It's easy to make an argument for basketball as America's sport, even if it was invented by a Canadian. You don't need expensive equipment to play; a ball and a park will suffice. Everyone who plays is involved, unless you have a teammate who never passes. It welcomes players from all over the world. Basketball is a manifestation of democracy.
If you don't believe me, head to your local bookstore or library and check out the latest in a fast break of great hoops books. One is an anthology from the venerable Library of America, simply called "Basketball: Great Writing About America's Game" ($35). The other is "The Soul of Basketball" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $27), Ian Thomsen's deeply reported account of the 2010-11 NBA season that concluded with the Dallas Mavericks' only NBA championship. The hero of Thomsen's book is a guy named Dirk, a German immigrant who took his lumps and rose to triumph over the world's best players.
There's been no shortage of dynamic roundball reads of late, including Sam Smith's "Hard Labor: The Battle That Birthed the Billion-Dollar NBA;" "Golden," Jack McCallum's story of Jerry West's outsized impact on California hoops; and "Beta Ball," Eric Malinowski's study of how the powerhouse Golden State Warriors took a page from the Silicon Valley playbook. The two new entries more than hold their own in such company. They speak to the multitudes contained within the game, whether it's played on the biggest stage in the world or a playground after dark.
The Soul of Basketball should be of particular interest to Dallas readers, given the prominent place of No. 41 in its pages. Thomsen posits that the 2010-11 season was a turning point for the NBA. It started with "The Decision," LeBron James' widely criticized, nationally televised announcement that he would leave his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers to join the Miami Heat. It ended with Nowitzki leading the Mavericks over those same Heat in the NBA Finals, bringing James a dose of humility and perspective that he has carried through three championships of his own.
In between, Thomsen spends time with Doc Rivers, trying to squeeze one more glory run out of his Boston Celtics; Joey Crawford, the cantankerous referee nearing the end of his career; and other big personalities familiar to fans of the game.
In Thomsen's view, the NBA was facing an identity crisis in the wake of The Decision. James, once the league's shining hope, had been recast as an opportunistic villain. Every villain needs a hero.
Enter Dirk. Now considered best European player in NBA history, he helped open the floodgate for the international talent that now fills the league. To Thomsen, this makes him more than just a star but also an embodiment of the country's highest aspirations.
"The NBA is a theater to America," Thomsen says by phone. "On the stage of this theater it's the immigrant who defines our values and renews them. It's the immigrant story of America, where our country is constantly being renewed by the newcomers, the people who come here because they believe in the ideals. That's what Dirk is to me."
(Thomsen, who spent a lot of time around the Mavericks in reporting the book, says he saw no sign of the organization's sexual harassment and workplace issues that have emerged in recent weeks. "But I wasn't looking for it, either," he says. "And if I was writing this book now, I'd be looking for it everywhere.")
If The Soul of Basketball uses a single season as a microcosm for the state of the sport, the Library of America anthology casts a wide net that goes far beyond the NBA. The league is certainly represented here, with pieces including Mark Jacobson's Gonzo-like profile of Julius Erving; an excerpt from David Halberstam's classic "The Breaks of the Game;" and Herbert Warren Wind's vintage appraisal of Celtics great Bob Cousy.
In that piece, Wind recalls the days when pro games "were customarily held in smoky halls on the wrong side of town as the first half of a curious double-header event: After the final whistle had blown, someone spread corn meal over the floor to make it more slippery, a five-piece orchestra unlimbered its music stands and struck up 'Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes,' and everybody danced." No, the T-shirt cannon had not yet been introduced.
The soul of the collection, which was edited by veteran sports writer Alexander Wolff, lies away from the limelight. It lies in Melissa King, a young Arkansas woman who spent a summer playing pickup ball in Chicago and found new purpose in the rhythms of the game she always loved. Her essay, "It's All in the Game," is among the book's highlights. So is the excerpt from Darcy Frey's book "The Last Shot," which follows a group of teens and their hoop dreams in the urban blight of Coney Island. "On a night like this," writes Frey, "as the dealers set up their drug marts in the streets and alleyways, and the sounds of sirens and gunfire keep pace with the darkening sky, it feels like the end of the world."
Wolff, whose piece on John Wooden stoically mourning the death of his wife is included in the collection, sees a connection between the book's range of material and the sport it chronicles.
"What helped give the book variety is that basketball is that thing that everybody has played, shooting hoops on the playground or driveway or playing your dad one-on-one," Wolff says by phone. "Women play. People in wheelchairs play. It's played in the ward hall of the Mormon youth center. It's played in small-town Indiana and inner-city Chicago. I think if we could play it out in the ocean, we would."
Wolff, whose 2002 book "Big Game, Small World" looked at the game's global spread, echoes Thomsen's view that basketball is a crucial American export. The latest sign of the times: As the NBA draft approaches, a Slovenian teen, Luka Doncic, has a shot at being selected No. 1 overall. Closer to home, the Mavericks have a Tunisian center, Salah Mejri.
America spreads basketball throughout the world, then welcomes the best to compete on its shores. "You're as likely to run into an NBA fan in Mumbai as you are in Baltimore," Wolff says. "If you think of America projecting culture, basketball has been a big part of that."
It's the sport that can introduce an awkward German kid to Dallas, and applaud as he turns himself into a champion.
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