Life and Death Under the Hoop

November 24, 1994|By GEORGE F. WILL

New York -- In broad swaths of this high-rise city the horizon of hope is defined by a steel hoop hung just 10 feet above the concrete. Basketball, the game of kinetic grace in a confined space, combines, like urban living itself, high energy and barely controlled contact. Today it exemplifies both the exhilarations and pathologies of urban life, as a new movie and a new book make shatteringly clear.

''Hoop Dreams'' is a documentary tracing the five-year journey of two black Chicago teen-agers through the downward trajectory of their extravagant hopes for salvation through basketball.

Even better than the movie -- score one for print journalism -- is Darcy Frey's slender book ''The Last Shot: City Streets, Basketball Dreams,'' an elegantly told sad story of young black men playing with literally life-and-death desperation in Brooklyn's Coney Island wasteland, where there are two basic career paths -- drugs, and a basketball scholarship to college.

See the movie. But first read the Frey book so you will better understand the sorrows you see as two Chicago lives hang by threads as thin and fragile as knee ligaments.

Nasty neighborhoods are nothing new in the human story but Coney Island, a lunarscape of warehoused poor, drug markets and basketball courts, bears the distinctive stigma of government's infliction of good intentions.

In the 1950s, in the name of ''urban renewal,'' planners had the lunatic idea of piling up poor people 14-stories deep in apartment blocs built where organic neighborhoods were bulldozed to make room. The result, startling only to the planners, is concentrated misery.

The players Darcy Frey befriended attended Lincoln High School, which in better days produced three Nobel laureates in physics, but which now almost never produces among its famously gifted athletes any who can get the 700 SAT score necessary for an athletic scholarship at a Division I school. Your heart will be in your throat as you read about Russell Thomas' attempts to get to 700.

Clutching SAT review books and vocabulary cards the way a shipwrecked sailor clings to a spar, Russell is caught in the surrealism of a system that promises a young man glittering prizes if he perfects a jump shot, but prevents him from rising on its arc because nothing in his home or school prepared him to know the synonym for ''panache.'' Russell aims not for the NBA but for ''a nice small tight school where they'll look after me and I can get my degree in nursing and I'll never have to come back to Coney Island.'' How did he do? Buy the book.

A summer meat market called a ''camp,'' run by the Nike shoe company and attended by drooling college coaches, almost all white, displays the talents of 120 players, almost all black, 97 of whom read below the ninth-grade level. All have the athletic skills to play big-time college basketball but most of those who will make their SAT 700 will arrive on campuses ''with no idea how to take lecture notes, read a college text, use a library or write a research paper.''

Coaches recruit with a ruthlessness commensurate with the billions of dollars of television fees, ticket sales, shoe contracts and other revenues sloshing through the entertainment industry called ''amateur athletics'' that has been grafted onto America's system of higher education. A measure of the coaches' minuscule moral awareness is that they unblushingly made their smarmy pitches to the Lincoln players in front of the author. Their oily quarter-truths and robust lies give a dark new meaning to the axiom that sport does not just build character, it reveals it.

If the purest immorality is to treat another human being as a mere means to the achievement of one's ends, big-time college athletics -- there are honorable exceptions, as at Georgetown University -- achieves a ghastly purity as it wrings wealth from young bodies and then discards their possessors at age 22, with minds untrained for the rest of their lives.

The grinding arithmetic of delusion is this: Fewer than 1 percent of the more than 500,000 high school basketball players get Division I athletic scholarships. However, given where young inner-city men start, and how little their homes and schools give them to start with, a long shot can look like the only shot they have at escape. Hence the intensity of their pursuit.

Long ago Bayard Rustin, the civil-rights leader, pausing to watch teen-agers playing basketball on a Harlem court, said it was heartbreaking how good they were. He understood the desperation that is the goad to such grace in a confining space.

9- George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.