Wednesday, 30 August 2017

Advance Book Review: Greater than Ever: New York's Big Comeback by Daniel Doctoroff

Release Date: September 12, 2017
Amazon / Goodreads

In some respects, Greater than Ever: New York's Big Comeback could appear to be the victim of bad timing. This summer the city has struggled with especially frequent subway delays, due in part to unprecedented levels of overcrowding. It should be noted, however, that the increased ridership is largely a result of the tremendous growth the city has enjoyed as it recovered from the September 11th attacks. At the start of the Bloomberg administration in 2002, the future of the city seemed much bleaker and the prospect of subway crowding far unlikelier. New York had lost 43,000 jobs in the wake of the attack, 18,000 small businesses were destroyed or displaced and vacancy rates in lower Manhattan skyrocketed. Fifteen years later, the city has seen tremendous development in lower Manhattan, Brooklyn has enjoyed spectacular growth in both population and purveyors of artisan mayonnaise, and new developments such as the High Line, Barclays Center, Hudson Yards, and Brooklyn Bridge Park have revitalized neighborhoods and driven sizable economic growth. Daniel Doctoroff served as the Deputy Mayor for economic development and rebuilding during the first six years of the Bloomberg administration, and in Greater than Ever he reflects on his tenure in the role and how the city achieved such impressive, subway-clogging growth. It is an enlightening and engaging peek into the messy world of urban politics and one of the better books I've read on the subject.

Doctoroff's book is essentially a memoir of his tenure under Mike Bloomberg and touches upon all of the major projects he worked on. It details efforts such as re-zoning 40% of the city to foster growth in neighborhoods such as Greenpoint and Williamsburg in Brooklyn, building new stadiums for the Mets and Yankees, attracting businesses to locate in the city, and improve the lives of New Yorkers through environmental regulations and pedestrianizing streets. The author was a political neophyte when he initially took on the role, having worked in investment banking and private equity before being tapped by Bloomberg. He quickly learned the importance of schmoozing and vote-trading and developed advanced politician mollification techniques to help manufacture the sausage known as urban policy. Doctoroff was at the front lines of many massive initiatives conducted by the Bloomberg administration and describes the often contentious behind-the-scenes negotiations with state and city politicians to get his ideas off the ground.

The book is not afraid to get into the policy weeds, and Doctoroff spends ample time analyzing the rationale for his redevelopment strategy and the intended effects of his policy interventions. Greater than Ever is intended for the lay reader, however, (basically if you are a regular reader of the "New York" section of The New York Times, liked The Power Broker or The Death and Life of Great American Cities, or have any interest in New York City or urban development in general, you'll really like this book and nothing is going to go over your head from a reading difficulty perspective), and Doctoroff is an amiable and intelligible guide through urban economic development concepts. While he may have a business background rather than an academic one, Doctoroff delves into topics such as tax increment financing and selling air rights with a clarity and lucidity that college students probably wish their professors had.

Greater than Ever also offers an account of life in the Bloomberg administration and some insight into how the mayor ran the city (very much like a business, it turns out). Calculating, analytical, and hyper-rational, Bloomberg comes off very well in the book and is portrayed as someone with the best interest of New Yorkers at heart. He was willing to make the tough call on politically-unsavory measures such as raising property taxes and restricting smoking if it meant that overall quality-of-life would improve for the city. The reader also learns about Bloomberg's management philosophy, which is largely based around finding smart, talented, and passionate people and trusting them to make the right calls, which is how Doctoroff had a brief stint as head of Bloomberg L.P. after stepping down as deputy mayor. Doctoroff acknowledges that Bloomberg had his flaws and wasn't the perfect mayor, and while he clearly admires the man Greater than Ever doesn't ever feel like a hagiography of Bloomberg or the city. Greater than Ever is fair-minded and objective throughout, quick to admit mistakes and Doctoroff and Bloomberg's foibles.

Doctoroff was criticized by some in the press as being too preoccupied with the city's 2012 Olympics bid, and his efforts at wooing the International Olympic Committee receive several chapters in Greater than Ever. While his Olympic role may seem unrelated to his deputy mayorship, he viewed the games as a way to galvanize action and development. The thinking is that every city wants to put their best foot forward while hosting the world and hosting the Olympics both motivates considerable new construction and improvements and creates a hard deadline for their completion. Doctoroff specifically wanted to leverage the games to get a new stadium and convention center built on what would eventually become Hudson Yards. The book covers all the wining-and-dining necessary in an Olympic bid and navigating through all the national governing bodies and greasing and/or fawning over them, as well as the campaign's pitches to the IOC and other bodies and how absurdly stubborn former MLB Commissioner and head of the 1984 Los Angeles games Peter Ueberroth was throughout the process (even Donald Trump comes off better in the book, as while he had a few petty spats with Doctoroff he sent him a nice thank you card (albeit with a typo) when he stepped down and was occasionally cooperative with Doctoroff). I'm not sure such extensive coverage of the selection process and other minutiae really contributed to the book's major topic, but the Olympics were central to some major redevelopment processes and I also am personally interested in all the work that goes into such a bid. Readers less enthusiastic about sports and/or associated selection processes in order to attract sporting events can find solace in the fact that these passages are interwoven throughout the book (because again, the Olympics was intended to serve as a catalyst for development to achieve Doctoroff's development goals) and it's not like Greater than Ever turns into a book about the IOC for 100 consecutive pages or anything.

