called Scottie Pippen’s autobiography an “unflinching master-class” It is hard to disagree. In Unguarded, The NBA Hall of Famer reveals how, as the youngest of twelve children, he endured two tragedies in his family.
The family were poor and struggled to get by in the small town of Hamburg, Arkansas. He also fought against the almost total indifference of college scouts to his talents. As a skinny teen, Pippen was overlooked by every major college basketball program and almost fell out of the sports altogether. This doesn’t speak well for their abilities to spot a diamond in the rough. Scottie Pippen went on to become a keystone of the greatest basketball dynasty that the NBA has witnessed in over 2 generations.
It is not an exaggeration to say that the Chicago Bulls would never have won an NBA Championship in the 90s without Scottie Pippen. Michael Jordan has said as much himself and has consistently named Pippen as a crucial element in his own success and development.
Unguarded is a fascinating look at the mental gymnastics Scottie had to perform to push his ego aside for the betterment of the team.
Constantly referred to as Michael Jordan’s ‘sidekick’, Pippen reveals how that felt.
Let’s just say – he cringed…
Especially when he was receiving a fraction of Jordan’s financial compensation. Nevertheless, his competitive, measured temperament prevailed and Scottie Pippen is now revered as one of the greatest players in NBA history. His contribution to the most dominant franchise the sport had seen since the Boston Celtics of the 50s and 60s cannot really be overstated.
If you have even a passing interest in how Pippen feels about his career, Michael Jordan, Dennis Rodman, and Phil Jackson (the Chicago Bulls’ head coach through those golden years) then this book is an essential read for you.
The 6-time NBA, twice Olympic champion reveals some unheard stories about some of the most famous games in NBA history. Overall this is a highly articulate account of a truly incredible life and one that any self-respecting basketball fan would do well to pick up and read.
11 rings: The soul of success
Speaking of that incredible Chicago Bulls team (we were – weren’t you paying attention?) we turn to the coach who led them through it all – Phil Jackson.
Phil Jackson won more titles than any coach in professional sports history during his career as head coach of the Chicago Bulls and the Los Angeles Lakers.
Jackson was nicknamed “Zen master” by the press. This may have been done partly in jest but is actually very astute. Jackson never strayed from the path he had chosen in his coaching. His goal was to inspire his athletes into giving their best efforts on the basketball court, not to cajole or intimidate them.
The nickname probably stems from the fact that Jackson explored psychology, Native American philosophy, and even Zen meditation in his quest to become a better leader. He developed a new approach based on giving his players autonomy and freedom. Through his own authenticity and selflessness, he appealed to their good natures and did not pander to their egos or promote greed. This could not have been more successful and the players responded accordingly. To say he did a fantastic job is not even coming close to it. Jackson persuaded a set of strong-willed individuals to devote themselves to something bigger than themselves.
It is not an exaggeration to say that this was a ground-breaking approach before the advent of sports psychology as an accepted part of the training regime of any professional sports team.
Jackson played for the Bulls himself in the 70s and says he learned a great deal about team chemistry through those experiences. He also happened to have arguably the greatest player in the world in his team. He talks candidly about his relationship with Michael Jordan and how he managed to keep everyone’s feet on the ground.
WHEN THEY WEREN’T PERFORMING FLYING SLAM DUNKS…
All in all 11 rings is a compelling read. It is unlike any other book on this list in its content. But the Chicago Bulls were unlike any team the world had ever seen, so perhaps that is to be expected. If you look up the phrase ‘successful career’ then there should be a photograph of Jackson. Anyone who can get Dennis Rodman to behave himself even for an hour must be some kind of miracle worker from what we can tell.
The Mamba mentality – how I play
Following his retirement from professional basketball in 2016, Kobe “The Black Mamba” Bryant released his autobiography. The book is a truly ‘deep dive’ into his incredible mentality when it came to the discipline and focus required to spend 20 years with the same team at the very top of your game.
Bryant said that he felt an obligation to share his methods and self-imposed rules and ethics with young players. Hence, The Mamba mentality is chock full of details on how to play basketball “…the right way”
His analysis of the game is very readable and accessible. His attention to detail and work ethic is something that any aspiring player would do well to emulate and Bryant’s passion for the NBA is apparent right throughout.
He gives us an inside look at some of his most famous/infamous plays and matches. All of this is accompanied by some spectacular photographs. As a first foray into writing after a sporting career, this was a stellar effort from one of the most famous players on the planet. Little did anybody know that he would not live long enough to write many more. This book stands as a testament to Kobe Bryant’s professionalism and desire to succeed. Any young player that has not read it should do so immediately.
WHERE TOMORROWS AREN’T PROMISED:
A MEMOIR OF SURVIVAL AND HOPE
Carmelo Anthony & D. Watkins
Carmelo Anthony offers up an inspirational if challenging book about growing up in the housing projects of Red Hook and Baltimore. The dangers are real and are everywhere. The projects of his childhood are immortalised as the “Murder Homes” of HBO’s popular series – The Wire.
Anybody who could use their intelligence and talents to escape a world like that is to be applauded. Nobody could have dreamed that Carmelo Anthony would go on to become one of the most famous, highly-paid NBA stars in history.
This was not easy to achieve. Anthony lost close family members along the way and only survived a world of violence, prejudice, and poverty through a combination of luck, hard work, and sheer determination.
Carmelo’s story is a harrowing one at times but one that speaks to the importance of perseverance and refusing to be beaten down. Read it and weep.
