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Big Game, Small World

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Big Game, Small World: A Basketball Adventure by Alexander Wolff. Readers of my other weblog will no doubt be thrilled to know that the basketball content will be extending to the book log as well. What can I say, I’m a hoop junkie.

As noted a while back, there seems to be some inverse correlation between the pace of a sport, and the quality of the literature surrounding it. A good example in support of this would be the fact that there aren’t really any great novels (that I can think of) about basketball (though Bruce Brooks’s The Moves Make the Man is a pretty good YA-ish book).

The game has, however, produced some very good non-fiction books. John Feinstein’s A March to Madness, describing a season in the Atlantic Coast Conference, and his The Last Amateurs, about a season in the smaller Patriot League, are examples of good writing about a great game. Feinstein’s prone to repetition– you can never really lose sight of the point he has in mind for one of his books, as he repeats it every three pages or so– but as sports writing goes, they’re excellent books.

Into that same category, I’d insert Big Game, Small World. A hoop junkie like myself, but a journalist by trade, Wolff set out to investigate the state of basketball around the world, visiting sixteen different countries, from Canada, where Dr. James Naismith (the inventor of the game) was born, to Bhutan, where the king has a daily pick-up game with the Royal Guards, to Angola and Bosnia, where the games go on in spite of bloody civil wars.

Given that context, it was particularly surprising to find a mention of my home town, when Wolff visits a Gus Macker 3-on-3 tournament in Florida:


Trolling through the courts, I found a team to follow. The Whitney Point Eagles came from a town of about 1,000 on the southern tier of New York State. They’d qualified for the nationals by winning the 11- and 12-year-old girls’ division at the Macker in Norwich, New York, back in July. To fund their trip, the Eagles had spent the intervening months raising more than $3,000 with car washes, bake sales, and raffles, and “by returning a lot of bottles and cans,” according to one of the girls’ moms, all of whom had made the trip. (The dads were back in Whitney Point, making do with delivered Domino’s.)

(I have two quibbles with the last aside: first, as far as I know, Domino’s won’t deliver to Whitney Point, and second, there’s better pizza available in town…)

It turns out that I actually sort-of-know one of the girls mentioned in the book (I’ve played pick-up games with her father, and she and her father used to borrow my father’s gym keys on a regular basis so she could practice). They’re only in the book for a page or two, but it’s a decent description, and more than Whitney Point usually rates. And it’s a kick to see girls my father used to coach mentioned in the same book as the basketball-playing Bhutanese royal family.

The pieces are generally very good, but the book is subject to the general flaws that plague sports writing. First, Wolff has a tendency to try to stretch for a Larger Meaning. This is particularly pronounced in the sections on Angola and the former Yugoslavia, where he tries to present basketball as some sort of metaphorical alternative to warfare. I found this a little grating; someone from one of those countries might find it downright insulting.

He also has a tendency to overreach slightly in the writing. Sometimes, this works– his description of Tokyo (“If the good folks who bring you The Shaper Image catalog were to design a theme park, this would be it”) is dead on, but the same impulse that leads to the occasional brilliant metaphor can also lead to some jarring errors in word choice: in the same piece as the Tokyo line, about a female star who became a cloistered nun, he describes a trip to Las Vegas where the future Poor Clare “cleaned out every basketball arcade game [at Circus Circus] and headed to the Strip, where she plied kids with the stuffed animals she’d just won.” He’s stretching a bit, to sound more impressive, but “plied” has a sleazy, “hey, little girl, I’ve got a candy bar,” connotation that’s probably not the sort of thing he was shooting for. Those sorts of “That doesn’t quite means what you think it means” slips are pretty common, both in this book, and sports writing in general.

(I should note that the mention of the Poor Clares interacts… oddly with The Apocalypse Door…)

Those are just quibbles, though. On the whole, it’s a very good book, at least if you’re a fan of the game of basketball. I’m not sure whether I’d recommend it to people who don’t already like the game.

(Originally posted on The Library of Babel.)

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About Chad Orzel