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‘Doc,’ ‘Eleven Rings,’ and ‘The Outsider’

Dwight “Doc” Gooden’s memoir opens with a powerful cautionary tale about how he spent the day in fall 1986 when his New York Mets teammates were parading through the city to celebrate winning the World Series. Gooden stayed alone in his apartment, with shades drawn, after a night-long drug and alcohol binge among strangers. He wasn’t answering the phone.

Gooden’s addictions and their consequences during and after his baseball career have been thoroughly documented. He’s been in and out of rehab. He’s been in prison. The story of the recovery he’s currently working to sustain will strike some as unlikely: It began with his inclusion in the TV program “Celebrity Rehab.” One off-camera staff member apparently got through to Gooden as therapists and counselors before had not done. When we spoke about his book, Gooden talked about regularly attending 12-step meetings and the frequent calls he got from his sponsor. He said that during previous periods of recovery, he mistakenly came to believe he no longer had to work at staying sober. Now he understands it’s the work of a lifetime.

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“Doc” does not neglect Gooden’s pitching career, which began so brilliantly that before he’d completed his first season with the Mets as a 19-year-old in 1984, people were assuming he’d be a Hall-of-Famer. But the emphasis here is on how Gooden eventually learned to understand himself not as a star, or even as a former star, but as a man who needed to concentrate each day on wrenching himself and his life away from the addictions that had wrecked his early promise and nearly killed him.

The story of what happened to Gooden is not uncommon, but the account he and Ellis Henican have provided of his ongoing struggle is powerful enough to have people who don’t know a fly ball from a fungo bat rooting for his continuing recovery.

Phil Jackson has earned a reputation as an erudite fellow as well as an exceptionally accomplished basketball coach. The teams with which he won NBA championships featured dominant players — Michael Jordan and Scotty Pippen with the Bulls, Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant with the Lakers — but Jackson was a master at combining the stars and role players into teams that succeeded year after year. It is said that nothing in pro sports is more difficult than repeating as champions, and Jackson’s teams did that on a regular basis. In “Eleven Rings,” he writes about various unorthodox methods he used to keep his players focused. He chose books for them to read and required book reports. Sometimes he shut the lights off during practice and made them play in the dark. When he left messages for them, he tended to eschew clichés and opt for sages like Kierkegaard: “To dare is to lose one’s footing momentarily. Not to dare is to lose oneself.” Jackson’s success at winning championships is unprecedented, and he has had few detractors, although he remembers that after he’d guided the Lakers to a championship in 1999-2000, his initial year in charge, team owner Jerry Buss asked, “Why did you have to win in the first year and make it seem so easy? It’s making the rest of us look stupid for not doing it before.”

“The Outsider” is pretty much the book you’d expect a self-centered, boisterous, ill-mannered jerk to write. Jimmy Connors was an accomplished tennis player who never lacked for tenacity. He lasted a good deal longer than most players do, and he is proud of having given tennis fans their money’s worth.

If some loved his foul-mouthed outbursts and when he gave officials the finger or grabbed his crotch, others probably wished he’d just play tennis, just as some will wish he’d relied less on four-letter words in his memoir. As Connors says of a particular circumstance early in “The Outsider,” “things aren’t working out for me, so to get myself through it I have to be twice as arrogant.” It’s a posture for which he never apologizes, and sometimes the results would be embarrassing if he were capable of being embarrassed. Perhaps the most dramatic instances come when he takes potshots at Arthur Ashe, who captained the Davis Cup team for which Connors sometimes played. Ashe was not only a great tennis player, he worked to battle apartheid and otherwise further the cause of human rights. Evidently Connors is too preoccupied with his own grievances to see that when he criticizes Ashe he comes off as a pip-squeak yapping around the ankles of a giant.

More information:

Eleven Rings:The Soul of Success

By Phil Jackson

and Hugh Delehanty

Penguin, 368 pp., illustrated, $27.95

The Outsider: A Memoir

By Jimmy Connors

Harper, 416 pp., illustrated, $28.99

From WBUR, Bill Littlefield hosts NPR’s “Only A Game.” He teaches creative writing at Curry College. He can be reached at blittlef@wbur.bu.edu.
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