THEY BETTER CALL ME SUGAR:
MY JOURNEY FROM THE HOOD TO THE HARDWOOD
Sugar Rodgers is the athlete who was drafted to the WNBA by the Minnesota Lynx in 2013. The year that they won the WNBA Championship.
In this, occasionally alarmingly, candid re-telling, Sugar spares no detail and gives us a constantly fascinating and engaging experience. Written without a co-writer, we know that everything here is exactly what Rodgers wants to tell us.
WE LAPPED IT UP GREEDILY
Sugar Rodgers says that she wrote the autobiography for a younger version of herself. Although it makes for uncomfortable reading at times in terms of its emotional impact on the reader, it could not fail to inspire any youngster to always follow their dreams. Rodgers uses the toughest moments of her life to powerfully affect those who read about them.
From a background of serious poverty in Suffolk, Virginia, Sugar had to do things the hard way. Her mother passed away when she was just 14 years old and she effecitvely became homeless. Her siblings went in and out of prison. She witnessed shootings and violence but refused to give up. Athletics played an essential role in her development and she eventually became so good at 3-pointers that she could hustle the local hoods out of money. She became the first person from her family to attend college and was drafted from there.
Sugar’s honesty is something to behold and we ride the emotional rollercoaster with her in this remarkable book. As far as we’re concerned, this is another book that should be on every school reading list. This story stands as a record of American culture and history. It is not glamorous. It is not pleasant. But it is a masterpiece of inspirational sentiment and a never-say-die spirit. Read this and then try to feel sorry for yourself.
WE DARE YOU
(Courtesy of Special Collections, University of Houston Libraries. UH
A VIEW FROM ABOVE
Wilt Chamberlain’s autobiography gives us a look through the keyhole of one of the most famous, important players in NBA history. But it is, perhaps, his extravagances and proclivities off the court that people come here to discover.
Chamberlain’s hedonistic lifestyle might be what drew many readers to his autobiography and it does not disappoint. There are stories here to make an exotic dancer blush so proceed with caution if you are of a nervous disposition.
WEST BY WEST:
MY CHARMED, TORMENTED LIFE
Jerry West & Jonathan Coleman
Jerry West is a key player in the history of the NBA and, for better or worse, was even chosen as the template for the NBA logo itself.
Check out our article – ‘Who is the NBA logo?’ for a fascinating look into the back story from an outside perspective.
West is still regarded as one of the best point guards to ever play basketball. But it was his bad luck to come up against Bill Russell and his Boston Celtics. They were an unstoppable force at that time and nobody was able to halt their progress. But Jerry West gave it as good a go as anybody.
DR. J: THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY
Julius Erving & Karl Taro Greenfeld
Julius Erving remains one of the most influential, exciting players ever to have dribbled a basketball to this day. His dunks were the stuff of legend and he would set arenas on fire with his athleticism and prowess.
Here, we get to learn more about Dr. J’s less straightforward personal life and meet the man behind the myth.
THE WINNER WITHIN:
A LIFE PLAN FOR TEAM PLAYERS
Pat Riley is one of the most well-known names in all of NBA history. He was famed for his days coaching the Los Angeles Lakers of the 1980s but here we are reminded that he was also a revered player in his younger days.
Riley’s success throughout his career in the NBA is pretty hard to match and he just seemed to succeed at every step of the way. This book is Riley’s blueprint for how to make a career in the NBA and only a fool or a braggart would think he had nothing to teach them. Check it out.
OTHER INTERESTING BASKETBALL BOOKS
Merl Code played point guard for Clemson before becoming a professional basketball player. He knew all about the ins and outs of college basketball and used this knowledge to forge a career in marketing. He would build relationships with young players he felt might represent his employers and wear their products. As a result of this profit-driven business model, he found himself dwelling in the dark, morally ambiguous areas of sport. The NCAA has a very strict set of rules regarding college athletes. They are not allowed to receive any compensation unless they turn professional when they leave college. This smacks of pure exploitation to many (see South Park’s amazing episode – Crack Baby Athletic Association) and Code was no exception.
In this book, Code tells his side of the unpleasant story. He does so from a position of having fingers in every pie. His network of contacts is nothing short of remarkable. There is nobody he doesn’t have an ‘in’ with one way or another and it makes for fascinating, shocking reading.
This has everything. Surreptitious payments and back-handers. Corruption and racism. Secret deals and bribery scandals.
This is an incendiary read to anyone who thinks that college students are not allowed to profit from basketball to protect their integrity and keep their focus on the game itself. Black Market is a must-read for anyone with an interest in the way finances and deals work in this sport. Merl Code does actually put forward some solutions to this exploitation and seems to genuinely care about those he feels are being wronged. But, as we all know, those with extraordinary amounts of wealth seem the least inclined to do the right thing and share it if they don’t have to. Prepare to have the blinkers removed from your eyes.
Seeing the world through the eyes of an NBA player can be an enlightening, sometimes uplifting experience. Those stories of rags-to-riches rise to fame. A proud NBA career built from the worst possible situation on the roughest, toughest of streets. They are as inspirational as they are at times a depressing indictment of American society and culture. Basketball biographies are not unique in that right across the sports world but they do, perhaps, show the greatest of disparities between the starting point and the goal, simply due to the colossal financial amounts involved.
We will read anything and everything about basketball so perhaps we’re not the best people to judge if something would have wider appeal. It does seem, however, that some of the books we have discussed here are more than just sporting histories. They show us how people can achieve their dreams even from the lowliest positions if they have talent and determination.
Turn off the tv – put down the phone and go and read some of these remarkable books.