Tag Archives: basketball

Rus Bradburd speaks about Nolan Richardson at the No Exit Cafe

Rus Bradburd will be talking about his biography of Nolan Richardson tonight.

I won’t be able to make it tonight, but Rus Bradburd will be speaking about Forty Minutes of Hell, his well-written and enjoyable biography of Nolan Richardson, at the No Exit Cafe tonight from 7:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m.

Following the book discussion will be a brief screening of highlights from the film Basketball in the Barrio, which deals with a program Bradburd directs in the “Segundo Barrio” neighborhood of El Paso, where Nolan Richardson grew up.

I’m disappointed I won’t be there to meet Rus in person, and I look forward to hearing from dear friend and uber-connector Danny Postel how it went.


The roots of LeBron’s ascendance to become a Shooting Star

LeBron James and Buzz Bissinger collaborate on this memoir of James' early years and high school career.

These are exciting days for LeBron James.

After some minor early season struggles adjusting to playing with fading superstar Shaquille O’Neal, his Cleveland Cavaliers are riding an 11-game winning streak and sit  atop the league’s standings.

He is putting up video-game like statistics on a nightly basis, often bringing out even more jaw dropping dimensions to his game in the process.  His most recent revelations: channeling Michael Jordan’s “spectacular move” in the 1991 finals against the Los Angeles Lakers when he started going for a right hand dunk, switched gears in mid-air, and went to his left hand off the glass; and putting on a three-point shooting display against the New York Knicks that saw him draining shots from closer and closer to half court and had the Knicks admit later that they were standing around and watching him in awe.

And he’s looking at possibly the most lucrative contract in league history this summer, when he could become a free agent.

The “smart money” says James is headed to the bright lights of New York, the nation’s cultural capital and the base for close friend Jay-Z.

I’m not so sure.

The Cavaliers are built to maintain their elite status for the foreseeable future. James already has all the exposure he could possibly want.

Above all, he’s deeply tied to Ohio and his hometown of Akron.

James and Friday Night Lights author Buzz Bissinger explain just how deep the bond runs in Shooting Stars, James’ memoir of growing up in Akron and forging unshakable times with his basketball teammates and brothers as they set out on their quest to win a national championship.

James comes from humble roots, and writes openly about moving around many times during his early years after his then-16-year-old mother Gloria gave birth to him.

He also talks about learning to play basketball and his dawning awareness of his emerging talents.

But Shooting Stars is at base a paean to the brotherhood he formed with Dru Joyce, or “Little Dru”, burly big man Sian Cotton, hard-headed Romeo Travis, and mature role player Willie Cotton during the course of their years playing first on an AAU team, and then later for Catholic School St. Vincent-St. Mary.

In a move that basketball fans will recognize as typical of how James plays the game, he shifts a lot of the attention to his teammates.

Other reviews have criticized the book for James’ venting at the media and for giving insufficient insight into James’ inner thoughts, and I will say that I found the language a bit stilted and unnatural sounding at parts.   His articulation of, and movement toward, the realization of the dream the teammates hatched also feels a tad formulaic.

That said,  James writes openly about how he is haunted by his failure to deliver in a precious few games during the course of his record-setting his school career, and how he remembers those moments far more vividly than the myriad successes he achieved.

I could relate to that.

I still remember poor decisions I made at the end of two YMCA League games on a team with my brother Mike and our dear friend Arthur Sneider in 1993.

Beyond that, James also speaks about the arrogance and dissension that gripped the team during its junior year and contributed to that being the only season in which they did not win the state championship.   To some degree, this disharmony came about due to the coaching change from the fiery Keith Dambrot,  a white coach whose use of a racial epithet had led to the implosion of his NCAA coaching career, to Dru Joyce, or Big Dru.

As Shakespeare famously wrote, though, all’s well that ends well, and the reader can rest assured that life on and off the court has a happy ending, at least through the end of high school.

Shooting Stars may not be great literature, but it is an entertaining look at one of the sporting world’s greatest stars, who is possibly heading toward his first of many NBA championships and who faces a possibly career changing decision this summer.

Rus Bradburd tells the story of Nolan Richardson.

Rus Bradburd has written an impressive biography of former Razorbacks coach Nolan Richardson.

On the surface, Father Michael Pfleger and and Nolan Richardson appear to have little in common.

Pfleger is white and grew up in an ethnic neighborhood on Chicago’s Southwest Side, while Richardson hails from a black and Latino community in El Paso, on the U.S./Mexico border.

Pfleger is a priest who has spent his entire career in Chicago, while Richardson is a basketball coach who has coached primarily in schools in Southern states.

Pfleger never married, while Richardson has had two wives and a daughter who died tragically in her teens of cancer.

Dig deeper, though, and profound similarities emerge.

