Indiana isn’t famous for cranking out cultural luminaries, though the ones it has sired are as random as anything an iPod might spew. In politics, there’s native socialist son Eugene Debs and, uh, Dan Quayle. In music it’s John Mellencamp and the Jackson family. As for sports, there’s basketball--and there’s basketball.
In Transition Game: How Hoosiers Went Hip-Hop, Sports Illustrated’s L. Jon Wertheim claims the significance of hoops in Hoosier land is nearly impossible to overstate. It’s no accident, he writes, that nine of America’s 10 largest high school gyms are in Indiana. This is a place where it’s culturally acceptable for grandmothers to snatch up the discarded water cups of teenage players as souvenirs.
Transition Game is marketed as a “season in the life of” an Indiana high school team. As such, it’s been likened to H.G. Bissinger’s enduring classic Friday Night Lights, which exposed the cult of high school football in West Texas. While it’s less epic than Bissinger’s opus, Transition Game is a compulsively readable book somewhere between a series of profiles and a b-ball travelogue, spiced up with polemical garnishing (including a delightfully rational defense of high school players bypassing college for the NBA).
Unfortunately, the team Wertheim chooses to follow--his alma mater, Bloomington North High School--isn’t that interesting. Their season goes well, but not spectacularly so. More significantly, there’s no tension between players, coaches or the school’s predominantly middle-class college community. In short, nothing transforms this story into something larger than zone defense and free throws.
Fortunately, Wertheim doesn’t try to manufacture what’s not there, leaving us with reporting that’s not dull, but not compelling. The team’s coach, Tom McKinney, is a stolid Midwesterner who speaks in a nauseating jock patois, e.g. Do a few things, but do them well. The players are ordinary kids who play ball, listen to hip-hop and eat fast food. Their biggest win of the season is celebrated with a Playstation2 sleepover party. Oh, the depravity!
But all is not well in Hoosier Nation, for Indiana has seen the enemy and its name is class basketball. The state high school tournament is the World Series, Oscars and state fair rolled in one, but since 1998, Indiana’s high school athletic association has stratified teams into classes based on size. Instead of a single team holding a definitive championship title, four teams do.
“Affirmative action on the hardwood,” Wertheim calls it, only with racial politics reversed. The switch to class ball is, at least in part, attributed to lily-white teams’ inability to deal with being served by more, ahem, diverse teams. Having talked to coaches, players and fans statewide, Wertheim concludes that the issue isn’t really controversial: Everyone hates the class system except the unelected board that instituted it.
The foibles of Bloomington North’s 2003-04 season are no more than narrative fuel, but that’s OK. Wertheim’s understands that though Indiana lays claim to the sport’s grass roots, basketball can’t be discussed within the borders of a single state, or even hemisphere. With high schools increasingly serving as an NBA farm league, basketball’s borders are in a state of flux.
Wertheim has a knack for summarizing points anecdotally. After barraging us with stats on how the NBA is as global as Starbucks--e.g, 20 of 58 players in the 2003 draft were from overseas--he hammers home the point by recounting a young boy in Beijing who asks if he can practice his English. After Wertheim mentions that he’s from Indiana, the boy shouts, I rike Reggie Miller!
Transition Game won’t convince you that basketball has really gone hip-hop; the crowds at NBA games are too full of investment bankers to claim any sort of street credibility. If anything, Wertheim furthers the idea that basketball is now a global commodity. It’s a notion that might take some getting used to in Hoosier Nation and beyond. As the author deftly asks: Will a culture that prices a Lebron James jersey at $120 be willing to pay as much for ones with names like Milicic or Tskitishvili?
We can only wait and see.
TRANSITION GAME: HOW HOOSIERS WENT HIP-HOP By L. Jon Wertheim Putnam, New York $23.95, 256 pp.