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July 23, 2009

Book Review: ‘Longshot’

Filed under: Books We Read,community — Max @ 10:32 am
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Longshot: The Adventures of a Deaf Fundamentalist Mormon Kid and His Journey to the NBA
by Lance Allred
Published by HarperOne

This book has almost no political content whatsoever. I couldn’t tell you whether Lance Allred is a Republican, Democrat, independent, or Mugwump. I don’t know who he voted for in 2008, or if he voted at all. Allred is a basketball player in the NBA’s Summer League, hoping to catch on with the Orlando Magic after one brief stint with the Cavs. So what does Allred’s book have to do with the topics we cover at the History Commons?

Not much, really. It’s just a damn fine book, and as such, deserving of mention.

I grew up on Tarheel basketball — a “Tarheel born and a Tarheel bred, and when I die, I’ll be a Tarheel dead.” That’s what the shirts say, and I’m down with it. (Coincidentally, I’m wearing a 2008 Tarheel championship shirt as I type this.) I played intramural and pickup basketball in my salad days, and had the honor of sharing the court with Michael Jordan a time or two — he shot hoops by himself on one end while us short white guys cowered at the other, afraid to say anything. Don’t get me started on Tarheel stories, I’ll forget about Allred altogether, and that would not be right.

I will say that I have never forgotten Allred’s alma mater, Weber State, upsetting us in the 1999 tournament. I know we lost the game because Harold Arceneaux (not Michael, as the SI article states, idiots) had the game of his life and we played with all the fire and enthusiasm of old sawhorses. But in my gut, I hate Weber State forever, and that means you, Allred, though you weren’t even there at the time.

But that takes nothing away from Allred’s book. He has written one of the most honest memoirs I have ever read. No frills, no literary lagniappes, none of that, just straightforward storytelling peppered with insights and observations too thoughtful and wise to have come out of the mouth of your stereotypical NBA wannabe. I imagine that people who see Allred on the court either assume that he’s a 6’11 Vanilla Ice retread, spouting recycled hip-hop jargon picked up from his teammates, or one of those soft-spoken and somehow creepy Mormon kids that float in and out of the game, mostly from Big Sky and Mountain West schools (think Sean Bradley and Keith Van Horn, though I’m not sure that either of those two were actually Mormons, and Van Horn played forward, not center). From what I read in his book and on his blog, he is neither. He is wise beyond his years, his vocation, and his upbringing, making him perhaps the perfect argument for nature over nurture. He’s a terrific writer. And he’s funny. He puts me in mind of former major league pitcher Jim Bouton, who wrote a famous sports memoir, Ball Four. Like Longshot, Bouton’s book transcended the idea of the sports biography to become something far more powerful and lasting. Like Allred, Bouton is funny; like Bouton, Allred brings a tremendous humanity and wisdom to his book. I imagine he often feels very lonely in his locker rooms.

I learned a few snippets about basketball I didn’t know. I always wondered about Chris Burgess, his teammate and rival center on the Utah Utes and a transfer from Duke University, a university and a program who I have hated with a fiery passion since I was old enough to say “Doooook” while blowing spit bubbles. I thought Burgess had as much raw talent as the three other hotshots Duke brought in that year — Jason Williams, Elton Brand, and Shane Battier — but I doubted he’d progress, because Coach K isn’t the coach to develop a raw big man. I was right. (Come on, Duke has a former point guard coaching their bigs. Idiots.) Instead, Burgess transferred to Utah, where he and Allred battled for playing time before Burgess broke his foot and Allred transferred to Weber State. I developed a great sympathy for Burgess — transferring from the frying pan of Coach Krzyzewski’s little hothouse to the fire of Coach Majerus’s third circle of athletic hell. As for Majerus, I remember some Carolina fans touting him as a dark-horse candidate to replace the retiring Dean Smith. Thank God and Greyhound that never came to pass, he would have destroyed Carolina basketball. I believe Allred’s portrayal of Majerus as a brillaint but hateful martinet because Allred writes so straightforwardly of his experiences being brutalized by him, and because Allred takes so much of the responsibility of his difficulties at Utah on himself. I also learned that Randy Livingston is the best point guard I barely heard of. (I follow college ball much more closely than the NBA, so Livingston stayed pretty much off my radar for his long and checkered career.)

I learned plenty about growing up in a fundamentalist Mormon family (clan might be a better word). Allred’s recollections confirmed many of my darkest suspicions about what it means to be part of such an insular, patriarchal society — many families’ daughters (and probably sons) were not safe from the predators who used religion and societal privilege to prey on the young and helpless, for one example. And he almost lost me on the first two pages, where he matter-of-factly notes what many Idaho rednecks do with stray dogs and cats. In some ways, it is a horribly brutal way of life, fitting the stereotypes we’ve learned from films and stories of Randy Weaver‘s miserably “noble” standoff at Ruby Ridge. But Allred focuses on the love and support he received from many of his family and friends. His book is not a Rocky Mountain version of “Deliverance.” (And, importantly for me, he is an animal lover. His bond with his dogs Szen and Mac shines through his prose, though he wastes no time on poetical effusions here, either. It’s clear and simple as a single teardrop of Viennese crystal, with no need for faceting and fancy cuts. I appreciate his emotion and his prose.)

Longshot will probably be made into a second-rate movie, either for ESPN or Lifetime, depending on who gets the rights. Ugh. I hope it gets better treatment than that.

Should I conclude with the standard book-review phrases? “Life-affirming?” It certainly is, and it certainly displays all the “warmth and humanity” a critic could want. “Dramatic,” “moving,” all of that, yes indeed. I’ll just end where I started: it’s a damn fine book.

(Sidenote: At the same time I was finishing his book, which is of course chock-full of stuff about working out and staying in shape, a friend sent me a picture of myself from 1984. I looked like a white-kid basketball player, channeling the Pete Maravich floppy hair [if nothing approaching the talent or skills], lean, mean, and ready to jump-shoot right over your ass. Allred’s latest Twitter feed, as I type this, is, “I just did 50 pushups.” For years I’ve carried too much weight around. Last year I quit cigarettes. This year I quit being overweight. The combination of book, photo, and tweet has sparked something. I’m going to drop this damn weight and get back to something approaching fighting trim. I won’t blog about it, but I will read Allred’s blog and keep an eye on his pushups. He’s a professional athlete and I’m a middle-aged slob, but by damn, I can do better.)

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