By Ryan McNeill
While searching through Chapters last month a book that caught my attention was Darcy Frey’s “The Last Shot” because it featured an in-depth look at Stephon Marbury’s high school career. While the feature on Marbury’s high school career motivated me to read this book the insight into the perils and pitfalls that await teenage boys growing up in Coney Island is what made this a book I won’t easily forget.
In “The Last Shot” author Darcy Frey describes Coney Island as a place of desolation and despair where the only source of hope comes when young men who are gifted at basketball because it provides them with a chance to escape the neighbourhood they grew up in. As Frey noted in his introduction, “even the dealers and hoodlums refrain from vandalizing The Garden, because in Coney Island the possibility of transcendence through basketball – in this case, an athletic scholarship to a four-year Division 1 college – is an article of faith.”
The idea of less fortunate teens earning scholarships is an ideal that I’ve long viewed as a reward for someone working hard on the court and in the classroom. However, after reading this book I came to the painful realization that this is just an ideal which has little basis in reality. According to Frey I’m one of the many basketball fans that have bought into the myth that young men with athletic talent can secure a scholarship at a Division 1 school. However, because of impoverished learning conditions far too many of these young men are not able to attend D1 schools because they can not obtain a score over 700 on their SAT’s.
Brent Staples explained this dilemma perfectly when he wrote in his New York Times review for “The Last Shot” that:
The myth of deliverance through basketball has always been nonsense. The sport has traditionally involved semiliterate athletes who performed mightily in gyms, failed in classrooms and were discarded when their scholarships ran out. But the competition for these athletes grew heated in the 1980’s, after the National Collegiate Athletic Association signed a billion-dollar contract for television rights to college basketball — and when winning coaches began to earn additional millions for themselves by fronting for the sneaker companies. When Congress and the press put up too much of a stink about poorly educated athletes who never graduated, the N.C.A.A. responded with Proposition 48, raising eligibility standards for those seeking to play big-time college ball in their freshman year. To be eligible for freshman play, an athlete needs a 2.0 average in a high school core curriculum — and a combined score of at least 700 on the Scholastic Assessment Tests (S.A.T.), about 200 points below the national average for college-bound seniors.
Those who fall short of 700 are grimly referred to as “Prop 48 casualties.” Scholarship offers are withdrawn. College coaches look upon these athletes as damaged goods. Illicit characters called street agents broker them to outlaw junior colleges, where they play without even the pretense of being students. The players kick around the outlaw circuit, dropping out of one school and into another, until they end up back at home — in the case of Coney Island, peddling cold sodas on the scorching summer sidewalks. Proposition 48 came into being in 1986. Since then, Mr. Frey tells us, 91 percent of its casualties have been black.
A perfect example of athletic scholarships being a mirage is found in “The Last Shot” when Frey documents the senior season of star guard Russell Thomas. Thomas was a 6’2″ guard that has the ability to explode for 50 points in a game while locking down an opposing team’s star player to under 10 points. As I read about Thomas spending countless hours honing his game in solitude and then spending extra time working on his marks at his kitchen table I assumed that a student with an 80% average would be a lock to obtain a basketball scholarship to a D1 school.
Frey mercilessly ripped apart this assumption in his book when he documented how Thomas was unable to escape Coney Island because of his low SAT scores.
As the senior season starter Thomas laid out his one goal for his senior season – to obtain a score higher than 700 on his SAT’s so that he could attend a four-year college and get a degree in nursing. Unlike most of his peers who hold onto lofty goals of playing in the NBA and making millions, all Thomas wanted was a chance to get a degree and secure a well paying job. To reach this goal Thomas carried around vocabulary cards, spent hours each night doing prep work for the SAT’s and even sought out the guidance of his teachers to be fully prepared for the SAT test.
Frey addressed the uphill battle that Thomas faced when he wrote:
Getting a 700 – the eligibility requirement for Division 1 ball – did not strike me at first as a rigorous standard. But the national average for college-bound seniors, it turns out, is only about 800. And after becoming better acquainted with the quality of Lincoln players’ schooling and the environment in which they live, I am less surprised that they may not know a synonym for panache or how to make the most of what they do know; they’ve never been told, for example, to avoid guessing and answer only the questions they are sure of – the kind of test-taking tip suburban kids learn on their first day in a $600 Stanley Kaplan review course. Russell, after all, is struggling to answer reading comprehension and algebra questions on the SATs when he had never, until recently, finished a book or learned the fundamentals of multiplication. And the repeated frustrations of this test – the first of it’s kind he has even taken in his life – are making him doubt the conviction that gave him such pleasure just a few months ago: namely, that he wasn’t dumb; he just had never been properly taught how to learn.
Thomas wrote the SAT test countless times during his senior season and unfortunately the closest he came was midway through his senior season when he scored a 690. Without a score higher than 700 all of the interest he had garnered from D1 coaches in the fall after strong play in summer leagues shrivelled up by Christmas.
After reading this book I was filled with the same disillusionment that Frey faced while writing about his experiences following the Lincoln team. I found myself wondering how a student can pull down an 80% average yet not have the ability to achieve a score higher than 700 on his SAT’s or how can a student put in countless hours preparing for a test yet not possess the tools to do well on that test. The only answer I could muster is that the education system let him down and as an elementary school teacher I was ashamed of my profession and the fact that we had failed to provide a child with the tools so that he could be successful.
Tracking the plight of Russell Thomas is just one of the numerous reasons to check out “The Last Shot.” There’s a ton of insight into what goes on at the Nike Invitational, you are given a glimpse into what life is like for a teen growing up in Coney Island and there are rivetting stories about shady recruiting techniques from college coaches like Jim Boeheim and Rick Barnes. If your looking for an informative and entertaining book I’d like to recommend that you pick up Darcy Frey’s “The Last Shot.”