Judy A. Gilleland
Volume 6.2
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Boys on the Block

Darcy Frey
The Last Shot: City Streets, Basketball Dreams
Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1994
New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996—A Touchstone Book

On the copyright page of the Touchstone Edition of The Last Shot: City Streets, Basketball Dreams, Darcy Frey conscientiously announces: "This is a work of nonfiction. I have changed the names of Russell Thomas and his mother." Like the equally conscientious makers of the documentary film Hoop Dreams (1994), Frey endeavors to follow the lives of inner-city black high school basketball players as they negotiate the obstacles facing them in their hopes of playing college basketball. Arriving in Coney Island in the summer of 1991, the summer before three of the four youths—Russell Thomas, Corey Johnson and Tchaka Shipp—begin their senior year at Abraham Lincoln High School, Frey stays with the boys for eight months until the climactic basketball game between Lincoln and its rival high school, William Grady. "In the next eight months," writes Frey, "if everything goes as it should, these players will be offered the chance—so rare under any circumstances, but especially rare in a place like Coney Island—to change irrevocably the course of their lives just as they are coming into adulthood." As the book details, Frey accompanies the players to summer basketball camps and tournaments, recruitment visits, the neighborhood playground court called "the Garden" (after the New York Knicks' arena), and the players' own homes. The Last Shot is Frey's attempt to witness and expose the injustice of the college recruiting process—especially that of the Nike All-American Basketball Camp—and chronicle the tragically disappointed hopes of many inner-city basketball players.

What is especially interesting about Frey's book is the way it transcends the genre of nonfiction. Formally, the book resembles a novel, and the reporter a storyteller; Frey does not merely report what happens, but crafts his story into a tale that takes on mythic proportions. In fact, the author presents the story as a specific (and ironic) instance of a much larger cultural narrative— as "a cruel parody" of "the American Dream." The book is set in the housing projects of Coney Island, once famous for its amusement parks and the welcome it accorded to thousands of Jewish, Irish and Italian immigrants. Today, the Island is a casualty of urban renewal, a place doomed to "isolate its impoverished and predominantly black tenants" from the heart of New York City. In Frey's story, Coney Island embodies the stereotypical inner-city public housing project often presented in media commentaries on urban blight.

Frey does an excellent job penetrating that world, making vivid the lives of its inhabitants, and contrasting the boys' struggles to become basketball stars (and college recruiters' promise of a "pot of gold at the end of the rainbow") with their poor living conditions:

    Upstairs, his family's apartment is oppressively small: a living room, kitchenette, bathroom with walls of peeling brown paint, and two bedrooms. His mother has one; Russell and his two younger sisters, using bunk beds and a cot, share the other. Tonight the temperature outside has dropped to 13 degrees, and with the apartment radiators offering little help, Russell's mother, even in her absence, is heating the place by warming a brick on top of the stove. From the top floors of all these projects you can see straight to the amusement park and the Atlantic Ocean beyond. But the vast, unobstructed views serve mostly as reminders of the punitive conditions in which the Thomases and everyone else in this neighborhood live, locked fearfully away behind their steel apartment doors.

The ever-present drug dealers and gangs that lurk around the basketball courts and in apartment hallways offer the other compelling alternative. According to Frey, basketball provides young people with a unique opportunity to escape this crime and squalor. Yet what Frey strives to expose is that the virtue of playing hard to win—the major tenet of the American Dream—is grossly deformed in inner-city environments like Coney Island.

The prologue of The Last Shot introduces the four main characters playing basketball at the "Garden," providing the reader with each protagonist's essential physical characteristics and personality. Tchaka Shipp, a resident of the "more working-class neighborhood of Jamaica, Queens," is conspicuously absent from this initial scene, and his absence points to the role that social class will play throughout the book. Tchaka himself comments on the reason for his absence: "Too many low-life, rowdy-ass Brooklyn niggers. I'm heading back to Queens. Now." At a certain level, we can say that each of the book's characters plays out a similar cultural narrative of weary urban hopelessness, one in which the actual characters may change, but the script remains the same. "Ain't nothing gonna change around here," remarks Russell, "except maybe the faces."

Meanwhile, not the words but the bodies of the players present in the first scene indicate their personalities. Here, Frey describes Stephon Marbury, who will be a freshman at Lincoln High in the fall:

    At first glance, Stephon doesn't look like the future of anything. He's diminutive, barely five feet nine, with the rounded forehead and delicate features of an infant. He sports a stylish razor cut and a newly pierced ear, and the huge gold stud seems to tilt his tiny bald head off its axis. Caught somewhere between puberty and superstardom, he walks around with his sneakers untied, the ends of his belt dropping suggestively from his pants, and half a Snickers bar extruding from his mouth.

This passage telescopes two leitmotifs of the book: professional basketball's focus on the athlete's body and Frey's attempt to see past the body, to see these "student-athletes" as complex human beings.

