Courting Success : Only a...

Jeff Fellenzer writes a biweekly Recruiting column covering high school and college sports for The Times, and is an editor for the TimesLink on-line service

America is raining jump shots again.

The high school basketball season officially tipped off this month, and few towns anywhere, it seems, fail to embrace this most American of sports.

A virus known as "Hoosier Hysteria" grips the entire state of Indiana from December to March (remember the movie "Hoosiers"?). In Kentucky, grandmothers know who the backup point guard is for the local high school . . . and whether he can go to his left well enough to shake a defender.

Lately writers and filmmakers have left the Rockwellian scenes of Middle America (basketball hoops nailed firmly to farmhouses, barns and garages) and headed to the cities for their basketball dramas. On urban playgrounds throughout the United States, the stakes are considerably higher. The boys of these 'hoods play first for survival--and then the chance to escape, to win their version of the lottery: a basketball scholarship to a big-time Division I college, and the ample opportunities that come with it.

For sheer emotional impact, it's hard to beat "Hoop Dreams," the current documentary film that tracks two Chicago teen-agers as they attempt to reach their separate goals of basketball greatness, and the promise of a better life that goes with it. Gritty and honest, the film is sure to be remembered as one of the most revealing portraits ever drawn of just how thoroughly sports can consume the lives of kids, especially those with little else to dream about.

Though not quite as powerful as "Hoop Dreams," two new books offer insightful profiles of schoolboy basketball.

Darcy Frey's "The Last Shot," set amid the dreary projects of Coney Island at the southern tip of Brooklyn, is a compelling book about basketball's street subculture and how profoundly it shapes the chaotic--and often tragic--lives of the kids who grow up in and around it. The author succeeds in crafting a layered story that will appeal not only to die-hard basketball aficionados but also to those more interested in how 16- and 17-year-old boys face the complexities of life while trying desperately to beat overwhelming odds.

"Fall River Dreams," by Providence Journal-Bulletin sports columnist Bill Reynolds, provides in splendid detail (though at times, perhaps too much detail) a season spent with the boys basketball team at B.M.C. Durfee High School in the hoops-crazy, fading industrial town of Fall River, Mass.

For the players in "Fall River Dreams," there is constant pressure to measure up to the greatness of past Durfee teams, whose championship banners hang like ghostly reminders on the walls of Luke Urban Field House. Reynolds is at his best when he focuses on the tempestuous relationship between Durfee's veteran coach and local legend, Thomas (Skippy) Karam and his rebellious star player, junior guard Chris Herren. It's a classic generational clash, as Herren tries to live up to his own lofty expectations, plus those of his family and college recruiters who recognize his natural talent.

"I never had toys," says Herren, who is now a freshman at Boston College. "When I was 3 I had a basketball in my hands. A basketball was my toy. I never sat around the house playing with toys. I was outside playing a game. Something to help you get better as an athlete, not to sit in the house and play with dolls."

There's good stuff here, but in the end the story is not compelling enough to hold up the length of a book, especially when it starts recountng the boyhood jobs and failed career hopes of Durfee High's longtime official scorekeeper.

Statistics are often deceiving in the athletic arena, but the bitter truth, as Darcy Frey points out, is that of about 500,000 males playing high school basketball, less than 1% will receive Division I scholarships.

Still, they run, day and night--on blacktop that is all-too-unforgiving, especially on swelteringly humid, 95-degree Brooklyn summer afternoons. For most of these kids, the future lurks a few feet away, in the shadows, where the drug dealers, gangbangers and assorted hangers-on hold a different kind of court.

In the pecking order of the Coney Island projects, the best games are played on a court called the Garden--after Madison Square Garden in Manhattan, home of the National Basketball Assn.'s New York Knicks.

You can also get a game at Chop-Chop Land, so named for the bruises you are likely to acquire playing among the less elegant of the local talent; or at Run-and-Gun Land, popular among the small fry because of the short courts and low rims. But here's the reality of life at Run-and-Gun: Since the court is situated below one of the worst projects, players must be alert enough to dodge the beer bottles and batteries that sometimes come hurtling out of apartment windows 15 stories above.

If they're good enough, the best players from the Garden will go on to play for the Abraham Lincoln High School Railsplitters, traditionally the best team in New York's highly competitive Public School Athletic League.

Frey tells his story mainly from within the inner circle of Lincoln High's three most talented basketball upperclassmen in the summer and fall of 1991: Tchaka Shipp, Russell Thomas and Corey Johnson. Another prominent player is freshman Stephon Marbury, an electrifying guard whose ball-handling wizardry and innate skills have earned him the moniker "future of the neighborhood." (Marbury, now a senior, is the consensus choice among college coaches and talent evaluators as the finest guard prospect in the country this season; he is expected to sign next spring with either Syracuse or Georgia Tech, but will probably take a recruiting trip to UCLA.)

Frey quickly becomes a trusted confidant and friend of the players. His observations are at once sensitive and enlightening, and his presence never seems disruptive to the kids' already fragile lives.

To receive one of the coveted big-time scholarships and assure freshman eligibility, National Collegiate Athletic Assn. rules mandate that besides a minimum 2.5 grade-point average in certain designated "core" classes, a high school student must also score at least a combined 700 on the math and verbal portions of the standardized Scholastic Aptitude Test, or a 17 on the American College Test.

On the surface, that sounds reasonable--the national average for all college-bound seniors is 800. But given the crowded classroom conditions, limited resources to afford test-preparation courses, and constant distractions in the learning process at chaotic Lincoln High, plus the grim home life that most kids must return to each evening, 700 is often unattainable.

It's precisely the reason that prominent college basketball coaches such as John Chaney of Temple and Georgetown's John Thompson have become outspoken critics of the NCAA's controversial Proposition 48, the 1986 amendment that established the standardized test requirement. The playing field, they say, is simply not level both in the classrooms and in the homes of many students across the country who are competing for those scholarships.

That's hard to argue, but the sincerity of college coaches can be questionable when it comes to recruiting practices, especially as Frey portrays them during the face-to-face meetings with the star prospects at Lincoln High.

These slick salesmen display a variety of Dale Carnegie approaches; one coach, Rick Barnes of Providence College, began his visit by performing a magic trick. They stress their undying loyalty, their commitment, their love ; no other coach, they argue has the player's best interests at heart. Yet these same men are too often the first to jump at whatever higher-priced offer comes along from a rival school or the NBA. Then what happens to the commitment made to the player during the recruiting process?

It's a blatant double standard permitted by the NCAA: When players decide to transfer from one Division I college to another, they must sit out a full season at their new school before gaining eligibility; coaches, however, are free to come and go, leaving a string of broken promises on the way to their stockbroker's office.

So who can fault the kids in places like Coney Island and Chicago from dreaming those unrealistic dreams, or seeking the quickest and easiest routes to fame and fortune?

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
53°