By Bill McLean
ILLUSTRATION BY BARRY BLITT
By Bill McLean
ILLUSTRATION BY BARRY BLITT
Rich Cohen’s one-on-one basketball battles with his father, Herb, atop the family’s Glencoe driveway in the mid-1980s rarely ended well for Rich.
Future author Rich was 17 in 1985.
Herb was in his early 50s.
In his new book, When the Game Was War: The NBA’s Greatest Season (Random House, 232 pages), Rich Cohen, now 55, compares his father’s game back then to former Boston Celtics power forward Kevin McHale’s game at the start of the 1988 NBA Finals versus the Los Angeles Lakers.
“Appearing mechanical and stiff, McHale resembled the Iron Giant and seemed to play the way my father did in our driveway when he got home from work, in his loafers and suit, jacket off, sleeves rolled, change jingling as he lumbered to the hoop,” Cohen writes. “He’d turn his back to the basket eight feet away, push me aside, then grunt as he hit the hook.”
The son provides more details of the intense encounters in a recent phone interview.
“I couldn’t defend that shot,” recalls Cohen, who was born in Lake Forest, grew up in Glencoe, and attended New Trier Township High School. “My father had always created enough space for himself to easily rise and execute the shot with a flip of the wrist. And he usually slammed me into the garage door on my lay-up attempts, leaving me in a heap on the ground.
“My father enjoyed watching the brand of basketball the Detroit Pistons played in the 1980s,” he adds. “Those ‘Bad Boys’ teams were tough and built to beat their biggest rival in the Eastern Conference (Boston) at the time. It took time and a willingness to adapt, and they did that by getting faster and bigger through draft picks and trades.”
Detroit is one of four franchises Cohen spotlights in the book, along with the Los Angeles Lakers, Boston Celtics, and Chicago Bulls. He insists that the 1987-88 NBA season was the greatest season for a number of reasons—a glut of future Hall of Famers, including the four (LA’s Magic Johnson, Boston’s Larry Bird, Detroit’s Isiah Thomas, and Chicago’s Michael Jordan) he brings to life via his punchy, descriptive prose; the bonfire-hot rivalries; the impressive competitiveness of the NBA’s second-tier teams; and the compelling personalities of the players and coaches.
And, he writes, “four dynasties (Lakers, Celtics, Pistons, and Bulls) were in various states of ascent and descent” in 1987-88.”
Cohen was 19 when former Detroit point guard Isiah “Zeke” Thomas—a native of Chicago who starred at St. Joseph High School in Westchester and at Indiana University—somehow (on one good leg, after suffering a severe ankle injury) poured in a postseason-record 25 of his 43 points in the third quarter of a Game 6 loss to Los Angeles in the 1988 NBA Finals.
“Isiah,” Cohen writes, “became a symbol of those 12 minutes, an embodiment of everything that a person who wants to live ecstatically should be. He played with fury and joy.
“That’s the night I fell in love with the NBA.”
Cohen had been an Isiah Thomas fan since he saw Thomas and the rest of the St. Joseph Chargers play Westinghouse College Prep in December 1978. Thomas “looked small, fragile,” Cohen writes. The future NCAA champion at Indiana (1981) flashed his all-court game that night, netting inside and perimeter shots and flummoxing double- and triple-teamers.
Zeke hit the game-winning basket.
“The smooth efficiency of his style made you want to find something, anything, you could do half as well,” Cohen—the author of more than a dozen books and the “Back When” columnist for the Wall Street Journal—adds in the Pregame chapter of the book.
Cohen called sources and wrote When the Game Was War during the pandemic.
“People were sitting around and willing to talk,” Cohen says. “Some walked outside while they answered my questions. When I interviewed Isiah, we talked about the time he played at New Trier. It was either a St. Joseph game against New Trier or a tournament game involving St. Joseph. Isiah remembered the names of the New Trier players.
“People, including one of my childhood friends, hate Isiah, something I’ll never understand. He was portrayed as a major villain in the Bulls documentary The Last Dance (2020). I always go back to the way he played in that third quarter against the Lakers in Game 6 of the 1988 Finals. That injury to his ankle should have sidelined him for the rest of the game, but it didn’t. He got knocked down; he got right back up. You do that in life, you’re a success—something my father preaches.”
Thomas-led Pistons teams captured NBA titles in 1989 and 1990, after falling to the Lakers in seven games in 1988. The Chicago Bulls then built Jordan-led teams to overcome Detroit and amass six NBA championships in an eight-year (1991-1998) span.
“I believe the Detroit Pistons would be viewed differently, much more favorably, had they won three straight NBA championships instead of only two,” Cohen says. “Unfortunately, they’re remembered as a team that had players who liked to smile after committing violent acts on the court.
“Those Detroit teams,” he continues, “were so good at getting teams angry by taking them out of what they liked to do and disrupting pace and rhythm.”
Among Cohen’s other books is one about a certain driveway-hoops legend. Its title is The Adventures of Herbie Cohen: World’s Greatest Negotiator. Cohen, a contributing editor at Vanity Fair and Rolling Stone, has also penned Monsters: The 1985 Chicago Bears and the Wild Heart of Football; Lake Effect, a memoir about growing up in Glencoe and his years at Tulane University; The Chicago Cubs: Story of a Curse; and Pee Wees: Confessions of a Hockey Parent.
Cohen and his wife, Jessica, are the parents of sons Aaron (19 years old), Nate (18), Micah (16), and Elia (8). The Cohen family has lived in Ridgefield, Connecticut, for the past 12 years.
Herb Cohen, who coached basketball squads of military personnel in Europe, is 90 and living in New York. He was described as a dealmaker, risk taker, raconteur, adviser to presidents and corporations, hostage and arms negotiator, lesson giver, and justice seeker in Rich Cohen’s book about him.
The son acknowledges his father in When the Game Was War.
“(My father) made me love, respect, and at times, fear the game,” Cohen writes. “He beat me more often than not in the driveway, even though he played in loafers.”