Major novelists such as Bernard Malamud and supremely accomplished journalists like Roger Angell have applied a high literary gloss to baseball, turning the sport into a field of dreams for ambitious scribes. Basketball, in contrast, lags far behind in its literary prestige.
I cannot think of a single novel about basketball that I would recommend, and there are only two works of nonfiction on the sport that one might call “great”: Pete Axthelm’s The City Game, a twinned account of the 1969-70 championship season of the New York Knicks and the city’s near-mythical playground legends, and A Sense of Where You Are, John McPhee’s profile of the Princeton phenom Bill Bradley. As George Plimpton, who wrote about his amateur forays into boxing, baseball, football, golf, and even hockey, once said, the smaller the ball, the better the book.
Thomas Beller vigorously dissents. A flâneur in basketball sneakers, he evokes the hold basketball has on roundball obsessives with the kind of affection, enthusiasm, and inside knowledge that gym rats of all ages should find impossible to resist.
I’ve known and admired Tom for almost three decades. I had the good taste to publish his terrific first book, the story collection Seduction Theory, in the mid-90s, when I was a book editor. He’s had a various and, come to think of it, Plimptonian career as a short-story writer and memoirist, literary-magazine editor, Internet pioneer, biographer, New Yorker contributor, teacher, and all-around ornament on the literary scene. But on the evidence of this book, he has as much playground asphalt in his blood as—excuse the anachronism—printer’s ink. He might get lost in the game, but he also found himself in it.
The book is a many-angled collection, and fans of the N.B.A. and big-time college programs will find much of interest in its pages. It includes fond reminiscences about Latrell Sprewell, the man who gave new athletic meaning to the concept of choking, and who actually did what all long-suffering Knicks fans dream of doing by cursing owner James Dolan to his face; James Harden and his trademark step-back three-pointer; the transcendently gifted Zion Williamson and his injury-plagued entry into the professional ranks; and, inevitably, Steph Curry and the championship Warriors.
Marbled into this collection is an autobiographical portrait of the artist as a young baller. At age 12 he was drawn, “against common sense and good judgment,” to the pickup games on Riverside Drive. Tom persevered, and he ended up playing varsity ball for St. Ann’s (an arty Brooklyn high school whose games are seldom attended by professional scouts) and Vassar (sometimes starting on a surprisingly strong team).
A flâneur in basketball sneakers, he evokes the hold basketball has on roundball obsessives with the kind of affection, enthusiasm, and inside knowledge that gym rats of all ages should find impossible to resist.
But his soul is still in the playground, and apparently he has game: I was pleased to learn that Tom can dunk occasionally, even if, by his own account, he is more likely to be dunked on. Now 57, he still regularly plays playground ball, substituting older-guy guile and a cranky unwillingness to back down from an argument for long-departed hop and speed.
No matter what age you are, you really never know what will be facing you when you head to the playground. You could just enjoy a sweaty afternoon as a happy Homo ludens, or you could suddenly find yourself in a tense High Noon situation if the wrong player takes a visceral dislike to you. In the most upsetting episode in the book, a player with the ominous nickname of “Homicide” takes such a dislike to Tom, a confrontation that ends with our narrator’s head thudding on the ground. The Pavement of Dreams can turn into a Theater of Cruelty in a New York minute.
Playground basketball is urban life in microcosm. We all have to get along with strangers in public spaces. Sometimes it goes well and sometimes it gets tense, and occasionally even violent. You find out who you are and aren’t very quickly. Lost in the Game may be the best book ever written on this democratic but friction-rich aspect of playground basketball.
Now, about that literary gloss. Tom’s allusions are, I feel confident in asserting, unique to the literature of basketball. His most inspired is the notion that he might adapt the schema of John Cheever’s classic story “The Swimmer” to basketball, substituting city courts for the pools the protagonist swims his way through on his haunting suburban odyssey. Klay Thompson’s reluctance to step to the microphone after the Warriors win their first championship reminds him of Bartleby the Scrivener (“No, he seems to indicate, he would prefer not to”). The Nuggets’ give-and-go offense as it revolves around center Nikola Jokić reminds him, improbably, of J. D. Salinger’s story “De Daumier-Smith’s Blue Period.”
Lost in the Game amounts to a kind of poem, as Tom writes, to “basketball’s mystical, spiritual allure—basketball as a drug, as a safe space, as a unique experience of time.” Or, as G. K. Chesterton wrote, 17 years after James Naismith thought to attach a peach basket to a wall, “The true object of all human life is play. Earth is a task garden; heaven is a playground.”
Gerald Howard, a retired book editor, is working on a biography of Malcolm Cowley