Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Wednesday - Book Review

The Last Shot - Darcy Frey

Henry Abbot, Bill Simmons, Jeff Clark and most importantly reader Bnasty, gave The Last Shot the thumbs up. And as it turns out they were right. Darcy Frey follows Russell Thomas, Tchaka Shipp, and Corey Johnson as they chase the dream of a basketball scholarship. The book begins in the spring of their junior year and progresses through the summer circuit and into the school season. The varied personalities of Thomas, Shipp and Johnson along with Frey’s writing ability combine to make a great read. However, the fact that they are from Coney Island and attend Abraham Lincoln High School of Stephon Marbury and Sebastian Telfair fame, takes the book to another level. As an added bonus Marbury is a freshman on the Abraham Lincoln team and is profiled, albeit to a lesser to extent, in the book. The essential premise of the book is that a basketball scholarship is the only way out of Coney Island. Frey exposes the pitfalls facing these players and points a finger at the government, education system, drug dealers, NCAA, college coaches, family, friends and anyone else who contributes to the seemingly hopeless environment young men grow up in. And as you read the book Frey’s anger at the situation and the fact that nothing is being done about it becomes palpable. He comes to understand their versus the world mentality and lashes out against the system. In fact his anger is almost as intriguing as the young men’s stories. Some other interesting points:

- Darcy Frey can write:

A summer night in Coney Island: “Lately New York City has been slogging through one of its enervating heat waves, a string of 95-degree days, and most of Coney Island’s other players won’t come out until after dark, when the thick, humid air begins to stir with night breezes and the court lights come on. But tonight is turning out to be a fine one – cool and foggy. The low, slanting sun sheds a pink light over the silvery Atlantic just a block away, and milky sheets of fog roll of the ocean and drift in tatters along the project walkways. The air smells of sewage and salt water."

Shooting practice: “Russell waits until the wind settles, bits of trash feathering lightly to the ground. Then he sends a twenty-five-foot jump shot arcing through the soft summer twilight. It drops without a sound through the soft summer twilight. It drops without a sound through the dead center of the bare iron rim. So does the next one. So does the one after that. Alone in the gathering dusk, Russell begins to work the perimeter against imaginary defenders, unspooling jump shots from all points."

- Tchaka, Russell, Corey and Stephon were by all accounts excellent basketball players. However, Frey makes them mythical at times. Consider the following description of young Marbury, “Then he raises his arms jubilantly and dances a little jig, rendered momentarily insane by the sheer, giddy pleasure of playing this game to perfection." Just something I found interesting.

- Frey stresses that the four young men believe they can become either a drug dealer or a basketball player. Given the odds they are far more likely to become drug dealers. Further complicating things is the fact that the drug dealers try to pull young guys down. This is a phenomenon Charles Barkley was appalled by in his book, I May Be Wrong but I Doubt It. It is in stark contrast to Barkley’s youth where he remembers homeless alcoholics and other down on their luck members of society warning him against repeating their mistakes. Is this an isolated observation or a snap shot of a shift in society as a whole? Hard to tell. But “The if I can’t make it no one can” mentality is clearly destructive.

- Frey outlines the stress the boys face as they desperately try to score a 700 on their SATs. As I initially read that it never occurred to me that they were after a 700 on the Math and Verbal… combined. This really speaks to the state of education in Coney Island. Which leads me to my next point.

- There was a long line of Coney Islands phenoms, including the older Marburys, who were derailed by education in general and the SATs in particular. By the time the book was written many members of the Coney Island community had lost faith in Abraham Lincoln High School. Passing athletes on who are weak students is nothing new. O.J. Simpson attended USC and according to Ralph Wiley, the Juice is illiterate. However, I like to think that the faculty at Abraham Lincoln does its best under adverse conditions at what is most likely a poorly funded school. I’m betting those teachers don’t make much money, face all sorts of obstacles and on a day-to-day basis do not see much reward for their time and effort. While I’m sure the faculty members have their issues it seems too easy to put it all on them. I know my parents taught me how to read and I was generally a few reading levels ahead of my current grade because of them. Granted I did not grow up in Coney Island. Yet Tchaka was the best student of the four and his mother was all over him to complete his work.

- I never think of ocean front property as depressing. But that is definitely the case with Coney Island. Frey does an excellent job describing the creation of the projects, the white flight and the lack of stores in Coney Island.

- This book came out in 1994. A lot has changed with college basketball since then. The biggest change has to be the development of the mid major conferences and teams. Everyone outside of Billy Packer seems to accept Southern Illinois these days. But back in ’94 players were crushed if Syracuse, Providence, Villanova, or some other Big East or major conference team was not interested.

