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Books | Sports

February 5, 2008

The Charles Van Doren of College Hoops

Mack Davis, the hero of a 1966 novel on the human price of college-sports scandal, attempts to build a new life after fame has cruelly departed. The author says the system remains broken four decades later.

Carl Bialik

Mack Davis is a former basketball legend idling away his prime playing years at the start of Big Man, Jay Neugeboren's 1966 fictional account of a young black man from Brooklyn caught up in college-hoops' 1950s point-shaving scandals. "I got no kicks coming, though," Mack begins the novel. "I live okay." Mack's voice is the reader's guide through his confined world, which expands in surprising ways as he encounters characters who may or may not want to help him.

Jay Neugeboren. Photo by Eli Neugeboren
"Like the players caught in the scandal, Charles Van Doren was an enormously gifted man who seemed much more sinned against than sinning."

Jay Neugeboren. Photo by Eli Neugeboren

The author had little in common with his subject besides age—and a stint playing in synagogue rec leagues, the unlikely destination for Davis. Neugeboren is a 5'7" writer who compares his game, at its dreamlike best, to Steve Nash's. Yet he portrays Mack so convincingly that a teacher friend of his reported his Harlem students wouldn't believe, when taught the book, that Neugeboren is white.

While the novel is character-driven, it cleverly sneaks in subtle criticism of a system in which everyone, even a seemingly sympathetic newsman, is exploiting the players. Doffing his novelist cap for social commentary, Neugeboren tells Gelf that "the college game, in terms of sheer game, is much healthier these days." But, he adds, the issues that plagued the game then are bigger than ever.

Neugeboren spoke to Gelf by email about why players should be paid, how Charles Van Doren was an unlikely inspiration for Mack Davis, and why he loves writing about fictional games. The interview was conducted by email and edited for clarity. You can hear Neugeboren and other sportswriters read from and talk about their work at Gelf's free Varsity Letters event on Thursday, February 7th, in New York's Lower East Side.

Gelf Magazine: Your narrative concerns a player swept up in 1950s college-basketball point-shaving scandals. Do you think the college game is more or less healthy than it was 50 years ago?

Jay Neugeboren: The college game, in terms of sheer game, is much healthier these days. The game is faster, more spectacular (above the rim), the players are better—there are hundreds of great players, dozens of splendid teams, and the level of competition is fierce, spirited, gorgeous. On any given night, it seems, any team, no matter how low in the RPI, can beat any other team. This was not so 50 years ago. But the issues that plagued the game then, plague the game now, and the prizes—especially for the folks in the media (TV/ESPN, et al), along with the coaches, the ADs, the people who run alumni affairs and admissions offices—are enormous.
And what do the players get if they're not good enough to make it to the NBA? We know the stats re: graduation, etc. There are good programs and bad. Programs where the schools care about the players and do their best to reimburse them—with education, with post-education guidance, with vocational counseling, etc—and to treat them as more than money-making commodities. And there are, alas, programs that don't. For the most part, though, when it comes to the cash-cow sports—basketball and football—the notion of student-athlete is a misnomer.

GM: Rosen, the sports columnist, seems at times to be the voice of reason, explaining why players were victims, not villains, in the point-shaving scandals. But at other times he comes off as self-serving, with a vicious streak, and the maker of false promises. Does that encapsulate how you feel about newspaper sportswriting? Has the field gotten better or worse since you wrote the book?

JN: Better in many ways—lots of good writing that not only reminds us of the glories of the game, and the wonder of it all, but that sees the players as individuals—in personal, cultural, even political contexts. And the range of writing—the freedom writers have, and the space (e.g., Simmons at ESPN)—is greater. But the cult of celebrity—the focus on stars, the star system—is as prevalent, banal, and venal now as then, and on a much bigger screen.

GM: You write the book in first person, in the voice of a young black man. How did you ensure authenticity? Were you worried about how your rendering of his voice and thoughts would be perceived?

JN: I never thought twice about writing in the voice of a black man. Only when people mentioned that I had, and asked the kind of question you did, did it occur to me to figure out why this had come naturally.
I grew up in a mixed neighborhood—Jewish, Irish, Italian, Black; I went through elementary school, kindergarten through eighth grade, with classes that were about one-third Jewish, one-third Irish and Italian, and one-third black. I hung out with and played ball with black friends, etc. But there's also this: writing fiction is not about sociology—it's about the imagination, and the specificity of the imagination. There's no reason a writer cannot imagine himself or herself as anyone, no matter gender, race, or historical moment, and herein lies one of the joys of writing novels and stories: You can be someone you're not.
How effective your characters and stories are depends, of course, on how well you ply your craft. One of the sweetest compliments I ever received was from a black friend who used Big Man with his high-school students in Harlem, and who told me that when he told them he knew me and that I was white, they refused to believe him.

"What I try to do is to find words for what I see on the screen inside my mind, so that others can see what I see."
GM: Is Mack modeled on anyone in particular?

