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: Barefoot Years, by Martin Edmond

Available in bookstores nationwide.

I requested Barefoot Years to review immediately after receiving an email from Bridgetcv_barefoot_years Williams Books about events featuring the author, Martin Edmond. I asked for the book at 12.27pm, and received it as an e-book to read on my iPad at 12.56pm. There is surely a small irony in reading this memoir of simple childhood years on a modern technology so commonly used by children today.

Martin Edmond wants to take you along with him through his barefoot years. He remembers, in this book, his childhood: the homes, the environment. This book intertwines local history with personal, in a wonderful flowing narrative.

“The next place we lived is so replete in recall that I do not quite know where to begin to try to describe it; for me it is the original Memory House and the template for all other places I have subsequently known. Let me take you there.”

He’ll bring you in by reminding you that, “Now – by which I mean then, in the 1950s –”. His detailed and descriptive writing connects directly to your imagination,  using his words to guide you on a journey with him to his Memory House.

Edmond’s early years are filled with wonder and excitement around the house. The garden features as the setting for the first loss of innocence: “The garden is also where my father takes me when he has something of moment to say.” He learns the truth about Father Christmas in said garden (something I believe I learned from a TV show) and describes the feeling – “I am not so much disappointed as elated at my entry into a world of adult complicity in the nourishing of childhood illusion.”

As he remembers the women between the two that really caught his eye, Edmonds poignantly pens, “We are, boys and girls both, in some indefinable but profound manner, united; diverse and probably incompatible, we are nevertheless one.”

Every sentence, every page in this book will remind you of your own childhood, no matter where you grew up yourself. The way Edmond pieces together this time in his life strikes a chord with your own early years. My own first experience with wine completely mimics his – “my first taste of wine … a delicious, fragrant white – though it is in fact a pale-yellow colour – made from, of all things, feijoas.”

Barefoot Years is a fragment of Martin Edmond’s full-length memoir, which is to be published by BWB in 2015. This is to be the full story of his childhood years in the Central Plateau. This book serves as a stunning start to what is sure to be a wonderful account of Edmond’s life.

Reviewed by Kimaya McIntosh

Barefoot Years
by Martin Edmond
Published by Bridget Williams Books
ISBN 9781927277676