- Frey is not a fan of the college coaches. This is because they are all dirty (outside of Bobby Knight allegedly), they pressure kids to sign early and they are clearly looking out for #1. Also it’s important to note that Frey’s time with the players ended in part because the NCAA banned him from all Big East campuses. Anyways while I can’t vouch for Frey’s intentions, college coaches make themselves look foolish in the book. Frey just reports on their antics:

- Jim Boeheim – Frey reports that Boeheim’s pitch danced around possible future sanctions stemming from the coach’s generosity, “Now you’re gonna read in the papers about our kids getting benefits. But I want to assure you, our lawyers are working around the clock and they’ve found no major violations. The headlines say, PLAYERS GET CASH! Shit I gave twenty dollars’ Christmas money to one player. Big deal. “ Boeheim goes on to talk about the need to replace Billy Owens (remember when he was sick). Interestingly Frey comments, “But can Boeheim be believed? On the street the coach has a reputation for “recruiting over” – that is, signing a player but giving his starting spot to a better athlete if one comes along.” Needless to say Boeheim’s reputation is in a better place these days with a National Title and a strong relationship with Carmelo.

- Rollie Massimino – His pitch was all about family. A year later he bolted Villanova for UNLV. Frey was all over the hypocrisy here. Interestingly, Bobby Hurley Sr. of St. Anthony’s fame once threatened to fight Massimino because he did not like the recruiting pitch.

- Rick Barnes of Providence probably comes off the worst as he runs through a series of magic routines such as the classic quarter behind your ear and turning each playing card from a deck of 52 into a 2 of spades. But Barnes makes 2 huge mistakes. He claims that he would never take some guy from LSU named Shaquille O’Neal over his own Marques Bragg. Tchaka didn’t buy that for a second. Barnes also dropped his deck of cards as he was leaving. Before he scooped them up Tchaka saw it was a trick deck.

- Stephon Marbury. He bursts on the scene in The Last Shot, by riding a Big Wheel through a pick up game. From there on the 14-year-old, 5 foot 9 Marbury seems larger than life. He dominates summer pick up and practices and games at Abraham Lincoln. He’s not ashamed to ask for money, rides or food as he is just trying to get a piece of the action. At one point he exclaims, “Man, I’m tired of all this shit! Somebody’s got to make it. Somebody’s got to go all the way. How come this shit only happens to us Coney Island niggers?” You really get a sense for how desperate he and everyone around him is for “the last Marbury” to make it. 5 Random thoughts about Stephon.

5. There are few more polarizing figures in the NBA than Stephon Marbury. Throughout his career he has been attacked for a number of issues. Yet through it all there have been people who love Stephon.

4. He wanted off of the Timberwolves because he was not content to live in “Minnesnowta”.

3. From a legacy stand point, getting traded for Jason Kidd, was the worst thing that ever happened to him.

2. I turned on ESPN classic when a program just came back from commercial. It was a Suns/Spurs playoff game from the Marbury era and immediately I knew it was “The Marbury Game” – when he banked the three to win it. That is the only huge Marbury game/moment that stands out in my memory.

1. In Allen Iverson’s biography, Only the Strong Survive Larry Platt, the author, tells a story about a party shortly after the 96’ draft. Iverson, Marbury, and Puff Daddy and his Bad Boy crew amongst others were there. Marbury poured some champagne for some friends from Coney Island. Apparently Puff Daddy had paid for the champagne and was not pleased. The rap mogul yelled, “You pay for that? You lucky I’m letting you drink my Cristal, let alone your punk-ass friends.” That always bothered Iverson because at that time they were still broke and Puff Daddy had made them guests. But more importantly in a few short years Marbury went from riding around in the back of Frey’s old Toyota to rubbing elbows with millionaires. It’s no wonder he left Georgia Tech early.

- Marbury gets his aggressiveness from his father who has a few heated run ins with Frey as they try to set up an interview. Mr. Marbury does not speak for free and Frey refuses to meet his demands. Stephon puts it best, “Nah, he just wants to know what’s in it for him. He knows you don’t get something for nothing. He knows if you write about the Marburys you’re gonna make a lot of loot.” Stephon goes on to say, “You got to think like a black man. Got to learn how to say, ‘Fuck it, everybody, fuck the whole damn thing.’ Now that’s life in the ghetto.” This brings me to the most ironic aspect of The Last Shot, which is the fact that Frey is part of a system that he criticizes so strongly. In the end he is telling a story about 4 individuals and their families that is not always flattering. And due to NCAA rules only Frey could profit. Granted his motives, tactics and feelings towards the young men may differ from the college coaches, street agents, and everybody else trying to make a buck. But is Mr. Marbury wrong to clump Frey in with all others? Yes Frey brings the boys exposure and gives them rides and a few meals. But he did not help raise their SAT scores. I’m not trying to criticize him or question his motives. It’s just interesting.
Final Grade: A-

16 comments:

mutoni said...

that was a terrific review. and great blog all around, btw.

Celtics Bandwagon said...

Thanks for the comment.

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