Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

Books | Sports

April 7, 2013

A College-Basketball Story From the Inside

Former Division I assistant coach Rus Bradburd channels his inside knowledge of the college game in a new novel.

Elliot Magruder

The most indelible images from this year's March Madness aren't the ones you'll see in CBS's "One Shining Moment" montage. Trey Burke's game-tying three against Kansas, the high-flying antics of Florida Gulf Coast, Harvard stunning New Mexico—they're all great moments, but they tell you precious little about college basketball.

Rus Bradburd
"I know how players think, and going into that game they are thinking about how their coach is getting $70,000 a game and they're getting nothing."

Rus Bradburd

But the unpaid Kevin Ware writhing in agony feet away from his multimillionaire coach—with Ware, like all other college-basketball players, designated as a "student-athlete" for the express purpose of denying him worker's compensation—that one will stay with you. The grainy footage of Rutgers coach Mike Rice hurling a basketball at one of his player's heads while the rest of his staff looks on: Try forgetting that.

Author Rus Bradburd has been around the college game long enough to recognize the meaning in those scenes. He spent 14 seasons as an assistant coach for UTEP and New Mexico State, only to leave for an MFA in hopes of pursuing his dream to be a writer. Almost 15 years and two critically acclaimed books later, Bradburd spends his time now as a professor at NMSU, an essayist, and a fierce critic of the NCAA.

Bradburd, whom Gelf interviewed in 2007 after he published a memoir about his time as a coach and fiddler in Ireland, returns to Varsity Letters this month with his first novel, Make It, Take It

In Make It, Take It, Bradburd returns to the world he knows best, that of a college-basketball coach. This time of year is often devoted to "One Shining Moment" and similar paeans to the superiority of amateur sports. But Bradburd has seen behind the curtain, and offers a glimpse of what he saw there in this novel. The picture he presents is a damning but accurate indictment of the corruption endemic to the NCAA. Make It, Take It is described by Bradburd as a "novel in stories," centered on Steve Pytel, a coach in the middle of his career. Pytel, like Bradburd at an earlier stage of his life, finds himself on the precipice of the holy grail of college coaching: a Division I head job.

In order to reach that pedestal, Pytel must navigate through shifting loyalties, murky ethical waters, and a cast of characters putatively on his team, but with decidedly competing agendas. The book begins with Pytel trying to impress (at great cost to an expensive vehicle) the newly hired head coach Jack Hood, a man at the apogee of his profession yet seemingly bereft of any moral compass. From then on, Pytel is sent to deal with a mercurial but talented recruit Jamal Davis, his fellow coaches at the fictional Southern Arizona State, and the litany of peripheral figures who seek to leech some of the profits from the cash cow that is major college sports.

Each story is told through the perspective of a different character, thereby adding to the layers of conflict and intrigue interwoven throughout the novel. In a wide-ranging phone conversation—which has been edited for length and clarity—Bradburd discussed why he structured the novel this way, the Mike Rice situation at Rutgers, and why misaligned incentives in college sports benefit no one but avaricious administrators and opportunistic coaches.

Gelf Magazine: How much of the character of Pytel is based on your own experiences as a college assistant?

Rus Bradburd: There are four coaches in the book; I am probably all of them to an extent.

Gelf Magazine: Even Jack Hood?

Rus Bradburd: Unfortunately, yes. During my time as a college coach I was conflicted, I liked the players and I loved the game, but in other ways I was really turned off by all of it. I am like Pytel in that the reasons I got into coaching were not the same reasons I stayed in coaching, and I think that is a typical story.

Gelf Magazine: All the coaches in your book are dissatisfied in their job, but can't seem to get away. Did you have the same issue?

Rus Bradburd: Yes. I was always hoping for the big payoff of the Division I head job. This creates problems because with coaching staffs, there are always people pulling in different directions since they're at different stages in their career. Mix that in with the 12 players who all have selfish goals and you can see conflicts arising. I do think this makes for good fiction though, because you have people with competing agendas in the same narrow space.

Gelf Magazine: The structure of the book is unique. Each is a separate story told from the perspective of a different character. Why did you choose this particular structure?

