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Brooklyn BookBeat: Lost and found

Review of Lost in the game: a book about basketball

December 9, 2022 Bob Blaisdell
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It’s rare that writers on basketball criss cross their attention from playground and pickup ball to the NBA. Thomas Beller writes personal essays about basketball from the perspective of an amateur ballplayer, lifelong fan and as a professional journalist. The New Yorker magazine veteran and author of several books is a literary innovator who in 2000 created Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood, a website devoted to the best most personal local New York essays. He is also a biographer of J. D.  Salinger, and, most importantly for the purpose of this collection, a basketball-addict: “It recently occurred to me that I was fluent in a foreign language. A language that is so intuitive that I forget other people don’t understand. I was playing pickup basketball in Brooklyn Bridge Park, where I was meeting a friend. She showed up, watched the game. ‘I could see people were following a code of behavior and a set of rules that everyone in the game understood,’ she said later. ‘But I had no idea what they were.’ If only this were a sort of thing one could put on a curriculum vitae. ‘Languages: English, pickup basketball.’”

Thomas Beller, the author, is a lifelong fan of basketball. Photo: Paula Burch-Celentano. Used with permission of Tulane University.

The 28 pieces that comprise Lost in the Game, some published here for the first time, a few with brand-new postscripts, are about what it’s like to play basketball, what it’s like to talk to and watch the greatest players in the world, what it’s like to brood about and anticipate playing on local courts, how it feels to puzzle over one’s playground mates and adversaries, and wonderfully, what basketball has meant to New York City children (and grownups) for the last 80 years, thanks in part to the man many of us learned from Robert Caro’s The Power Broker to regard as a thorough villain, New York’s master builder (and bulldozer) in the mid-twentieth century: “New York City has, I would venture to say, more actual hoops attached to backboards than any other city in the world, and the person most responsible for this fact is Robert Moses.” I will never get out of my head Beller’s remarkable observation about our city’s basketball courts: “In a dense, vertical town they are like asphalt meadows, a dull gray flatness, sometimes painted Parks Department green, that is like an Etch-A-Sketch on which complex arrangements are traced every day and then erased every night, to begin again the next morning.”

Jumping from Kevin Durant to Latrell Spreewell to equally colorful playground characters, Beller never confuses or deludes himself or us. On the courts, the distance between NBA professionals and us amateurs is huge, unbridgeable — except when it isn’t, and that’s in the awareness he gives us of intimate and particular personalities, reflected on and off the court. After reading the funny and discerning “The Jokic Files” I will never watch Nikola Jokic (or his brothers on the sidelines) the same as I had.

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In covering professional basketball for periodicals, he finds his own angles, even in a scrum of reporters. At an interview of Frank Ntilikina at the 2017 NBA draft at the Barclays Center, “He is asked about his suit. He has been working with a tailor on his suit for about three months, he says. I ask him a question that begins, ‘I’m wondering  about your childhood in France.’ I point out that New York is famous for producing point guards who hone their skills in competitive pickup basketball games. ‘I’m wondering if any such thing exists in Strasbourg and if you could say anything about when you fell in love with the sport when you were a kid?’” What a fine, engaging and personal question! Beller doesn’t see stars as heroes but as people, which is really much more generous and interesting.

Beller has watched the game so closely and well that he is able to describe and appreciate professionals’ idiosyncratic talents as finely as a ballet critic (I’m thinking of Jennifer Homans’ illuminating descriptions of choreography in her new biography of George Balanchine). Beller is able to conjure up for our mind’s eye what distinguishes, for example, Kyrie (What-Bewildering-Thing-Is-He-Going-to-Say-Next?) Irving on the court from all the other extraordinary players: “He has a center of gravity somewhere just above his knees and the coordination of a jazz drummer. He is an expert low dribbler, and in the middle of his moves, especially when he puts the ball behind his back, he sometimes seems to sit for an infinitesimal moment on an invisible chair.”

Beller’s book features 28 essays on basketball.
Photo: Paula Burch-Celentano. Used with permission of Tulane University.

Beller alludes to the controversial construction of the Barclays Center and his qualms about participating in a photography project connected to it funded by the developer Bruce Ratner. He squashed his qualms when he realized the project would provide the opportunity for him, a Manhattanite, to finally take in legendary ballplaying Brooklyn playgrounds. He regularly reflects on his own shortcomings on and off the court, particularly in the most delightful piece of all, “The Two-Thousand-Dollar Popsicle,” where he dramatizes an event where his basketball passion costs him a pretty penny in his domestic life.

Family and fatherhood is a topic that many of the pieces glance at in regard to the various stars and himself, and the most touching piece, “Outscoring My Father,” is about his boyhood, loss of his father and his discovery of and consequential self-fulfillment through pick-up basketball, which eventually led to his playing for his high school and college teams.

Though Beller is in his fifties, he continues (bless him!) to play pickup at local playgrounds, not only in his most familiar Riverside Park but across the country on his travels and in New Orleans, where he now teaches at Tulane. In “Pandemic Playgrounds,” he recounts the so-recent eerie early pandemic days when hoops all over New York City and across America were removed to keep us (I’m older than Beller, but I play too) off the courts, where we basketballers would have spread Covid even more rapidly, and then the hoops’ gradual restoration and the nations’ ballplayers aching to play together unmasked again.

Though the individual pieces were not written as a collection, and very occasionally overlap, Beller has made them gel like members of a team that’s really clicking.

Bob Blaisdell is a book reviewer and author who teaches English at Kingsborough Community College.

Bob Blaisdell is an English Professor at Kingsborough Community College.
Photo: Suzanne Carbotte.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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