Basketball novel fast-paced but not new

April 04, 1994|By John Eisenberg | John Eisenberg,Sun Staff Writer

Peter Gent is a former tight end for the Dallas Cowboys who was ahead of the learning curve in the early '70s when he wrote his scalding novel "North Dallas Forty." It condemned professional football for its violence and poor treatment of players.

Before his book, the game rarely had been viewed so cynically. Two decades later, Mr. Gent is a semi-famous football anarchist and his view has a strong set of subscribers.

Apparently, however, he has exhausted his assault on pro football (which he continued in "The Franchise" and "North Dallas After Forty"). In his new novel, "The Conquering Heroes," he switches games, taking on the many sins of college basketball, a sport in which he was an All-Big Ten performer at Michigan State.

He is, of course, far behind the learning curve this time -- college basketball was long ago revealed to be a cesspool of unethical, cynical behavior. It would be hard to break any new ground, and Mr. Gent doesn't. His coach at fictional Southwestern State University is, surprise, a crook. His star player is, surprise, a rapist. The athletic director is a puppet, boosters run the show -- you've seen it all before.

Still, this isn't just a sports book, and, writing with what would appear to be autobiographical clarity in many places, Mr. Gent manages to construct an original story that turns into a page-turner.

The setting alternates between the late 1950s/early '60s and the present. It tells the story of Pat Lee, a Michigan high school basketball star in the late '50s and later an assistant coach in charge of recruiting at Southwestern State.

An idealist as a high school star, he is corrupted and emasculated by a quarter-century in the college game, turning into just another hard-drinking, unhappy coach with a briefcase full of money. But he isn't happy about how dirty he feels.

We follow Pat as he shoots for the Michigan state championship with a small-town team and comes of age at the dawn of the Kennedy presidency and America's involvement in Vietnam. Obviously based in some part on Mr. Gent's life, these passages basically serve as a polemic for liberal politics. The basketball scenes and tales of small-town America ring truer than the political debate, but it's all sharply drawn.

When the story switches to today, we find Pat in dire straits. His former high school teammate, Barry Sand, is now his boss, a snake of a star college coach. Pat buys the players and does most of the coaching, but Sand gets the credit. (As if that weren't enough, Sand steals his high school sweetheart!)

When the team's best player rapes a student, Sand and the campus police conspire to cover it up and harass the woman so that she won't cause trouble. Pat is co-opted into the cover-up but can't bring himself to take part. ("He has the mindset of a Nazi, the brain of a hummingbird and a $200-a-day cocaine habit," Pat wails about the star player. "How do you suggest I communicate?")

While the rape crisis bubbles back home, Pat jumps through the usual recruiting hoops in seeking a couple of high school stars in Detroit and Houston. He grows increasingly unhappy with his lot and trying to find the courage to take on the system that has ruined him.

The pressure steadily builds to perhaps the weakest part of the novel: a highly dramatic ending that, though satisfying, isn't particularly believable.

There is much to recommend about the novel, though. Mr. Gent writes in a spare style, keeps the pace fast and knows the language that jocks speak. His high school basketball scenes are among the best you will find in print anywhere.

The tales of modern college basketball give the novel its irony and drama, but Mr. Gent's portrait of small-town life in 1960 is its strength. As Bill Walton writes on a blurb printed on the cover, "[The book is] about a whole generation of kids who came of age in an America I grew up in."

This is not the "North Dallas Forty" of college basketball, because the sport can't be exposed any more than it already has been. But Mr. Gent, as usual, is far from dull.

Mr. Eisenberg is a sports columnist for The Sun.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "The Conquering Heroes"

Author: Peter Gent

Publisher: Donald I. Fine

Length, price: 300 pages, $21.95

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