Book Review: Open Looks: My Life in Basketball, by John Saker

Available in bookstores nationwide.

cv_open_looksJohn Saker will be familiar to booksellers and readers for his wine writing. However, he first made his name playing basketball. In Open Looks: My Life in Basketball, he expertly condenses a lifetime playing and following the game into a compact yet passionate ode to a sport that has often struggled to wrest the spotlight away from rugby in this country.

The balance of power may well be shifting. The NZ Breakers consistently find success in the Australian league, Steven Adams threatens to become NZ’s highest ever paid sportsman in the NBA and more basketball jerseys can be spotted on the streets than rugby ones. Basketball is no longer this nation’s “palace fringe dweller” to rugby’s “sun king”, as Saker compares the two during his playing days.

The timing then, is perfect for this book. Both Saker and Awa Press deserve praise for recognising and addressing the lack of quality basketball writing on NZ bookshelves. Rather than opting for a conventional sporting autobiography, they utilise Saker’s gift with language to craft a collection that acts as both a series of short vignettes about the game and a chronological memoir.

Saker tells of gravitating furtively away from rugby, and his early, awkward courtship of basketball’s famed hooked shot. He pauses to appreciate the game’s lexicon, of “teardrops”, “daggers”, “swishes” and “gymrats”. Metaphor, he puts it, “bursts from the game like fruit from a tree”. As well as the joy he finds in its language, there is a zen-like serenity he finds in practising and playing that helps him overcome personal tragedy and find inner peace. These are the most moving passages of the book.

There are some amusing anecdotes as Saker moves through his playing days. Shadowy, lo-fi national trials in the ‘70s; fish out of water antics in college-scholarship Montana; chasing paychecks with slumming-it black American professionals in Europe – throughout it all, Saker emerges as a wide-eyed Kiwi boy who can’t quite believe his place in a game about to explode in global popularity.

What is missing then is a sense of the era of this explosion. Saker played throughout the 1980’s, as the likes of Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan became household names. The excitement they generated saw the game’s appeal take off in our own national league. Yet we really only get treated to a brief encounter with the “Dream Team” at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.

We get a blow-by-blow account of his first tournament in national colours, yet almost nothing of the dozen or so years he then spent playing for New Zealand. There’s an interesting piece on Steven Adams, but what about the Saints dynasties of both the 1980’s and recent years? And what are his thoughts on the Breakers’ incredible success? Hopefully, more pieces will follow in the near future.

For now, Saker obviously recognises the value of quality over quantity. This is fine writing, enjoyable as both an introduction to the game (a-la Awa’s How to Watch essay series), and for those already entranced by its striking lexicon and eye-opening athleticism.

The book’s pint-sized format perhaps lends itself best as a great gift for the literate basketball lover. As a sample of Saker’s basketball writing talent: like a good wine, more please!

Reviewed by Gary Forster

Open Looks: My Life in Basketball
by John Saker
Published by Awa Press
ISBN 9781927249185

John Saker was interviewed on 16 March on Nine to Noon.

Book review: Vinacular: A Wine Lover’s A-Z by Scott Kennedy and John Saker

cv_vinacularThis book is in bookstores now.

With books that are a combined effort between a writer and an artist, it seems to be the norm that on the cover the writer’s name goes first. But in this little gem, the artist’s name is the first on the cover. Is it because K comes before S? Or is it because the illustrations, that are so perfect in every way, stand out more than the writing?

I like to think this could be the case, as the illustrations really are quite lovely – gorgeous quirky little drawings, bold but not overpowering use of colour, that capture so succinctly equally well worded snippets of wine trivia that Mr Saker has so neatly defined for us. Together the two make this a very nicely produced little book that is a pleasure to pick up, open, randomly read, chuckle, put down and very quickly pick up again.

I wonder how much wine passed Mr Saker’s lips while he was researching and formulating his definitions? Some really are quite funny – “Entry Level Wines – Entry level wines are like ground-floor apartments. It’s where you start out, pay less, get no kind of a view and wonder how good it must be up there in the penthouse. (Or how hideous down in the basement.)”Or Quaffer – “Quaff a quaffer to quickly quench, but factor in the quality quotient, for down so easy can go quite queasy. ‘He made me a quaffer I should have refused!’ “ And so it goes on for the other 24 letters of the alphabet.

I know Christmas has been and gone, and this book was in the shops then. But it really is the most perfect little gift book, and you don’t have to be a wine expert to enjoy the match between words and pictures. I bet Mr Kennedy and Mr Saker had way more fun putting this together than we could ever have reading and re-reading it, but that joy and passion for what they do comes flying off the pages for us to enjoy. With a glass of wine and a companion to laugh with. And you couldn’t possibly get the same enjoyment from reading this on an E-Reader. After all where would all the red wine drips and drops, evidence of a good time, go?

Reviewed by Felicty Murray who blogs as Kiwi Flora Reads

Vinacular: A Wine Lover’s A-Z
by Scott Kennedy and John Saker
Published by Awa Press
ISBN  9781877551611