JN: No. "Fats" Roth, one of the CCNY players caught in the '51 scandal, had gone to Erasmus a few years before me. I knew guys who knew him, but I never met him. I knew about Connie Hawkins, of course—he went to nearby Boys High… but, and here's something that intrigues: The person I had in mind a lot of the time I was working on "Big Man" was not a basketball player, but Charles Van Doren. Van Doren had been a friend of mine before and after his quiz-show fame and his fall from grace, and he was somewhere at the edge of my consciousness throughout the writing of the book. Like the players caught in the scandal, he was an enormously gifted man who seemed much more sinned against than sinning—his life changed forever by a questionable choice made in a passing moment.

GM: Do you think college athletes should be paid?

JN: Yes. But there's a big "but" attached to the "yes." Surely, all the moolah should not be going to the coaches, and the colleges, and the TV gurus. But if you pay basketball players out of the TV and NCAA proceeds, for example—and why shouldn't they be paid for their work?—what about the swimmers and lacrosse and volleyball players? And what about students who are not athletes, but who (eventually?) bring glory and money to their colleges by virtue of their academic work—their scientific discoveries, their success in the business world, their paintings or music or novels? And how do you apportion the money by points per game? By minutes logged? And will they be required to be full-time students at the same time they are being paid to represent their college? Etc. Complicated stuff. That an overwhelming percentage of college players are black and poor raises additional, and major, issues. What is clear, at the least, is that college hoops is part of the entertainment biz, and if the directors (coaches) and producers (TV networks, college presidents) benefit financially in large ways, why shouldn't the entertainers?

"There's no reason a writer cannot imagine himself or herself as anyone, no matter gender, race, or historical moment."
GM: How is your game? Who's your closest analogue in the NBA today?

JN: I retired my game a few years ago—no cartilage left in the knees. Played a bit of JV ball in high school (Erasmus Hall, Brooklyn), some league ball (synagogues), and lots of schoolyard ball. Played with Doug Moe a bit, and, when working in the mountains (Catskills), once beat Tom "Satch" Sanders in a game of HORSE. No analogue now, but in my dreams (I’m five-six now, down from a high of five-seven)—ah!—in my dreams I'm Pete Maravich or Steve Nash.

GM: One of the cover blurbs has James Michener calling your book "the best novel ever written about basketball." What are your favorite basketball novels?

JN: Two oldies: Updike's Rabbit, Run, and Jeremy Larner's Drive, He Said.

GM: In an interview with Gelf, Jack McCallum and Jon Wertheim said that writing about actual basketball games is boring, and writing about fictional games is even worse. How do you feel about describing on-court action? You seemed to have a real feel for the game in your description of the synagogue games.

JN: The opposite's true for me. I love writing about games that were never played, shots never (actually) taken, moves that, in my imagination, beguile and astonish. What I try to do is to find words for what I see on the screen inside my mind, so that others can see what I see. (Your question puts me in mind of the old story of the rabbi who asks his Bar Mitzvah class how they prefer their girls—in the flesh, or in their dreams. By and by the rabbi coaxes responses, and all the boys but one raise their hands to show they prefer girls in the flesh. Heshl is the lone hold-out. "And you, Heshl?" the rabbi asks. "Oh rabbi," Heshl says, "you meet a much better class of girls in your dreams.")
In short, when I'm imagining ballplayers on the court—and the same goes for all the characters and stories I make up—I'm free. I can be anyone, anywhere, doing anything.

"I come back to sports again and again in my fiction because it's one way of understanding and rendering the American boy and man."
GM: How does writing about sports compare to your other subjects? Do you enjoy it more or less? Do you find it has better or worse reception among critics and book buyers?

JN: I love writing about sports, especially when my characters are actually playing the game itself. Maybe if I'd been a star athlete, I'd have no need—less desire—to write about Mack or some of the other guys I've invented. But there's also this: I come back to sports again and again in my fiction—to understand, or describe—to render—because it's one way of understanding and rendering the American boy and man. It's part of my experience as an American, and one does well, it's occurred to me through the years, to make use of this experience, and to note and to consider, via story, how deep and ongoing a place sports makes in our lives and consciousness. But (to take examples from other novels I've written) I don't enjoy writing about sports any more than I enjoy writing about a violinist in 19th century Russia, or a woman who's a medical illustrator in Baltimore in 1940, or a man who was Hitler's childhood doctor.

GM: Are you working on any sports projects now?

JN: I've been working on turning part of Sam's Legacy, an early novel, into a graphic novel. The novel contains a novel-within-the-novel about the Negro baseball leagues in the twenties—My Life and Death in the Negro American Baseball League: A Slave Narrative, by Mason Tidewater—a story in which Babe Ruth figures significantly. My son Eli, an artist and illustrator, is collaborating with me on this. And Max Baer interests me, and will probably figure (somehow) in my next novel.

Carl Bialik

Carl Bialik, a co-founder of Gelf, is a writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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- Sports
- posted on Feb 05, 08
Donna Landay

I read it & as a fellow Brooklynite felt very much apart of it.

Article by Carl Bialik

Carl Bialik, a co-founder of Gelf, is a writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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