The best basketball books that connect to larger societal issues

Who am I?

I am a professor of Global Studies at UNC Chapel Hill and I have written about the intersection of sports, media, and politics for many years. I am also the co-host of a podcast, Agony of Defeat, with Matt Andrews, that explores the connections between sports, politics, and history. Basketball is an especially rich topic for mining these intersections. And I’m also a lifelong sports fan.

I wrote...

Prius or Pickup?: How the Answers to Four Simple Questions Explain America's Great Divide

By Marc Hetherington, Jonathan Weiler,

Book cover of Prius or Pickup?: How the Answers to Four Simple Questions Explain America's Great Divide

What is my book about?

Two award-winning political scientists provide the psychological key to America’s deadlocked politics, showing that we are divided not by ideologies but something deeper: personality differences that appear in everything from politics to parenting to the workplace to TV preferences, and which would be innocuous if only we could decouple them from our noxious political debate. Drawing on groundbreaking original research, Prius or Pickup? is an incisive, illuminating study of the fracturing of the American mind.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Last Shot: City Streets, Basketball Dreams

Jonathan Weiler Why did I love this book?

The Last Shot chronicles the fortunes of the basketball team from Abraham Lincoln High School in Coney Island in the early 1990s. Frey spent a year with several of the players, got to know them, and provided a moving, painful account of the extraordinarily difficult circumstances in which they lived. The book is, perhaps, most famous because the star freshman on that team was Stephon Marbury, playground legend and future NBA superstar. But Frey's intimate, compassionate and tragic portrait of the other players, as they strived to escape their circumstances, and the obstacles to doing so, are what remain so memorable decades later. 

One detail that has never left me - most of the kids hailed from a housing project a mile from the last Coney Island subway stop, in what we would now call a food and health care desert. There was no public transportation, no supermarket, and no health center or hospital near the monstrous public housing project that epitomized the failures of American housing policy, poverty-fighting, and the ceaseless stain of race and racism on America. It was these conditions the youngsters were trying to escape, and basketball appeared to be the only vehicle for doing so.

By Darcy Frey,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked The Last Shot as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Darcy Frey chronicles the aspirations of four young men as they navigate the NCAA recruitment process, their only hope of escape from a life of crime, poverty, and despair.

It ought to be just a game, but basketball on the playgrounds of Coney Island is much more than that. In The Last Shot, the aspirations of a few of the neighborhood's most promising players reveal that what they have going for them (athletic talent, grace, and years of dedication) may not be enough to defeat what's working against them: woefully inadequate schooling, family circumstances that are often desperate, and the…

Book cover of The City Game: Triumph, Scandal, and a Legendary Basketball Team

Jonathan Weiler Why did I love this book?

A gripping, fascinating story by Matthew Goodman of the 1949-1950 City College of New York Men's basketball team, the only team in history to win both the NCAA and NIT tournaments in the same season (teams have long since been barred from competing in both). Led by the legendary coach Nat Holman, the 15-man squad of working-class kids comprised 11 Jews and four African Americans. Goodman weaves a tale of corrupt big-city politics, the extraordinary engine of upward mobility that CCNY was mid-century and the tragic downfall of the team, as several of its star players became implicated in a point-shaving scandal the following season, a stain that followed several of those involved for the rest of their lives. 

During their run to the 1950 NIT championship, CCNY played the University of Kentucky, then the two-time defending NCAA champs, barred from playing in the NCAA that year, and at a time when the NIT was comparably prestigious. The all-white Kentucky squad was coached by the legendary Adolph Rupp (who would only begin recruiting Black players two decades later). Prior to the opening tip, some of Kentucky's players refused to shake hands with CCNY's three black starters. These were the kinds of snubs CCNY had become accustomed to. The Beavers then proceeded to hand Rupp the worst loss of his forty-plus year coaching career, 89-50.

By Matthew Goodman,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked The City Game as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The powerful story of a college basketball team who carried an era’s brightest hopes—racial harmony, social mobility, and the triumph of the underdog—but whose success was soon followed by a shocking downfall

“A masterpiece of American storytelling.”—Gilbert King, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Devil in the Grove


The unlikeliest of champions, the 1949–50 City College Beavers were extraordinary by every measure. New York’s City College was a tuition-free, merit-based college in Harlem known far more for its intellectual achievements and political radicalism than its…

Book cover of I Came as a Shadow: An Autobiography

Jonathan Weiler Why did I love this book?

John Thompson's inspiring and honest account of his life as told to Jesse Washington. The legendary coach grew up in poverty in segregated Washington, DC in the 1950s, and parlayed basketball first into a ticket out of DC to Providence College on a basketball scholarship and then back to DC, as a guidance counselor, then a fill-in high school basketball coach who became a city legend, and then as Georgetown's first Black head basketball coach, when he was hired in 1972. 

Thompson built the Hoyas into a formidable squad by the late 1970s and then, with the arrival of Patrick Ewing on campus in 1981, a dynasty. The Hoyas made the NCAA championship game three times in Ewing's four years, winning it all in 1984. Thompson also emerged as an outspoken and fierce defender of his players and black athletes more generally, fighting the NCAA's efforts to impose SAT minimums on scholarship athletes and advocating for his players as more than athletically gifted "thugs." Thompson's players, with few exceptions, damn sure went to class and the program produced stellar graduation rates during Thompson's quarter-century tenure.

