The best books that capture the cultural aspects of the game of basketball

Michael D'Orso Author Of Eagle Blue: A Team, a Tribe, and a High School Basketball Season in Arctic Alaska
By Michael D'Orso

Who am I?

I’m a narrative nonfiction writer whose subjects range from politics to professional football, from racial conflict to environmental destruction, from inner-city public education to social justice to spinal cord injury. The settings for my books range from the Galapagos Islands to the swamps of rural Florida, to Arctic Alaska. I typically live with and among my subjects for months at a time, portraying their lives in an intimately personal way.


I wrote...

Eagle Blue: A Team, a Tribe, and a High School Basketball Season in Arctic Alaska

By Michael D'Orso,

Book cover of Eagle Blue: A Team, a Tribe, and a High School Basketball Season in Arctic Alaska

What is my book about?

In October of 2004, I flew from my home in Norfolk, Virginia, to the tiny Arctic village of Fort Yukon, Alaska, where I rented a small cabin and spent the next six months climbing into the day-to-day lives of the community’s indigenous Native population while shadowing the village’s boys high school basketball team through the course of an entire season as they, their families, and their neighbors faced a myriad of challenges (poverty, inadequate schooling, alcoholism, suicide, teen pregnancy, and the loss of their traditional culture) while clinging to the one thing that gives their community hope and pulls together most of the state’s 200 “bush” villages: the game of basketball.

The books I picked & why

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The Last Shot: City Streets, Basketball Dreams

By Darcy Frey,

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

Why this book?

This book is similar to mine, following a team of high school basketball players through a season, but it’s set in an urban environment: Brooklyn’s Coney Island. The boys it focuses on are African-American, the off-court struggles they and their community face (crime, violence, drug use, the lure of the streets, and the corruption of college basketball recruiters) differ from those that challenge the kids in remote Alaska, but the joy and solace they find in the game itself are the same. The writing is terrific—lucidly and intimately bringing to life the four boys whose lives it focuses on.


In These Girls, Hope Is a Muscle

By Madeleine Blais,

Book cover of In These Girls, Hope Is a Muscle

Why this book?

While this book mirrors the template of Darcy Frey’s book and my own, following a high school basketball team through an entire season, the setting—an upper-class, genteel community of white suburbanites in Amherst, Massachusetts—is a world away from that of those stories, and, most importantly, the athletes are female. The Pulitzer Prize-winning author, through her elegant writing, brings a piercing understanding of the obstacles these girls face in the wake of Title IX as they prove their toughness, perseverance, and abilities in a sport traditionally dominated by men. 


Heaven Is a Playground

By Rick Telander,

Book cover of Heaven Is a Playground

Why this book?

While the titles mentioned so far focus on high school teams spending their winters inside gymnasiums with referees on the court and fans in the bleachers, this one, written vibrantly by a staffer for Sports Illustrated magazine, shifts outside, to a blistering hot summer on the asphalt courts of Flatbush in Brooklyn, where teenage boys (including future legends Fly Williams and Albert King) and full-grown men play a tougher game, replete with trash-talking, flashy in-your-face moves, and tests of manhood that often turn to violence, with no officials to enforce order or rules, and few bystanders besides aging ex-athletes betting a few dollars on the outcomes, and other pickup teams waiting to take on the winners. As on inner-city playgrounds across the country, the game of basketball offers a rare respite from otherwise grim lives framed by poverty and the almost complete absence of hope.


A Sense of Where You Are: Bill Bradley at Princeton

By John McPhee,

Book cover of A Sense of Where You Are: Bill Bradley at Princeton

Why this book?

Bill Bradley was as far from a typical college and NBA superstar as can possibly be imagined. He was 6’5” but could barely dunk. In a race between the tortoise and the hare, he would be the tortoise. Yet, with an uncanny set of shooting, passing, and rebounding skills, he became the nation’s top high school prospect, with more than 70 colleges, including every powerhouse in the sport, offering him a scholarship. Instead, he chose to play at lowly Princeton, in one of the game’s weakest conferences—the Ivy League—where he averaged more than 30 points a game over the course of his career, becoming a two-time first-team All-American and, in his senior season, national player of the year, leading the Tigers to the 1965 NCAA tournament’s Final Four, in which he scored an unheard of 58 points against Wichita State and was named the tournament’s MVP—the only player to this day to win that award for a team that did not win the event (The Tigers finished third). He was just as successful in the NBA, becoming an All-Pro with the New York Knicks, whom he led to two world championships during his ten-year career, and upon retirement, had his jersey number retired by the Knicks.

Off the court, he was even more impressive, earning a Rhodes Scholarship after graduating from Princeton, then, following his NBA career, became a three-term U.S. Senator from New Jersey before running for the 2000 Democratic nomination for the presidency, which he lost to Al Gore. He played the political game much as he played the game of basketball—with understated grace, elegance, efficiency, and unselfishness, all of which are superbly captured in this early (1965) biography, written by one of the finest craftsmen ever in the field of narrative nonfiction, the incomparable New Yorker magazine staff writer John McPhee.


Second Wind: The Memoirs of an Opinionated Man

By William F. Russell,

Book cover of Second Wind: The Memoirs of an Opinionated Man

Why this book?

In this thoughtful, philosophical autobiography, the winningest player in NBA history uses his storied career with the Boston Celtics as a cogent window into the broken promises—mostly racial—of the American Dream. Co-written with historian Taylor Branch, whose trilogy on the life of Martin Luther King, Jr., won the Pulitzer Prize, Russell, who has devoted as much of his life to activism in the cause of social justice as to the game of basketball, shares the life lessons he has learned on the court, from his schoolboy days in Louisiana to his All-American stint at the University of Seattle, to his record-setting career with the Celtics, where he won an astounding eleven championship rings in thirteen years. This book was published in 1979, but its insights are as relevant and penetrating today as they were then.


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in basketball, New York State, and college basketball?

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And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

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