Rus Bradburd: I think that one of my talents as a writer is to observe players and coaches and hear their voices. Plus, this started as a book of short stories, and then turned into a novel. For me, the book is more about a world than any particular person, and that world is college basketball. I think of it as a novel of stories and each character has their own story that ultimately advances the novel.

Gelf Magazine: The book overall, I think it's fair to say, is a negative but ultimately realistic look at college basketball. That said, the chapters written from the perspective of the players are in the form of a college essay. Was that done to show their naiveté, and to position them as the models of purity that the NCAA likes to claim, in contrast to the cynical coaches?

Rus Bradburd: I think that's true. Players always come in naïve, though I don't think anyone is innocent. Players do come in much younger, but if they are not jaded when they come in, they will be jaded when the leave. Recently here, Steve Alford, the coach of University of New Mexico, signed a huge deal [Ed. Note: he went to UCLA a few days later] right before their first-round NCAA-tournament game against Harvard. I know how players think, and going into that game they are thinking about how Alford is getting $70,000 a game and they're getting nothing. That illustrates one of the main things Make It, Take It is about, that there are huge distances between the mindset of the players, coaches, and administrators.

Gelf Magazine: One of the coaches in the book says, "In college basketball, loyalty is all you can cling to in this business." Did you find that to be true when you were coaching?

Rus Bradburd: It's drilled into you as an assistant: Loyalty, loyalty, loyalty. The Mike Rice video is a good example of this. What most interested me about the video was that every time he throws a ball at a kid, immediately after there is a student manager standing there to give him another ball. You would think, in a normal world, that people would not want to give Rice another ball, but when you're in these operations, it's like a fiefdom for the head coach. They're the highest paid guy on campus, so people are at their will.

Gelf Magazine: This seems to be the case at many colleges now, even the mid-majors like Wichita State—they have a coach making seven figures who flies everywhere on a private jet.

Rus Bradburd: Right. At New Mexico State, we have a very expensive practice facility. We aren't Madison Square Garden; we don't need to share the gym with everyone else. We have basketball and then maybe George Strait once a year and the Mariachi festival. Why do we need to spend that much on a practice facility when our English professors are making hardly any money? My book is an attempt to stand up to this madness.

Gelf Magazine: In your previous interview with Gelf, you talked about the power of the personality of a coach like Rick Pitino, a guy so persuasive that people almost blindly follow him. In the same vein, even some of Mike Rice's players came out and defended him this week. Is there a way to combat the consequences that come with this blind deference to certain coaches?

Rus Bradburd: I think it's worse in football, where players have an almost militaristic notion that we are going off the cliff with the leader if necessary. Basketball has it to a lesser degree, but it's there. From a very young age, kids are programmed to respect their coach. I would do the same with my own kid. The idea of being coachable for a player is to be in lockstep with the leader, no matter where that may take you. This is a problem in a system as corrupt as college basketball and can end up creating disastrous consequences. I think it's very problematic to have basketball, a beautiful game, tied in so closely with our educational system.

Gelf Magazine: Your first two books were works of nonfiction. Did your approach change when writing a novel?

Rus Bradburd: In nonfiction, you're almost starting with a giant mountain of material and you have to figure out what to discard while keeping the story intact. In this novel, one of the characters is based on a coach and friend of mine, but only a certain part of his life. I had to basically imagine all the events that led up to that part of his actual life I wanted to utilize in the book. There are crossovers, in both my fiction and nonfiction. I try to use scenes, dialogue, and building the characters in a similar way.

Gelf Magazine: The national semifinals are today. Knowing what you know from having been in the game for decades, do you still enjoy watching it?

Rus Bradburd: I used to coach basketball all day and then come home and watch basketball on ESPN. I've tried to step away from that over the years. For the first game, I am going to a poetry reading. For the second game, I'm going to Lou Henson's house. That should show you how I am still conflicted.

Elliot Magruder

Elliot Magruder is an attorney and writer living in New York City.

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Article by Elliot Magruder

Elliot Magruder is an attorney and writer living in New York City.

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