Having selected my First Team and Second Team All-Bad Prof Books, I’m moving out of the top ten today. However, it’s important to say that these books are classics, that I personally love them, and that I think they are important reading for anyone who wants to understand the past and present of the sport and its relation to the world beyond the court.
Foul! The Connie Hawkins Story
by David Wolf (Originally published 1971; currently out of print but available used; 511 pp.)
“I try to do things that are artistic with my body and my moves. I get pride being able to do things nobody else can do. It gives me confidence about myself when I can be special.”
Foul is, first of all, a biography of Hawkins centering on the events leading up to and from the high school and playground legend’s unjust implication in a gambling scandal. But as such, it provides unblinking descriptions of the conditions that made this tragic story possible: from poverty and substandard education induced by systemic racism, to the exploitation of college athletes by colleges, the NCAA and gamblers, to unethical practices by law enforcement agencies, to the single-minded pursuit of profit by the NBA. All these threads converge impersonally to form a kind of spider’s web ensnaring Hawkins.
This would be heartbreaking enough it weren’t that countless others whose names we do not know are snagged alongside Hawkins in this same web. That Hawkins emerges from the tale not as a hapless victim, but as a thoughtful, sensitive talented athlete, unbittered and determined to pursue his dream of playing against the best only heightens the sense of injustice and tragedy permeating his tale.
FreeDarko Presents the Macrophenomenal Pro Basketball Almanac
(Originally published in New York by Bloomsbury; 2008)
“We embrace their Foibles, even those that prevent them from Winning. We exalt their Particularities and intriguing Backstories, and endorse a League in which these Virtues are fostered.”
The first work from the blogging collective known as FreeDarko is in some ways more original and fascinating than the second (their history of pro basketball which I selected for my first team). The book opens with a tongue-in-cheek but nonetheless inspiring manifesto to liberated fandom and appreciation of individual players “personal Styles, both during and outside of Play,” and then offers a jaw dropping visual “periodic table of style,” revealed as a “mix of the physical, the emotional, and the spiritual.”The book profiles eighteen significant players of the late 2000s, organized into six groups (“Master Builders,” “Lost Souls,” and “People’s Champs” among them). While today’s fans might already find some of these profiles outdated, the unique perspective, deep insights, humor, and extraordinary illustrations will also leave you longing for a revised and expanded edition accounting for today’s stars. Though less straightforwardly informative than their subsequently published history (and so in a certain sense less useful to students), this work more brilliantly showcases the idiosyncratic approach to the game that FreeDarko pioneered and that has inspired a generation of thinking fans (myself among them).
Heaven is a Playground
by Rick Telander (Originally published in 1976; Reprinted in a 4th edition in New York by Sports Publishing; 2014; 272 pp.)
“I walk up and down the courts, but only after intense scrutiny do I realize why they are empty: there are no rims on any of the backboards.”
Telander, then a 24 year old photojournalist, spent part of the summer of 1973 and all of 1974 living alongside and playing pickup ball with some of the residents of a community in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn. The book is justly celebrated as a classic of journalistic memoir and partly remembered for its profiles of legendary players Fly Williams and Albert King. But if it were only a story about pickup basketball it would not make my list. What distinguished it for me and many other readers, I suspect, is that Telander does not isolate his story of playground basketball from the stories of the lives of those playing alongside him, nor indeed, from his own life. He develops strong personal relationships with his teammates, opponents and neighbors. But, though these are at times close bonds, they are not facile or sentimentalized. Telander and his “subjects” clearly like each other, but are also confused and at times angered by one another. What is particularly striking—especially when read alongside Foul! and The Last Shot—is the sense of the enduring importance of basketball—for better and for worse—in communities limited, to say the least, by racial and socio-economic injustice. Consider that as Telander’s games unfold at Foster Park in the early 70s, a 30 year-old, broken-kneed Connie Hawkins has only just finally made it—14 years after his own legendary exploits on the City’s playgrounds—to the NBA for what would be an abbreviated career, even as elsewhere in Brooklyn, a new generation is appearing—among them Stephon Marbury and the other youngsters featured in The Last Shot—that will soon pursue its own hoop dreams.
The Last Shot: City Streets, Basketball Dreams
by Darcy Frey (Originally published 1994; Reprinted in New York by Mariner Books, 2004; 230 pp.)
“Avoiding pickup games, he gets down to work: an hour of three-point shooting, then wind sprints up the fourteen flights in his project stairwell, then back to this court where, much to his friends’ amusement, he shoots one-handers ten feet from the basket while sitting in a chair.”
A superbly narrated, and so moving story of players on Coney Island’s Lincoln High basketball players (among them future NBA star, then high school freshman Stephon Marbury) who hope to parlay hard work, talent, and team success into college scholarships and, eventually, pro careers. The players are not only sympathetic in Frey’s portrait, they are embodiments of adolescence, navigating the treacherous passage from the innocence of childhood dreams and the experience of adult realities. That their particular passage includes poverty, institutional racism, a broken public education system, rapacious college recruiters and coaches only makes their story more poignant and outraging, especially if one encounters (outside the text) the devastating follow-up on one of the players in Frey’s profile. It’s important to note here that the book has been the subject of some controversy (spoiler alert). Even within the book, Marbury’s father challenges Frey to do more than profit off other people’s stories and demands compensation. After initially resisting (ostensibly on ethical grounds) Frey attempted to set up a contract so that the player’s can share in the profits of the book upon publication but apparently was blocked from doing so by the NCAA. After the book’s publication, some residents argued that it was unbalanced and sensational in depicting conditions in the neighborhood. All this can and should be taken into account, but it should not, in my view, prevent readers from engaging with the stories of these young men, their community, and the issues these stories raise.
The Game They Played
by Stanley Cohen (Originally published 1977; Reprinted in New York by DaCapo, 2001; 256 pp.)
“Five street kids from the City of New York—three Jews and two blacks—were about to whale the shit out of middle America.”
Before Stephon Marbury, before Fly Williams, before Walt Frazier, Bill Bradley and the rest of the Old School Knicks, before Connie Hawkins, basketball in New York centered on the Beavers of City College, the only team in history to win both the NCAA tournament and the NIT in the same season. Stanley Cohen, an aspiring player and young fan of the team at the time, tells the story of that season, and of the events leading up to and from the shocking revelation, shortly after the celebrations, that several players had been fixing the outcome of games. There are more efficient ways to get accurate information about the scandal and its impact, but I can think of few that are more moving or wide-ranging in perspective. Because Cohen invests himself in the story of the multiracial team’s rise to success against the basketball powers of the heartland, we are able to feel what lovers of New York basketball lost when, in the wake of the scandal, big time college basketball stayed away from the city. I assure you, I can be as irritated with the provincialism and basketball narcissism of New Yorkers as anyone, but caught in the power of this narrative, I actually begin to sympathize with those who look back nostalgically at this period in the City Game’s history or at its subsequent avatar in the early 1970s, when the Knicks played and won with a style pioneered at the city’s colleges in the 1940s.
I notice looking over these that there is a distinctly New York axis running through four of the five titles and that these four all concern hopes and failures amidst promises and betrayals, of different sorts. They remind me of the distinct, singular human lives that the vast athletic, institutional and economic machinery that is basketball draws into its maw, and so also of the humanity of what that machine spits out as so much waste. And perhaps that is what ties these together with the non-Big Apple member of the team. For the authors of the Macrophenomenal Pro Basketball Almanac have always found the beauty, interest and redemptive gleam in what conventional sporting wisdom has judged unworthy detritus.
Tomorrow, I round out this list of my top twenty basketball books with five Honorable Mention selections.