Ultimately, Greater than Ever does a splendid job at outlining New York's economic comeback that began in the 2000's. Doctoroff worked tirelessly on New York's development and its Olympic bid and his passion for both areas comes through on every page, as well as his deep knowledge on such subjects. His book is an excellent read and benefits greatly from his prominent role in the rebuilding effort as an insider and trusted confidante of Mike Bloomberg. If you are looking for an enlightening and at times even engrossing read about urban policy and development you should pick up Greater than Ever. 

8.0 / 10 

Wednesday, 23 August 2017

Advance Book Review: Betaball by Erik Malinowski

Release Date: October 3, 2017

Betaball: How Silicon Valley and Science Built One of the Greatest Basketball Teams in History is a decent chronicle of the Golden State Warriors' recent run of success, though I was disappointed by its light treatment of the "how" in its subtitle. The reader doesn't gain much insight into how the team utilized cutting-edge analytics and technological platforms to forge its success, with the book instead focusing largely on season-by-season recaps with little additional analysis. At its worst it reads like a digest of game recaps with details the average Warriors fan is likely already familiar with. There are a few compelling passages when author Erik Malinowski covers some of the innovations and strategies leveraged by the Warriors' players and front office, but I can't recommend the book too strongly to the casual NBA fan. Warrior fans should get some enjoyment out of Betaball, though they should be forewarned that there may not be a ton of new material for them. 

The book does start out strongly, outlining the storied history of the Warriors and how former owner Chris Cohan helped drive the team deep into the Western Conference doldrums, at one point going 19 seasons without reaching the playoffs. There are also detailed profiles of major actors in the team's turnaround, such as new owner Joe Lacob, a former Silicon Valley venture capitalist who attempted to apply his business philosophies to running the Warriors. The Warriors have their fair share of quirky and engaging characters, and when Malinowski describes how Lacob built his front office or covers coach Steve Kerr's cosmopolitan childhood Betaball at times feels like Michael Lewis' book chronicling another Bay Area professional sports franchise looking to gain competitive advantages through unorthodox means. Malinowski is the lead writer for the Warriors on Bleacher Report and has been published in Wired and Rolling Stone. He clearly has a lot of passion for his subject and to his credit the book is well-researched and comprehensive. There are brief mentions of how Lacob tried to change the company's culture and emphasize analytics and apply the business principles that served him so well in the VC world to basketball. 

From time to time Malinowski will mention advanced new technologies utilized by the Warriors, though he is frustratingly light on details or analysis. The Warriors were early adopters of player-tracking software such as SportVU, developed proprietary performance metrics, and even tracked player psychographics to help manage cultural fits and personalities. They even gave Kevin Durant virtual reality goggles to simulate the experience of walking out onto the Oracle Arena as a Warrior when they were recruiting him, and while the technology fritzed out during their meeting it seems that it didn't turn off KD from the team. As someone who is fascinated by such technologies, I wish Malinowski spent more time outlining how the Warriors employed such tools. I understand that team officials might be tight-lipped about such matters, but Malinowski could try to reach out to the founders of such platforms and tools to speak in broad terms about how their stuff works (readers interested in learning more about such things should check out Brandon Sneed's Head in the Game, which features many company founders more than happy to tout their products). Many of the "season recap" books can quickly descend into monotony and read like box scores tied together with a tiny bit of prose, and Betaball succumbs to this at times. The Warriors' unorthodox approach to running a team offered Malinowski a compelling angle to enliven the rather staid recap genre and I feel like he could have done more with it. 

