The Best Basketball Books That Connect To Larger Societal Issues

Jonathan Weiler Author Of Prius or Pickup?: How the Answers to Four Simple Questions Explain America's Great Divide
By Jonathan Weiler

The Books I Picked & Why

The Last Shot: City Streets, Basketball Dreams

By Darcy Frey

The Last Shot: City Streets, Basketball Dreams

Why 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.


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

By Matthew Goodman

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

Why 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.


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I Came as a Shadow: An Autobiography

By John Thompson, Jesse Washington

I Came as a Shadow: An Autobiography

Why 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.


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The Breaks of the Game

By David Halberstam

The Breaks of the Game

Why 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.


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

By Scott Ellsworth

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

Why 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.


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