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Tim Adams says that he was thinking about writing a book about the '80's when it occurred to him that John McEnroe embodied the decade. Hence "On Being John McEnroe," which was published in England last year and in the U.S. recently by Crown.
The virtues of this book are many and varied. It's short, but not because the author doesn't have a good deal to say. Adams simply writes as if he's confident in the clarity and power of his prose. He sees no need to repeat himself. The book is also characterized by more imagination and more
energy than are present in most books about athletes and their games. Adams respects what John McEnroe accomplished against other tennis players, but what really fascinates him is the battle McEnroe always seemed to be fighting with himself. On the court he fretted and fumed. He
was impatient with officials and sometimes hostile to the crowd, but he was hardest on himself. On the cover of "On Being John McEnroe," there is a photo of McEnroe shouting "I'm so disgusting you shouldn't watch. Everybody leave!" Tim Adams takes great delight in discussing how that injunction went over in Great Britain.
Readers may or may not agree that John McEnroe represented the '80's, but they are likely to be intrigued by the conclusions Adams draws. His examination of an icon of our culture - a man who was not only a champion on the tennis court but a phenomenon in the world of athletic shoe and apparel sales — explores the ways in which we assume connections between ourselves and the athletes who entertain us. The assumed connections influence us as consumers, certainly. As Adams points out, Phil Knight, the man who started and built Nike, relished the "antiestablishment spirit" that seemed apparent every time John McEnroe called a linesman an "f-ing son of a bitch" or told an umpire he was "the pits." Knight knew that large numbers of people wishing to see themselves as similarly contemptuous of authority would rush out to spend $150 for the shoes McEnroe was wearing, whether or not they ever intended to play tennis.
This program aired on April 29, 2005. The audio for this program is not available.
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