The bulk of Betaball is season-by-season reviews of the Warriors' campaigns, beginning with Steph Curry's rookie season in 2009-2010. Malinowski highlights notable games and off-court happenings and draws heavily from primary sources. To my knowledge Malinowski didn't conduct any additional interviews for the book, so what you get is basically a series of game recaps without much additional insight. As someone who likes basketball but is not a Warriors fan, this format grew tiresome as I became bored by Malinowski reciting Curry's shooting performances, describing a few key plays, and noting controversial/incendiary/insightful comments uttered in press conferences. The book covers the 2009-2010 season through the 2015-2016 season (with a brief epilogue covering the Warriors' Finals win in 2017) and there is no real suspense or tension for any reader who paid one iota of attention to general basketball happenings over the last few years. Will the Warriors break the record for best regular season record? Will the Warriors blow their 3-1 Finals lead to the Cavs? Will Kevin Durant come to Oakland? Spoiler Alert: Yes, Yes, Yes. I realize that society's collective memory and attention span seems to get shorter and shorter, but the average reader is probably well aware what went down in the 2016 NBA Finals, and rehashing events without much additional analysis isn't going to be all that engaging. 

While parts of this review can be rightly interpreted as harsh, Beta Ball is a fine entry in the "season recap" genre. My disappointment is a result of Malinowski devoting too many pages to the "what" (the Warriors winning a lot) and not enough to the "how" that helped them turn around the franchise. If you're a fan of the team you will probably enjoy rekindling these largely positive memories, but average fans may be left wanting more. 

5.5 / 10

Sunday, 20 August 2017

Advance Book Review: 4th and Goal Every Day by Phil Savage with Ray Glier


Release Date: August 29, 2017

Dating back to the start of the 2008 season, Alabama has played in exactly three regular season games in which it had been eliminated from national title contention. This is an absolutely mind-boggling factoid and a testament to the outstanding job Nick Saban has done leading the Crimson Tide since he arrived at the team in 2007. Despite ridiculous levels of staff turnover, he has managed to churn out dominant seasons year after year. In 4th and Goal Everyday, former Saban co-worker (the two worked together as assistants under Bill Belichick with the Browns), ex-Browns General Manager (the less said about that the better, to his credit he did draft Joe Thomas), and current Alabama radio analyst and Executive Director of the Senior Bowl Phil Savage investigates the secrets to Saban's success at Alabama.

I approached the book with some trepidation because its presumably publishing house-decided title seemed ridiculously cliched and portended a slew of clunky metaphors and hagiographic prose. And yes, Saban comes off very well (there is a brief section on his less-than-stellar tenure with the Miami Dolphins, but it's not particularly long or thoughtful), but there is some substance between talking about how great and successful he is. Savage is able to leverage his connections with Saban to share stories from their days as NFL assistants and how working under Belichick shaped Saban's coaching philosophies. He is still very close to Saban and even writes up film notes for Saban to help prepare for games, but this isn't a fly-on-the-wall account of a season in the life of Saban. Rather, Savage relies mostly on anecdotes and interviews with former players and coaches to help the reader understand how Saban operates. Thankfully, he is able to get a wide array of former Tide players to open up about their experiences and his stories from the Browns also help the reader learn about what shaped Saban during his formative coaching years.

So what makes Saban so great? Savage offers several reasons, dividing his book into the various contributors to the Tide's dynastic run over the last few years. Some factors include emphasizing fundamentals, a tremendous emphasis on recruiting (which has to be helped by the Tide's status as a SEC juggernaut, it's much easier to get talented players when you're located in a high school football hotbed and are consistently the best college team in the country), and constant desire for improvement and innovation and adapting to and setting trends. He is also excellent at developing talent, to the point where some NFL scouts ding Alabama prospects because they assume that Saban has milked all he can out of them and they have basically hit their skill ceilings.

The reader gains considerable insight into Saban's quirks and personality. He is obsessed with little details and perfectionist puts a lot of pressure on himself and his players and fellow coaches, with this high-stakes ethos serving as the source for the (rather cheesy, to be honest) title of this book. Anecdotes such as how Bill Belichick forced Savage to run tryouts for Browns ball boys illustrate the "no detail is too small" philosophy that Saban adheres to at Bama. Savage also details several coaching innovations over the last several decades that Saban is leveraging, such as the Cowboys' data-driven approach to drafting players that began in the early days of the franchise.

Overall, 4th and Goal Everyday is a pleasant read for Alabama fans and anyone interested in how dominant college football programs operate. Savage devotes plenty of time to X's and O's such as why Saban stopped recruiting traditional Nose Tackles and how he coaches defensive backs but also how he fosters a culture of winning and more off-the-field matters. It definitely seems geared towards Alabama supporters, and even die-hard fans may get a bit bored by Savage monotonously detailing recent major Alabama games, but all in all it's a decent read. You're not going to get a deep psychoanalytical investigation into Saban (I doubt he's the kind of person to really open up all that much about anything anyway) but you will finish with a better understanding of how he has been so successful for so long at Alabama.

6.5 /10