Some articles and books you remember forever.
Published in Harper’s Magazine, where he is a contributing editor, Darcy Frey’s piece about four young basketball players from Coney Island chasing dreams of glory, fame, riches and escape was the basis for his later book, The Last Shot.
Frey’s work showed in memorable detail how, for the young black men of the community, “there is basketball, and when that doesn’t work out, there are drugs.”
At the point the book was released in 1994, despite having a wealth of talent, no player from the neighborhood had made it to the pros.
Stephon Marbury changed that.
The two-time All-Star was just an entering freshman at the time of Frey’s meticulous reporting, and his talent was already apparent. Marbury planned to go where several of his older brothers, who were even more gifted, had faltered.
Frey shows just exactly how stacked the odds are against Marbury and the millions of young men across the country like him, who stake the lion’s share of their energies, attention and abilities not on school or on work, but on basketball.
The story for the other players is a sobering reminder of that reality.
I’ve not read the Epilogue Frey wrote 12 years later for an updated edition of the book, but have learned that the player named Russell Thomas in the book and Darryl Flicking in real life was killed in 1999. Big man Tchaka Shipp played marginal minutes at Seton Hall and was working a minimum wage job, and Corey Johnson as of 2004 was an aspiring writer with no specific prospects.
Ian O’Connor updates the story in The Jump, which follows Sebastian “Bassy Telfair”, the next generation of neighborhood prodigy, during his senior year at the same Lincoln High School Marbury attended.
Like Marbury and the others before him, Telfair banks everything on reaching the pros out of high school, well aware that his family is depending on him.
The demands of family are a major motivating factor for the players, and, once they have reached the pros, a challenge for them to navigate. Marbury, who appears as a jealous rival for most of The Jump before a reconciliation with Telfair, talks in the work about how he singlehandedly supports more than two dozen family members on his multi-million dollar salary.
At first glance, Coney Island and the Dominican Republic may not seem to have much to do with each other, but the predominantly black boys concluding that using their bodies to seek riches in the big leagues is the only viable option for them connects the two places.
Road to the Big Leagues, a documentary film whose executive producer is Eran Lobel, one of my brother Mike’s childhood friends, tells that story.
The movie focuses on players of various ages and shows the increasingly narrow hoops through which they must pass to realize their dreams.
Road brings out the same, if not worse, levels of entrenched poverty and paltry other options that drive the young men to their conclusion. The film also highlights the strong feelings of brotherhood among the young players, many of whom are competing against each other for a path to stardom.
It is a trail full of pitfalls and blazed by others.
The movie shows an example of the rampant identification fraud that an estimated 35 to 38 percent of the players engage in, but that can end a career before it’s even started.
It also has far more than cameo appearances by MLB sluggers and All-Stars David “Big Papi” Ortiz and Vladimir Guerrero, both of whom came from, and return to, the Dominican Republic to give motivation and inspiration to those who come after them.
In many ways, The Last Shot and The Road to the Big Leagues are linked by the success the players have in their respective sports. Coney Island has now produced two first-round NBA picks, while more pro baseball players come from the Dominican Republic than any nation outside of the United States.
At the same time, the success is a damning indictment of two societies whose education system and economies are such that a very high percentage of its young boys of color arrive at the unshakeable and not irrational conclusion that the best way to reach their desires is through sports.
What do you think? Have you read these books or seen the movies? Am I onto something or am I wrong?