By Ryan McNeill
While searching through the sports section at Chapters last month for a book to read over my Christmas break a book that immediately grabbed my attention was “Transition Game: How Hoosiers Went Hip-Hop” by Jon Wertheim. The concept of melding the state of Indiana with Hip-Hop combined with Ron Artest on the cover was an tantalizing tandem so I quickly snagged this book.
While reading the epilogue for this book I became worried that this book would resemble a chat with my grandfather who begins most of his chats about sports by prefacing his thoughts and experiences by saying “back in the day…” and then proceeds to rip the current state of professional sports. Between ripping AAU ball, the changes in the appearance of high school gymnasiums to accommodate more fans and pining for players like Steve Alford or Scott Skiles instead of Shawn Kemp and Zach Randolph to represent Indiana, I had a bad feeling that I was now stuck reading a book that would be tough to read. Fortunately, these doubts quickly evaporated and after I finished reading the epilogue I had a hard time putting this book down.
One of the reasons I enjoyed reading this book so much is because of the immense amount of history of the sport that was included. As a Canadian I grew up in a “basketball impoverished” country where the media generally neglected the Toronto Raptors and basketball in general until the back pages of the Sports section. Because of this, I was rarely able to obtain anything of substance on basketball outside of Sports Illustrated or the odd book I could come across in a book store. While reading through this book I was able to pick up a large amount of history about the game of basketball through anecdotes about; the politics behind Sean May spurning Indiana for North Carolina, an explanation of why Market Square Arena was no longer a financially viable option for the Pacers to play in, how integration of high schools changed high school basketball, the creation of class basketball and Title IX and an in-depth examination of how these changes have effected high school sports.
Another intriguing aspect of this was the chapter on Indiana high school legend Damon Bailey. Bailey was the poster boy for Indiana basketball in the early ‘90’s and graced the cover of Sports Illustrated in December of 1993. Bailey became a cult figure during the late ‘80’s and early ‘90’s in Indiana and Wertheim recounted stories about parents naming their children after him (Damon if it was a boy, Bailey if they had a girl), Bob Knight praising Bailey in the media when he was in grade eight, fans stealing clumps of grass from his parents yard and later in his high school career fans would ask him for weird things attached to him such as the paper cup he drank out of during games.
One section of this chapter that stuck out was when Wertheim talked about Bailey being scouted by Indiana University as early as eighth grade:
In early 1986, when Bailey was an eight-grader, Knight the elder took in a Shawswick game. Not one given to hyperbole, Knight came away a believer in a precious fourteen-year-old kid. “Damon Bailey is better than any guard we have right now,” he famously told his assistants. “I don’t mean potentially better, I mean better today.”
On it’s face, it was uncharacteristic gushing but it was vintage Knight. Ever the puppeteer, his remarks were surely intended to motivate Indiana’s incumbent guard, Steve Alford, a terrific player who had been a member of the gold medal 1984 U.S. Olympic team but was in the throes of a slump at the time. Regardless, Knight’s sentients were picked up, not only by local cognoscenti but also b John Feinstein, in the process of writing a national bestseller. By then time Bailey was a freshman in high school and Feinstein’s “Season on the Brink” was in it’s gazillionth printing, the small-town basketball savant with the perfect, feathered hair had pierced the national consciousness.
Which brings up another great reason to read this book – a chapter full of Bob Knight anecdotes. What would a book about Indiana basketball be without plenty of talk about legendary Indiana Hoosiers head coach Bob Knight? Love him or hate him, it’s clear that Knight is the coach that is associated with Indiana basketball. An entire chapter was dedicated to Knight and it was full of interesting tidbits on the Hoosiers basketball program and all of the upheaval the program went through when Knight was dismissed from the school.
Wertheim’s stance on Knight is summed up best early in this chapter when he wrote:
There is comfort in the routine, and it’s worth pointing out that so much ceremony was made possible by the consistent excellence of the IU teams. But with this consistency as a backdrop, it’s hard to exaggerate the dimension of changes that have recently rocked Hoosier Nation. The iconic Bob Knight, a fixture on the sidelines for twenty-nine years, was replaced with a man, who, put simply, is his polar-opposite. Black replaced white. New School supplanted Old School. Knowledge and experience gave way to youth and enthusiasm. Profanity yielded to piety. Though he was the rare Hoosier who neither knew nor cared about Indiana basketball, my father had a pretty good analogy for the transformation. As he once explained to a friend overseas: “It’s like you’ve been listening to classical music on the radio for all your life and decide to change stations after thirty years. Instead of easing into something, you go right into speed metal. That’s what the switch from Bob Knight to Mike Davis was like.”
And with that race enters into the equation. Just like Adam in the Garden of Eden realizing that he was naked after eating the forbidden apple, Wertheim opened my eyes to the pivotal role that race unfortunately plays within the culture of basketball in Indiana. Living in Toronto, I’m fortunate to live in a city that takes tremendous pride in being viewed as a “cultural mosaic” and a place where people of countless religious, cultural and ethnic origins all live together in harmony. Now that I’m a coach I don’t take into account a players race when making a team of deciding playing time. Maybe it’s because I’m New School but I could care less what a player looks like and as a coach all I care about is putting players on the court that will work hard and will try to incorporate the concepts we’ve gone over in practices into game situations. While reading through this chapter on Bob Knight and his dismissal from Indiana I was saddened by the ripples that were caused by the University’s decision to hire an African American to replace Knight and I found it disheartening to learn that what happens in Toronto is a stark contrast to what occurs in Indiana.
This was one of those rare books where the author is able to blend history, humour, informative anecdotes with his passion for the game to create a classic hoops novel that was hard to put down. Despite a busy week with work responsibilities, coaching responsibilities and stuff planned with friends I was still able to read this book in less than a week because I found myself creating time in my schedule to sneak in another chapter.
If your looking for a book that will inform, entertain and challenge the way you to think about the game of basketball make sure you read Jon Wertheim’s book “Transition Game: How Hoosiers Went Hip-Hop.”