2020, Basketball, Non-Fiction, Sports

The Victory Machine (2020) by Ethan Sherwood Strauss

This is a portrait of the Warriors that is both fascinating and maddening. I am not super familiar with Strauss beyond his podcast guest appearances on the Lowe Post and maybe the odd article I’ve stumbled across but I don’t know how much I’ll be seeking out his writing after this.

So, the good news: there is all sorts of detail to this book, much of which I didn’t know, including a fairly nuanced portrait of one of the owners, and detailed (but not necessarily nuanced) portraits of Kevin Durant and Bob Myers. (The former is an asshole in Strauss’s eyes, the latter is just a great person.) The are angles here that I must admit I’ve never thought of and Strauss opens my eyes a little bit to things like sneaker payments. And, I should point out that, on occasion, Strauss writes beautifully. He’s hardly consistent in this regard but occasionally there are sentences in this book that rival the book it has been compared to, The Breaks of the Game. (That is an utterly bizarre comparison in my mind, but anyway…)

But, for me, there are a number of flaws that are really hard to overlook.

First, there is Strauss’ writing, which veers from eloquent to awkward, sometimes in the same paragraph. Sometimes he writes really well and sometimes he uses cliches and there’s no rhyme or reason as far as I can figure. Also, the chapters are organized very loosely and Strauss just jumps around within them.

There is no real chronology – if you are not a fan of the NBA and you didn’t pay attention to the Warriors’ dynasty, this book is not for you. I get that he wrote it for a certain type of person, but there is no context for someone who didn’t watch at the time. I can’t recommend this to anyone who doesn’t actually watch basketball religiously – unlike, say, The Breaks of the Game – because Strauss barely explains what’s happening. There is an assumption that you know how everything unfolded already. Yes, we can all look it up online but shouldn’t a book be a little more self-contained?

Strauss is extremely cynical. To the point at which it puts off a cynic like me. He is also very inconsistent in his cynicism. Despite his age, he really does seem to think things were better when he was younger. You’re not old yet, dude. You don’t have to have takes like this yet! The worst example is how it’s crass and commercial (and all about the sneakers and the brand) for Durant to go to the Warriors and for LeBron and AD to go to the Lakers but LeBron, Bosh and Wade on the Heat was altruistic. (That’s a weird one.) Sometimes I wonder if he’s looked at his writing and tried to think about how consistent he is (or isn’t, in this case). Because his takes are hot and they are definitely inconsistent.

It’s clear he began his at the beginning of the Warriors success and seems to have no idea what it’s like to cover (and be on) a bad team. The beat writers I follow for my hometown team cannot stop comparing the bad days to the current (soon to end) salad days. Strauss appears to have no idea what that’s like as he writes ridiculous things like “yet another home loss” about the fucking 2015-2019 Golden State Warriors. Like, dude, what are you talking about? Go cover the Kings for a decade and then write your book about how hard it is to win.

And then there’s the Durant stuff. First of all, he definitely gives a detailed, in-depth portrait of the man. But it is very personal and very much framed through both Durant’s dislike of Strauss and Strauss’ dislike (and relative lack of empathy for) Durant. At times, it feels really insightful. At other times it almost feels willfully ignorant or mean-spirited. I can’t help but side with players who tire of the same questions over and over again and tire of media speculation about what’s in their heads. Wouldn’t you?

There’s some good stuff here. But to get to it, you have to wade through a lot self-satisfied personal “insight” about a team that was extraordinarily successful, not that you’d know it from this book. I spent the entire book swinging from being rapt to wanting to take it back to the library unfinished. Take that for what it’s worth.

5/10 or maybe 6/10

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