Both are fierce men of principle who have dedicated their lives to working in black communities and achieved remarkable results. Both have at times adopted an “us against the world” attitude.  And both have had long battles with their superiors and have made public statements about race that have had professional consequences.

I wrote yesterday about Radical Disciple, Bob Hercules’ hour-long documentary film about Pfleger.

This past weekend I read Forty Minutes of Hell, Rus Bradburd’s impressive biography about the coach who earned his most widespread public recognition while coaching the Arkansas Razorbacks.

A former dribbling whiz and former assistant college basketball coach whose singular recruiting coup was convincing Chicago native Tim Hardaway to play for Don Haskins at the University of Texas-El Paso, Bradburd had previously written Paddy on the Hardwood, his whimsical account of coaching professional basketball in Ireland.

In that work, you could feel Bradburd groping for his writing voice.

In Forty Minutes of Hell, he has found it.

The book traces Richardson’s life from its humble beginnings and being raised by Ol’ Mama, his grandmother who told him to knock doors to opportunity down, once given the chance, through his lofty heights at Arkansas, where his teams won the national championship over Duke in 1994, through his long-term conflicts with athletic director Frank Broyles and 2002 firing after he made derogatory remarks about Arkansas’ white fans.

The book is more than a recounting of an extroardinary man’s life.

Bradburd paints a portrait of a complex and charismatic man full of epic strengths and very related weaknesses that contribute to his undoing.   The sections in which he describes the physical decline and death of Richardson’s daughter Yvonne are hard to read.

At the same time, Bradburd also puts Richardson’s career within the context of the history of race in America generally, and the history of black coaches in particular.  He almost seamlessly weaves in the names and considerable accomplishments of other coaches at least as talented as Richardson who never got the chance to rise in the ranks because of racist practices.

This is by no means to suggest that Richardson had an easy road.

He worked his way up rung by rung, racking up championships at every level through a team of superbly well-conditioned athletes playing the uniquely aggressive brand of basketball referred to in the book’s title.

Bradburd also has a graceful denouement as he describes Richardson’s years after his firing, including a stint coaching the Mexican national team-a job that allowed him to use the Spanish skills he had forged during his childhood.  He and Broyles have a reconciliation of sorts, too.

In short, Bradburd has written a book that succeeds in the major tasks one expects of a biography: bringing a compelling central figure to life by showing him in all his complexity, and placing his individual journey within the larger human story through an explanation of the times in which he has lived.

I hope others take the time to read this worthwhile book.

Black History Month: NBA All Star Weekend and John Edgar Wideman’s Hoop Roots

John Edgar Wideman shares his love for the game in Hoop Roots.

John Edgar Wideman shares his love for the game in Hoop Roots.

In addition to being Valentine’s Day, yesterday was Day Two of NBA All-Star Weekend in Phoenix.

It’s already been eventful, and the actual game hasn’t yet happened.

Highlights have included Kevin Durant going off for a 46-7-4 stat line in leading the sophomores to victory in the annual rookies-sophomores game and a razor-thin dunk contest in which 5’9″  Nate Robinson narrowly edged Dwight “Superman” Howard after using the seven-foot Howard as a prop in the final round.

There has also been a tip of the hat to history, as the game H-O-R-S-E has been added back to the weekend after a 16-year hiatus.  This being the new millennium, the game is actually spelled G-E-I-C-O, but the game remains the same. 

John Edgar Wideman has been playing basketball for just about 60 years now.  The decorated novelist, short story writer, and essayist writes about race, his life, and his bone-deep love for the game in Hoop Roots: Basketball, Race and Love.

Wideman writes from the very beginning that he needed basketball, because as a poor black boy growing up in the rough Homewood section of Pittsburgh, he needed to “single myself out.” 

Basketball became that way.   

Wideman was hooked from the first shot he hit and has played the game with love and passion since.

The prelude to the first chapter reads:

“We went to the playground court to find our missing fathers.  We didn’t find them but we found a game and the game served as a daddy of sorts.  We formed families of men and boys, male clans ruled and disciplined by the game’s demands, its hard, distant, implacable gaze, its rare, maybe loving embrace of us: the game taught us to respect it and respect ourselves and other players. Playing the game provided sanctuary, refuge from a hostile world, and also toughened us by instructing us in styles for coping with that world.”

This excerpt, which goes on to talk about the boys leaving the men behind, introduces many of the book’s major themes: the love of the game and the lessons learned on the court; the forging of  male identity in the absence of fathers; life beyond the veil that W.E.B. DuBois described in The Souls of Black Folk; and the game’s impact on the players.

The book is about far more than Wideman’s recounting of his gradually emerging  prowess-he became an All-Ivy League forward at the University of Pennsylvania and the reader can feel him swell with pride when college coach Jack McCloskey  tells Wideman that he was the best rebounder on any team McCloskey had ever been associated with in his years in the game.

