Net profits


By Lars Anderson and Chad Millman
$15, 203 pp.

How do we explain seemingly sane adults spending hard-earned money to watch a bunch of hot, sweaty people they’ve never met run around a court trying to throw a ball through a hoop? Is it the thrill of competition, the desire to be affiliated with success, or some diabolical plot by corporate America to fill its coffers?

According to Lars Anderson and Chad Millman’s highly detailed, easy-to-read book, Pickup Artists, it’s a convoluted mixture of all these reasons.

But more importantly than watching basketball, playing basketball offers an escape. For some, it’s a release from the monotony of everyday routine. For others, it can possibly lead to a better economic life. But at what cost?

Putting everything into a historical context, Anderson and Millman argue that basketball has never been a mere game. Rather, they say it’s always been rooted in the streets and playgrounds. Since the early part of this century, immigrants and ethnic minorities, including Jews and Native Americans, gravitated toward basketball, believing it was an escape from discrimination and a way into the American mainstream.

In many cases, they were successful. Some self-organized neighborhood teams gained such noteworthy reputations that they competed against college and pro teams. In 1948, an all-black playground team, the Harlem Globetrotters, beat the all-white Minneapolis Lakers, who went on to win one National Basketball League and four NBA championships.

Represented by the Globetrotters, black athletes made a strong statement in professional sports, and by 1950 the NBA was integrated.

But as playground basketball gained more attention, this success came at a price for the game and its players. Integration drained talent from teams such as the Globetrotters; they went from being world-class to being a mediocre team depending on clever tricks and showmanship.

A shift also began for the sport itself. The old school, which relied on team play with frequent passing, changed to a more individual-oriented style that saw players clamoring for attention for themselves.

The reason? Money. As basketball became more popular with players and spectators alike, successful college programs and winning professional teams raked in millions of dollars. Serious competition arose as teams tried to obtain talented players, often with offers of fame and fortune. Talent scouts scoured playgrounds and pick-up games to find the next diamond in the rough. Players who stood out from their teammates were often able to negotiate better compensation, even if they played for a losing team (a pattern that now repeats with the advent of professional women’s leagues).

As the game’s financial success grew, so did the involvement of major corporations. Since before the 1920s, when middle-class whites "slummed" in black clubs to hear jazz, America’s popular culture has often been dictated by its inner-city, primarily black, populace. By early 1970, inner-city basketball was the next cash cow for corporate bigwigs.

In 1972, the Converse shoe company "officially recognized" playground basketball and fashion with a commercial complete with street lingo and Muhammad Ali-style poetry.

As suburbanites flocked to distorted and glorified visions of ghetto hipness, inner-city kids strove to attain shoes and clothing beyond their means. Their culture was repackaged, remarketed and sold back to them. While their existence was seemingly validated in marketing campaigns, they could no longer afford to look the part.

The talent of some of these early players is unquestionable. Stories in the book include the time the legendary Earl "the Goat" Manigault dunked on two future pro Hall-of-Famers, Lew Alcindor (now known as Kareem Abdul-Jabar) and Connie Hawkins, and the time Joe Hammond scored 50 points on Julius Erving.

But varying combinations of personal flaws and lack of opportunity kept these ghetto superstars out of the limelight. Some succumbed to drugs or crime, others lacked the discipline to hone their talents, while others simply fell through the cracks.

Even so, many of these stars were still able to show their skills in grassroots-organized basketball tournaments. Individual tournaments, including Michigan’s own Gus Macker tournaments, have kept the game alive for millions of youngsters by teaching basketball fundamentals, providing an alternative to the streets and sometimes even offering academic help.

For decades, coaches have put teams together solely for competing in these tournaments, often earning significant financial compensation for both the staff and players. Some youth teams boast dozens of former players who have made it to the NBA. Some tournaments are so established that pros such as Allen Iverson still play in them.

The NBA may have the glitz and glamour, but players in these tournaments know their credibility is still based in the streets. The weight of these games can be so strong, write Anderson and Millman, that at times drug dealers have bankrolled teams to boost their standing in the community.

But tournaments, too, have become big business. Corporate sponsors offer top teams and tournaments hundreds of thousands of dollars, and coaches have been known to recruit players as young as 7 years old. These young players are treated as commodities, giving them a lasting impression of basketball as a form of commerce.

With thorough research and dozens of heart-wrenching stories, Anderson and Millman leave no doubt that the game of basketball, for players and fans alike, is a double-edged sword. The time for fun and games isn’t over yet, but it’s getting tricky figuring out who wins in the end.