Detailed physical descriptions accompany each character, and as readers, we are constantly made to see the body. The brief physical description of Russell Thomas that opens the book ("Eighteen years old, he stands six feet two, weighs a hundred and eighty pounds, and is the proud owner of a newly shaved scalp and a small goatee") reproduces in small the marketplace of the body that it seeks to expose. Yet it is not the body but the mind, Frey insists, that has the power to make or break even the best athlete's career.

On its own, no amount of athletic prowess can send these protégés to Division I hoops, only strong grades and a 700 combined score on the SAT can do that; it is not the athlete but the student-athlete who can hope to succeed. After hearing that Russell received a 79 average on his grade report, his teammate, Tchaka, exclaims, "Yeah, Russell! You're a student-athlete now!" However, as Frey reminds us, the ultimate judge of the athlete's abilities as a student will be the SAT. The NCAA requires that a player achieve a combined score of 700 on the SAT in order to receive an athletic scholarship to a Division I school. Unfortunately for most inner-city players, this presents a major obstacle. In an overwhelming percentage of cases, the youngster is either athlete or student, not both at once. As Frey puts it, "In the world of high school basketball, the concept of the student-athlete often seems to rely primarily on its hyphen."

The consequences of this system are one-sided. While the colleges may not get their first choice of athletes, they will get players of some sort. The losers are the kids who must either go to junior colleges or drop out of school (and thus officially-recognized basketball) altogether. Frey criticizes the 700 point minimum as an obstacle that must prove insurmountable to students who, while they may work hard in school, have never been properly taught, due to an overcrowded and underfunded public education system. He emphasizes the need for a reevaluation of the standards used to measure the scholastic potential of these inner-city youths.

Frey's depiction of the Nike basketball camp underscores the contradictions of such athletic and academic expectations: "Officially," he writes, "the Nike camp is known as the ABCD program. The acronym stands for Academic Betterment and Career Development, and the players must take math and English classes from nine to twelve each morning and attend a lunchtime lecture by a guest speaker before the games begin in the afternoon." But Frey lucidly points out the gross contradictions of this program:

    [D]espite the attention to academics and all the talk among the Nike staff of "doing what's right for the kids," a certain cognitive dissonance becomes apparent to many of the players. If this is a fresh-air camp for disadvantaged inner-city youth, why are there so many solemn-faced coaches, scouting services, Hoop Scoop reporters, and ESPN camera crews recording their every move?…From the time the campers first arrived, they have been told, on an almost hourly basis, to concentrate on the academics and, as for basketball, "just go out there and have fun." But the measure of these kids' athletic ability is being taken constantly, all week and in dozens of different ways.… In addition to precise measurements of height, weight, and body fat, every player is put through a battery of tests to gauge his quickness on the forty-yard dash, vertical reach, hang time, arm span, and strength of grip.

Frey mentions a news headline describing the camp, which reads, "camp resembles state cattle exhibition," and a college coach echoes, "Yup, a lotta horses here." Not only do their bodies matter for the game, they matter for Nike. Their bodies will wear the Nike logo. Indicting what he sees as one of the most parasitic strategies in the already sleazy world of advertising, Frey muses:

    Nike is less interested in discovering what the coaches may think of their new cushioned sole than in encouraging them to keep Nike sneakers on the most talented and visible feet in the business—the college stars who influence schoolyard fashion and may also graduate to become the next great Nike endorsers.… The ABCD camp is an extension of this marketing strategy. It costs the company an estimated $200,000 to stage the camp each year. But it's an investment, allowing the long arms of Nike to reach ever deeper into the heart of the game, bringing the best high school players into the Nike fold.

Perhaps because of such transparently commercial motivations, the educational claims of ABCD do not convince the students or their families. As Stephon Marbury's father so poignantly puts it, cutting through the rhetoric that infuses Nike's camp, "This is a business—ain't nothing but." Lincoln High's Coach Hartstein, impressed with Russell's play at the camp, exults in more nuanced language, but his metaphor betrays the same cynicism: "If you were listed on the New York Stock Exchange, you would've posted a big gain today."

The player's bodies, minds and dreams are nesting grounds for parasites of all kinds—the author Frey included. At one point he is asked to play the part of the college recruiter and act out lines—composed chiefly of empty promises. The experience leaves Frey with a "peculiar aftertaste." He acknowledges that he, too, profits from writing the boys' story, without being able to help them except by driving them around and buying them the occasional fast food dinner. After being pressed by Mr. Marbury to pay for an interview about the latter's four outstanding sons (each of whom has gone through the Lincoln basketball program), Frey draws up a contract to pay each player's family a portion of the profits from his book. But, the author explains, the NCAA decides that such a transaction would "violate their status as amateur athletes and jeopardize their eligibility to play NCAA ball." In this instance, as in many others, Frey's book expresses his frustration at the utter hypocrisy of the "college basketball industry" and its sponsorship regulations. Such restrictions are symptomatic of a larger cultural and institutional problem, he implies, a system of exploitation which, as the boys in The Last Shot learn, continually reproduces an unproblematically commodified image of the athlete's body soaring through the marketplace—if it is allowed to play there.

Judy A. Gilleland

© 1998 Stanford Humanities Review unless otherwise noted.