Long shots

Sociologist and coach knows the player and the game

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To many young black men growing up in distressed urban areas, basketball would seem to offer a route to financial solvency and upward mobility. Rap titan and ex-drug dealer Jay-Z said it best, in "Some How, Some Way," a track on 2002's Blueprint 2:

"Whether we dribble out this motherfucker/ Rap metaphors and riddle out this motherfucker/ Work second floors, hospital out this motherfucker/ Somehow, we gotta get up out this motherfucker."

A mushrooming glut of films and sociologists' texts bear this inspirational pipedream out, but Living Through the Hoop stands head and shoulders above them, because author Reuben A. Buford May comes at it from all angles: He's a professor, sociologist, former college basketball player and former high school assistant basketball coach. He brings a true insider's perspective to this issue, presenting his findings formally, extended dissertation-style.

From the late 1990s through the early '00s, May coached at Northeast High School in Georgia, affording him the opportunity to interact with dozens of ballers, whose names have been changed throughout. Harboring unrealistic dreams of college scholarships, NBA contracts and the resulting bling lifestyle, they're torn between practicing and partying, the court and the streets. That LeBron James pie-in-the-sky attitude is a mechanism coaches encourage in order to hold onto players, keeping the kids — and their careers as coaches — safe.

But even within the gymnasium, pitfalls and obstacles abound: Single parents are absent from bleacher seats due to work, and overly attentive parents insist their sons receive more playing time. Differing styles of play strike sparks between teams, referees are biased and coaches give contradictory instructions by, for example, stoking racial disparity to inspire players one moment then insisting that race is irrelevant in the face of winning gumption the next. Perpetually benched players, as well as racist opponents and spectators, crush collective morale.

Much of what's recounted here will surprise few; what leaps out is Living's stark, confessional observations, its lengthy ruminations and the apparent lack of a fairy-tale postscript. We may not be stunned by the notion that thousands of adolescents gamble the lottery-like odds of finding major success, but Living warms us with insight into what often happens as a result of kids who put their all into b-ball: They build character and the team insulates them. All is not uplifting though: Black teams playing in white regions, according to the book, require police escorts to and from games.

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