The book is rich and multi-layered, combining an imagined trip by the Harlem Globetrotters to Illinois, where the only black resident was lynched, reflections of Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and the development of minstrely, a painful recounting of Homewood native Maurice Stokes’ paralyzing injury, and Wideman’s enduring passion for the game.

Hoop Roots is intensely personal, too. 

Wideman writes about the distintegration of his 30-year marriage and contains a chapter in which he and his former wife Judy have a dialogue about their lives.  Wideman also has a section in which he nearly receives fellatio from a female student who has just graduated from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and shows up to his office dressed like Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct.

These titillating revelations aside, Hoop Roots also has lots of rhythmic and varied writing.  Wideman moves between staccato, verbless sentences as well as longer riffs that evoke a trumpeter’s jazz solo. 

Wideman’s final sentence is an example of the latter.

He writes, “The time our bare feet in the ring sout on southern plantations, tapped on the boards of Catherine Street wharf in New York City after we’d sold our oysters, and figured out more money was to be made, more space liberated by the mesmerizing charms of our flying feet, the tune drummed in just yesterday by the dribbler’s measured patting of the basketball as he jooks, spins, scoots over the asphalt on the court in the Village, over the coourt in Westinghouse Park, the park reappearing right on theim now after we’ve played at losing it, Freed, on time because it’s okay to go there now, it’s time to rename it, reclaim it, to let the thought of it materialize again, every detail clear, ready, and shining as we hump down the track or down Finance, Freed, to catch a run.”

In the end, the marriage ends, but the love for the game endures.  And so, with the fusion of time and music and soul, with the knowledge that balling means leaving the women behind, with the memories of his Homewood roots, in New York city on “one morning soon”, with other men, Wideman goes to play again.

Challenging?  Certainly.  Uplifting? Not necessarily.

Worth the time? Definitely. 

 The All-Star game begins  tonight at 8:00 p.m., but for anyone looking for something to do before it starts, I recommend picking up Hoop Roots and spending a few hours with it before LeBron, Kobe,  D-Wade and company show the world what they have for them tonight. 

Their skills may be greater than Wideman’s teammates, but I doubt they love the game more.

Little known hoops hero Melvin Juette

Melvin Juette lost his ability to walk in a gang-related shooting in Chicago, but his basketball career was just beginning.

Melvin Juette lost his ability to walk in a gang-related shooting in Chicago, but his basketball career was just beginning.

The NBA has already seen plenty of highlights and exciting plot lines, ranging from the Boston Celtics’ emphatic answer to the question of whether they would have a letdown  after they won their 17th championship to equally decisive responses about whether LeBron James and Chris Paul are the best player and point guard in the game, respectively.

Hoops junkies looking for an unusual fix should consider reading Melvin Juette’s memoir, Wheelchair Warrior: Gangs, Disability and Basketball.

For those of us in the Chicago area, Melvin is a local boy who came up on the South Side.  He grew up in an intact two-family home, but started to run the streets during his teen years. 

A bullet shot during a dispute between two other young men ripped through Juette’s spinal cord when he was just 16 years old.  While he was not killed, he would never walk again.

Despite this devastating loss, Juette says that his paralysis was both the “best and worst thing that happened.”  In addition to keeping him alive and out of prison, Juette’s participation in wheelchair basketball is a major factor in his paralysis being the best thing that happened to him.

He has had a distinguished career. 

From not initially knowing what to do on the court, Juette quickly dedicated himself to the game and saw significant success.  Eventually, Juette played for the U.S. National Wheelchair Basketball team in many tournaments, winning gold on numerous occasions.

The books is slight, but powerful.  People unfamiliar with wheelchair basketball will recognize the same passion they see in a college basketball game while reading Juette’s description. 

He also talks forthrightly about social challengese with women, the politics of interracial dating and marriage-Juette is black, while his first and second wives have both beenn black-the difficulties he encountered in school, the need he felt to leave Chicago in order to reach his potential and the bitter disappointment he felt falling just short of the gold medal twice in the Paralympic Games.

Juette writes very much as if he speaks, which allows the reader to feel as if he is part of a conversation.  His story is sandwiched by introductory and summary comments by social professor Ronald Berger.  Berger’s essays frame Juette’s experience in more academic terms than Juette’s straightforward language.

The book has some weak points 

Juette’s account is a bit sparse in talking about his and other family member’ gang involvement, and, while the book is long in honesty in many areas, it is a bit thin on reflection and emotional insight.   The contrast between Juette and Berger’s writing style  also can be a bit jarring.

These flaws are not fatal, though.  For people who love hoops, disability or both, Wheelchair Warrior is informative, inspirational and worth the time.