Check It Out

Courier Article by DeeDee Shoemaker
Sunday, March 2, 2008

March Madness Makes Great Reading

If televised sports events cause you to suffer serious bouts of attention deficit disorder, how in the world are you going to get through the coming month? The sure-fire Readers' Advisor antidote for March Madness is as follows: make an early claim on the most comfortable chair in the house, hand the remote control to someone who cares, and settle in with a stack of good books. You can still pose as a team player; just check out some of the great recent selections about basketball at your neighborhood public library.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the legendary NBA all-time leading scorer, has written a series of books examining African American contributions to our national history. His latest, On the Shoulders of Giants: My Journey through the Harlem Renaissance (Simon & Schuster, 2007), frames the story of black American basketball within the New York cultural revolution of the 1920s and ‘30s. Abdul-Jabbar reverently describes the achievements of the athletes, artists, and thinkers who made up the Harlem Renaissance and places them in counterpoint to their impact on his own passions and successes. He reserves a special place in his heart for jazz, and, in one remarkable section of the book, illuminates the innovation, energy, and elegance that passed between the music and the basketball being played at that historic time.

The Harlem Renaissance Five basketball team may represent the sport's nobility, but the fictional protagonist of MVP: a Novel (Scribner, 2007) exposes its tawdry side. Groomed from birth to excel at the game by an obsessive and emotionally distant father, Gilbert Marcus knows everything about superstardom on the basketball court but nothing about life outside the gym. He desperately takes his cues from the locker room machismo and celebrity worshipping pop culture surrounding him, with tragic results. This provocative first novel of 25-year-old author James Boice is graphic, funny, and an uncomfortably real-feeling modern cautionary tale.

According to Can I Keep My Jersey? 11 Teams, 5 Countries, and 4 Years in My Life as a Basketball Vagabond (Villard, 2007), basketball can be an awfully tough way to make a living. Paul Shirley's book is an extension of his popular blog, in which he recounts the highs and lows of making it in the world of professional sports. Highs, as in taking the court for the Houston Rockets, the Phoenix Suns, and the Chicago Bulls. Lows, as in borrowing the minor-league team minivan for a date in Bowling Green, becoming an inadvertent speaker in a language he doesn't understand at a war protest in Barcelona, and lacerating his spleen on the home court of the Indiana Pacers. His writing may be a little too self-deprecating for some and not quite politically correct enough for others, but his story is a good one. Through it all, Shirley never loses his wry sense of humor or his hopeful, nice guy outlook.

High school basketball is a sensation in Alaskan bush country. Author and journalist Michael D'Orso spent the 2004-05 school year in the remote Athabascan Gwich'in village of Fort Yukon studying this phenomenon. The resulting book, Eagle Blue: a Team, a Tribe, and a High School Basketball Season in Arctic Alaska (Bloomsbury, 2006) describes a people alienated by the conflict between tradition and modernity, but that recovers its sense of community under the bright lights of the school gym. D'Orso never prettifies the harshness of the young players' lives, but his descriptions of the compassionate, insightful coaching they receive and the thrill of their season-long journey toward the state championship tournament are beautiful to read.

DeeDee Shoemaker is a Readers' Advisor at Central Library. The opinions expressed in this column are personal and do not reflect policies or official recommendations of the library.