Tuesday, July 31, 2012

"Heaven Is A Playground" by Rick Telander Review

A while back, I posted a list of my top ten high school and college basketball books. Along with that, I naturally got some great recommendations for other books I would enjoy (with lots of good ones especially from KraigW)... one great recommendation was The Last Shot by Darcy Frey, and another was Heaven Is a Playground by Rick Telander.

It was a fantastic book, and if you haven't read it, you should. I was a little slow getting into it at first, because there were so many characters. By the end of the book, I came to realize that was the beauty of the book - there were so many characters, so many storylines, so many stories and people intersecting all at one place, the playground.

Ostensibly, the book was in many ways about Fly Williams, a streetball legend that starred at Austin Peay, but never really could control himself (or allow himself to be controlled) to really became a great player in the NBA, which certainly he had the talent to do. He was a guy that had many chances, but ruined them all. Deep down, it seemed, he wanted to make it big, but more that that he didn't want to leave what he had in Brooklyn, because that was the only life he knew.

The most interesting part about the book to me was seeing how the guys did when they got out of Brooklyn, and went away to college. Some guys thrived, some guys came right back home because things were too different. Telander writes:

"Listening to the conversation I have to wonder what college really is like for these Brooklyn youths. Away from neighborhood confines for the first extended period of time, thrown into university environments dominated by whites with little comprehension of street behavior, the players must find themselves in a strange land. Perhaps their whole personality changes to fit the surroundings; perhaps they return to smaller groups of similarly displaced blacks. At the larger, more cosmopolitan schools the change probably is not so dramatic. But at the Austin Peays and Murray States and St. Francises and Fairfields, where Rodney sends most of his players, the social climate occasionally must be so at odds with the experiences of ghetto life as to seem totally bizarre, if not incomprehensible."
Telander goes into more detail also in an excellent interview with Bethlehem Shoals (which you should also read):

We see kids go off to school and get flat-out homesick. They're going to an Ivy League school or a state school that they've always wanted to get into, and people are saying, "Oh man, it's great," and then they come home. Because part of them is comfortable with what they did before, and we all feel that. I was lucky that I had finally gotten over most of that, but I still needed my rootedness -- knowing that I could go home. That's how the book ended, with me going home. I'm saying goodbye to everybody even if they're asleep. Music Smith is just passed out on the bench. I knew some of these guys I would never see again, and some would die, like Music did. He's a nice guy.

That was always there: These are real people who are torn between real choices and real oppression that we all feel, the world's holding you back and yet the world's saying go.
All in all, it was a book that was written about streetball players in 1973, but you get the feeling that more things have stayed the same rather than have changed. As Shoals wrote, "Both of its time and pointedly timeless, Telander's highly personal ethnography captures a moment in history, while at the same time providing the definitive take on inner city basketball."

Judging by the content of this blog, I am confident in saying that anyone who reads this site, will enjoy this book. It's that good.

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