Floyd Patterson was a champion truant, a youthful burglar, a juvenile delinquent’s juvenile delinquent.
Nothing particularly distinguished about that -- nothing, that is, until he discovered “he was a natural when it came to smashing his fist into another kid’s face,’’ as W.K. Stratton puts it in his deft new biography, “Floyd Patterson: The Fighting Life of Boxing’s Invisible Champion.”
So boxing became Patterson’s avocation and vocation. He trained hard, fought hard, gained confidence, gained riches. As a young fighter he aimed for the Olympics -- and won a gold medal in 1952. He made good, and made history.
For much of his life, he seemed charmed. His path intersected with Eleanor Roosevelt, Billy Eckstine and John F. Kennedy. He defeated Archie Moore to become the heavyweight champion of the world, the youngest ever. Champions are meant to be toppled, however, and Patterson was.
Kennedy urged Patterson not to fight Sonny Liston, nobody’s idea of a solid citizen, and Liston beat him solidly. His match with Muhammad Ali was freighted with religious and political overtones, and Ali came out the clear winner on all counts.
As the cheers receded into the past, so too did the claims that Patterson was an Uncle Tom, a tool of the white establishment. At a time when Ali’s reputation still shines, and Liston’s fearsomeness still resonates, Stratton’s biography re-establishes Patterson as one of the greats of his time, an invisible champion no longer.
Speaking of legends and legacies, let’s turn to the 1992 U.S. men’s Olympic basketball team. The names still shimmer in memory: Charles Barkley. Larry Bird. Patrick Ewing. Magic Johnson. Michael Jordan. Scottie Pippen. David Robinson.
Jack McCallum was there, as a Sports Illustrated writer. He was credited, perhaps too grandly, with first describing this squad as the “Dream Team,” which inevitably is the title of his chatty and amusing new book looking back on these men and the magic and myths they spun on the court.
In returning to what he calls a team “forged amid conflicts athletic and bureaucratic and touched by tragedy and controversy when it returned home,’’ McCallum has produced an insider’s account of a remarkable group of athletes and -- often forgotten -- an equally remarkable group of coaches under Chuck Daly (P.J. Carlesimo, Mike Krzyzewski and Lenny Wilkens).
But the highlight of this volume is the account of what McCallum calls “the greatest game that nobody ever saw,” the intra-squad game that pitted Johnson’s “blue team’’ against Jordan’s “white team,’’ which in the end prevailed in a meaningless game that nonetheless seemed to mean everything.
“It was not about the hoops,’’ McCallum writes. “It was about the passion that those guys put into the game, the importance they placed on winning and personal pride.’’
Pride is also at the heart of what may be the sweetest sports book of the summer, James Sullivan’s lyrical “Island Cup: Two Teams, Twelve Miles of Ocean and Fifty Years of Football Rivalry.’’
Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket have everything and nothing in common. They both sit off the Massachusetts coast, in summer offering refuge for the rich, colonies for artists and the setting for fabulous restaurants. But their histories, cultures and outlooks are different. Off season, they share one important element -- a gridiron rivalry like no other.
For years this rivalry lit up the late fall on these islands and then -- because of high travel costs and the movement of one team (the Vineyard) to higher glory and the other (Nantucket) to pigskin peril -- it all stopped, the match-up coming to an end.
But both islands, and both teams, felt its absence deeply, and now the game is back on again, resuming with a classic struggle where the scoreboard almost didn’t matter.
“Floyd Patterson” is published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (269 pages, $25). “Dream Team” is published by Ballantine (352 pages, $28). “Island Cup” is published by Bloomsbury (292 pages, $24). To buy these books in North America, click here.
(David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The opinions expressed are his own.)
Muse highlights include Ryan Sutton on dining and Jeremy Gerard on theater.