Over the past four years, I’ve spoken to just about all of the biggest stars in the NBA. The behind-the-scenes access Red94 has granted me has really opened my eyes to dynamics of the game which I had never considered. But still, my interactions have always been at a surface level: the post game or pre game questions about the game; if I was lucky to catch a player alone, as I often did with Goran Dragic and Courtney Lee in the early years, a few minutes of casual chatter. But before I met Pete Strobl, I had never been afforded the opportunity to truly dig inside the mind of a professional athlete.
Backspin is the story of Strobl’s journey through a life in basketball, spanning from childhood to a decade-long tour of the professional leagues overseas. With foundational anecdotes sprinkled in throughout the reading, the book is an-depth look within the psyche of a man who put bread on the table by living and breathing the very game we all watch and admire from afar.
Strobl, the son of a musician, had ingrained within him from an early age the potential basketball held to lift one towards financial security; still, he completed an MBA while juggling the demands of student athletics. Starting at the junior college level, Strobl molded himself into a key cog on the Division 1 Niagara University outfit (alma mater to former Rockets great Calvin Murphy), improving upon intricacies of his game through diligent practice. In fact, the most interesting aspect of the book is Strobl’s cognizance of the finer facets of player skill development, with reflections focused upon his own previous flaws and the idiosyncrasies unique to the characters around him.
In one particularly fascinating segment of the book, Strobl thinks back to his early days at Niagara and his struggles to earn both playing time and the approval of his coaches. He understands now, as he told me in an interview, that his footwork at the time just wasn’t up to par.
“By the time I arrived at Niagara,” Strobl says, “I had the mindset of an assertive player (ready and willing to shoot whenever necessary), but I had close to zero understanding of some very important technical components. I didn’t understand timing, had no concept of proper spacing and didn’t know how to get the ball against pressure defense. The main hurdle in which I referred to in Backspin is my lack of proper footwork: in my shot, in the post and using screens. I didn’t have the repetitions under my belt of using screens and recognizing when to “curl” or “flare” for example that some of my teammates had. It was an eye opener and for me personally, I had the feeling of discovery.”
In another passage, Strobl describes a teammate, Alvin Young, who would torture opponents with moves crafted to meet the defender’s reaction speeds. The degrees of hesitation on Young’s moves would fit the defender’s tendencies and overall eagerness to reach. More interestingly, Strobl explains the mechanics to Young’s arsenal were developed away from the organized confines of the game and on the playgrounds where extra edges are a requisite gain.
In fact, Strobl talks at length in the book about the many colorful teammates and counterparts he faced, among them being former UNC big man Makhtar N’Diaye, Jamaal Tinsley, and even the infamous (former Houston Rocket) Ron Artest. Strobl reflects back on his two battles with Artest while at Niagara, noting that especially then, the burly forward’s physical prowess was immediately evident; Artest was a “man among boys”, a menacing foe who imposed his will on the court.
The book digs into the emotional realities of professional athletics, especially those specific to the international experience. In one otherwise hilarious anecdote, Strobl mentions an instance in Europe when he and his teammates had not been paid in a timely manner in accordance with the terms of their contracts. With their balances weeks overdue, the players confront the team’s visibly distraught manager who eventually acquiesces to the payments after a string of lies. This does not happen in America; this isn’t a concern for players in the NBA.
But at a greater, thematic level, the issue of hope and survival rests as one of the book’s over-arching backdrops. Strobl had no long-term guaranteed contract. For him, it was a year-to-year affair, pitted against the uncertainty of the future. He not only battled the physical and mental pressures of professional sports, but endured the perpetual angst of at-will employment. What would happen if the team didn’t win games? Where would he be living next season? And without a contract, how did the competing tensions between team success and the individual need to produce play out? These matters intensify when, while in Europe, Strobl marries and shortly later welcomes the birth of a child. Strobl’s Backspin is the human condition through the lens of professional athletics.
Did Pete ever think he’d make the NBA? That was always the dream and that hope amplifies over a summer in L.A. when parties with ulterior motives get Strobl’s attention. But ultimately, while the “what if’s” may always linger, he reflects back with satisfaction on a gratifying career that brought newfound experiences and countless lessons. At the culmination of his decade tour, but while still in his physical prime, Pete is forced to make a decision, and a sacrifice, that leads to his walking away from the game as a player. He now is a skills trainer and coach at The Scoring Factory and that new journey is the subject of what Strobl hopes to feature in his next book.
You can pick up a copy of Backspin from Amazon.com.