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