May 20, 2021


1996: A Biography—Reliving the Legend-Packed, Dynasty-Stacked, Most Iconic Sports Year Ever. By Jon Finkel. Diversion Books. $17.99.

     Never, ever, ever come between sports fans and their trivia. And never, ever, ever describe as “trivia” such enormously important matters as the time “when Iverson, Kobe, The Rock and Stone Cold, the MLS and the WNBA all debuted.”

     Such momentous matters are but a small portion of the enormously important and earthshakingly significant year of 1996, “when Mike Tyson and Magic Johnson made their comebacks; when MTV’s Rock n’ Jock, Michael Jordan’s Space Jam, and ESPN’s Dan Patrick and Stuart Scott were the bomb; when the Fun ‘n’ Gun offense changed college football; when Ken Griffey Jr. ran for president; when Brett Favre marched to his first Super Bowl, and Jerry Maguire had everyone saying ‘show me the money.’”

     If the overwhelming significance of these and many similar matters escapes you; if (heaven forbid!) you do not remember every single one of these matters and many, many other, similar references; if you do not accept unquestioningly the instant relevance to your life of all these people you never met or interacted with, all these events with which you were wholly uninvolved except as a distant observer; then you are emphatically not in the audience that Jon Finkel seeks in 1996: A Biography.

     Finkel approaches sports, trivia, and especially sports trivia with a level of fawning adulation that will make like-minded readers believe the author is just like them and just as immersed as they are in every note and nuance of the names and nuggets of events of a quarter-century ago that most people forgot, oh, about a quarter-century ago. The intensity of Finkel’s involvement with this material and the extensiveness of his research are impressive and will convey an appropriate mixture of nostalgia and assertion of meaningfulness again and again throughout the book. “Antoine Walker, Kentucky’s Swiss Army Knife of a sophomore, was even being compared to NBA All-Stars with his ability to pass and play down low.” “Phil Jackson also played his bench heavily, logging twenty-two minutes for [Steve] Kerr, twenty-one for Randy Brown, and nineteen for Jud Buechler.” “To borrow an album title from Green Day (the perfect mid-’90s band), picks seven through twelve of the1996 NBA Draft were ‘Dookie’ for NBA executives.” “Believing that her team needed her to land a second vault to win the gold, [Kerri] Strug blocked out the pain, went to the top of the runway, raised her hands, took a deep breath, exhaled ever so slightly, and took off sprinting for the beam.…You remember the landing.”

     If you don’t remember the landing, don’t remember “the perfect mid-’90s band,” don’t remember the ins and outs and ups and downs of “Jordan, Shaq, Tiger, Jeter, Deion, the Cowboys, the Yankees, the Bulls, Kentucky, Florida, the Williams sisters, Happy Gilmore, the Atlanta Olympics’ Magnificent Seven” and a great deal more, this is not the book for you – although if you happen to remember some of these people, things and events, Finkel will be there to guide you breathlessly through the rest of them with all the enthusiasm of a “color” commentator on a live broadcast (except that no event in this book has been “live” for a quarter of a century). 1996: A Biography is harmless fun that will be terminally silly for anyone who is not thoroughly versed and immersed in the sports world and of “a certain age” that results in an intense desire for 25-year-ago memories of obscure facts, people and occurrences. But of course the book is not for anyone who would find it or its topics unmemorable; no such person will have the slightest interest in it. There have been many, many books identifying this year or that as “iconic” or “the greatest ever” where sports is concerned – or where other popular culture is concerned. The audience for each such book is strictly self-identifying and strictly self-limiting. If you are among the cognoscenti in terms of this specific year and this specific material, then 1996: A Biography will hit your emotional bullseye. If not, it is easy enough to find some other book on some other pop-culture topic about some other crucially significant, “iconic” year or time period to which your individual life experiences do resonate, and to find that book as enjoyable as the target audience of 1996: A Biography will find this one to be.

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