Thursday, April 7, 2011

Book review: Slick Watts' Seattle SuperSonic Stories, by Slick Watts and Frank Hughes

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Having just moved to Seattle, being somewhat of an NBA history-phile and having just joined the public library, I was intrigued to come across Slick Watts' Seattle SuperSonic Stories. The work is a collection of anecdotes by Slick Watts, who during the seventies was the most popular athlete in the state of Washington. They even made him Grand Marshal of of the Sea King. Twice. Not sure what that means, but he's pretty chuffed about it. It's a short, ninety-minute long read about Bad Old Times of the NBA - the 1970s - where public perception of the league was that it was populated by overpaid, oversexed and overcoked players.

Perhaps the best thing about Watts' story is that it isn't overdone in any way, an admirable trait considering sporting autobiographies are invariably either overplay the grittiness or are too self-congratulatory. In this work - one of a series of Player X's Team Y Stories - he includes several references to his on-court play, yet just as much to team dynamics, his relationship with his coaches and how he became so iconic.

The first player ever to rock the baldie and headband, the writing style matches the way Watts' played - a series of short anecdotes, herky-jerky and with really only the bare facts laid out on paper. He doesn't delve too deep into any one particular issue or relive too many moments on court, just seems to shell out featherweight anecdotes like he's finding shooters in the corners; like Slick's play it's inconsistent and has several holes and lacks depth of context. This is an autobiography, so tunnel vision is forgiveable, but not when it leaves the reader asking if there's a bigger picture that we're not seeing.

He devotes an entire chapter to his first NBA coach, Bill Russell. He's honest about the Celtic great, suggesting him a poor coach with an alpha-dog mentality. This attitude meant he was unable to cope with popular players, often benching them simply for being popular enough to overshadow the great Russell. His words "I had a love/hate relationship with Russ. Most players had a hate/hate relationship with him" are particularly telling and fits in with what I've read previously about Russ: confirming once and for all his place as sport's greatest ever a***hole (and that's against some pretty stiff competition - I've met Dean Jones).

Describing his time in Seattle and with Russell - who coached Watts for four seasons - takes up a fair amount of his meagre word count. During his tenure with the organisation, he played with ABA expats Jim McDaniels, John Brisker and Spencer Haywood as well as some Seattle greats like "Downtown" Freddie Brown and Jack Sikma. Unfortunately you get very little detail about any of these guys, few character pieces and are left only with the feeling that some probably should have had to work in order to stick as Watts did rather than being guaranteed their money.

What's more interesting is his description of how and why he became such a marketing boon to the organisation Simply, Slick Watts is a friendly, outgoing guy who reflects well on first, second and forty-fifth meetings. He doesn't come out and say so in the book, but it's easy to infer that he just likes people and enjoys being around others. The average NBA player in the 1970s had to make three personal appearances per year. In 1977, Slick Watts made over three hundred and was simply unable to say no to anyone who asked him for help - it was an attitude like that which earned him Two Sea King Grand Marshal gongs.

After Russell was replaced by Bob Hopkins and then Lenny Wilkens, the book takes a sharp turn as Wilkens decided that Watts didn't fit his mould, subsequently trading him to New Orleans. Watts details Wilkens saying "There isn't room in town for the both of us", supporting his argument that Wilkens has never been a good coach of "stars". Unfortunately here's where poetic licence comes in - Watts was a good player, but never even approached great with major fundamental flaws like defense and shooting - and while it's true Wilkens got the best out of rosters without superduperstar talent and history says that after the trade in 1977-78, the Sonics went to the NBA Finals and won the Championship the following year.

You can tell even though he's honest, happy and forthright, he still hasn't fully come to terms with being traded to basketball purgatory from a city he practically owned. Bitter isn't the right word at all - he's still the happy, go-lucky Slick - but the reader's left thinking that perhaps it just was the right mix of player, team, city and personality which would be impossible to recreate anywhere else. Given Watts has moved back to Seattle and teaches physical education to primary school kids, the affinity he has for the city is obvious and pleasing to read. After his Seattle departure the book falls away as quickly as Slick's NBA career did. He was King of Seattle in 1977; out of the league by 1980.

Entertaining, especially for basketball history buffs, but ultimately Slick Watts' Seattle SuperSonic Stories is a lightweight piece suited for an easy Sunday afternoon's reading. As usual, the best tales are about ABA expats (in this case Jim McDaniels and John Brisker). The final, definitive lesson to take from Slick's first entry into authordom: Bill Russell was, and probably always will be, a tool of the first water.

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