The book isn't just a rags-to-riches story, though. Thompson is often unsparing in his indictment of the persistent realities of racism in America. He's no apologist for the "system," even as he evinces justifiable pride in how he succeeded, financially and otherwise in it.

By John Thompson, Jesse Washington,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked I Came as a Shadow as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?


The long-awaited autobiography from Georgetown University’s legendary coach, whose life on and off the basketball court throws America’s unresolved struggle with racial justice into sharp relief

John Thompson was never just a basketball coach and I Came As a Shadow is categorically not just a basketball autobiography.

After three decades at the center of race and sports in America, the first Black head coach to win an NCAA championship is ready to make the private public. Chockful of stories and moving beyond mere stats (and what stats! three Final Fours, four times national coach…

Book cover of The Breaks of the Game

Jonathan Weiler Why did I love this book?

David Halberstam's classic, a chronicle of the Portland Trailblazers during the 1979-80 season. Three years removed from a stunning run to the NBA title, and with their mercurial superstar, Bill Walton, injured and then traded, the Blazers scuffled through the long slog of the season, trying in vain to recapture old glory. The book isn't just a chronicle of a team of interesting characters, though. It's an unflinching look at the cold financial calculus of professional sports and what it means when athletes know that they are, in the end, high-priced and expendable commodities. The book also captures the NBA at a critical inflection point in its history. It became a predominantly black league in the 1970s and its popularity declined to the point that the finals were televised on tape delay. Halberstam, the players and management are acutely aware of the tightrope the sport was compelled to walk as it tried to keep the interest of its predominantly white fan base, amidst their discomfiture about a league of black players deemed by many as overpaid and entitled.  

It's hard to imagine a sports book that makes you feel so much like you yourself are talking to the subjects Halberstam spent the season with.

By David Halberstam,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Breaks of the Game as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A New York Times bestseller, David Halberstam's The Breaks of the Game focuses on one grim season (1979-80) in the life of the Bill Walton-led Portland Trail Blazers, a team that only three years before had been NBA champions.
More than six years after his death David Halberstam remains one of this country's most respected journalists and revered authorities on American life and history in the years since WWII. A Pulitzer Prize-winner for his groundbreaking reporting on the Vietnam War, Halberstam wrote more than 20 books, almost all of them bestsellers. His work has stood the test of time and…

Book cover of The Secret Game: A Wartime Story of Courage, Change, and Basketball's Lost Triumph

Jonathan Weiler Why did I love this book?

Scott Ellsworth's account of a legendary game that took place between the Eagles of North Carolina College for Negroes (now North Carolina Central University) and Duke University on Duke's campus in Durham, in 1944 (the Duke team comprised medical students but included several former college stars). John McClendon, a protege of the game's founder, John Naismith and coach of the Eagles is widely credited with having transformed the sport, refashioning a slow, stolid affair into a fast-paced, exhilarating game. In the process, he turned the Eagles in mid-century into a juggernaut in the Carolina Intercollegiate Athletic Association, a conference of Black colleges and universities. Jim Crow made it illegal for the Eagles to compete publicly against their intracity rivals, but both programs relished the prospect of playing one another, and a secret game was organized, widely considered the first integrated collegiate game to be played in the south. Ellsworth paints a rich historical portrait both of the indignities and violence of Jim Crow Durham, as well as the economic and cultural dynamism of Black life there.

In the game itself, after a slow start, the Eagles ran the Duke squad off the floor, trouncing them by over forty points. This at a time when supposed Black athletic inferiority was still widely taken for granted.

By Scott Ellsworth,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Secret Game as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In 1943, at the North Carolina College for Negroes, Coach John McLendon was on the verge of changing basketball forever. His team was the highest-scoring team in America, and yet they faced danger whenever they traveled backcountry roads.

Across town, the best squad on Duke University's campus wasn't the Blue Devils, but an all-white team from the medical school. They were prepared to take on anyone -- until an audacious invitation arrived.

THE SECRET GAME is the story of a long-buried moment in the nation's sporting past. A riveting account of a barrier-shattering game, the evolution of modern basketball -…

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A Long Way from Iowa: From the Heartland to the Heart of France

By Janet Hulstrand,

Book cover of A Long Way from Iowa: From the Heartland to the Heart of France

Janet Hulstrand Author Of A Long Way from Iowa: From the Heartland to the Heart of France

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Who am I?

Author Reader Editor Francophile Minnesotan Once and forever Brooklynite

Janet's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

This memoir chronicles the lives of three generations of women with a passion for reading, writing, and travel. The story begins in 1992 in an unfinished attic in Brooklyn as the author reads a notebook written by her grandmother nearly 100 years earlier. This sets her on a 30-year search to find her grandmother’s journals and uncover the hidden interior lives of her mother and grandmother.

Her adventures take her to a variety of locations, from a small town in Iowa to New York, Washington, London, and Paris—and finally to a little village in France, where she is finally able to write the book that will tell her own story, intertwined with the stories of her mother and grandmother.

A Long Way from Iowa: From the Heartland to the Heart of France

By Janet Hulstrand,

What is this book about?

This story, about three generations of women with a passion for reading, writing, and travel, begins in 1992, in an unfinished attic in Brooklyn, as a young writer reads journals written by her grandmother as a schoolgirl nearly 100 years earlier. This sets her on a 30-year quest to uncover the hidden lives and unfulfilled dreams of her mother and grandmother. In this coming-of-middle-age memoir, the author comes to realize that the passion for travel and for literature that has fueled her life's journey is a gift that was passed down to her by the very role models she was…

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