When nonfiction writer Matthew Goodman latches onto an intriguing subject, he runs with it – much like a scrappy basketball player might nab a rebound and pound down the court, all out. He has written about moon hoaxes in the era of Barnum & Bailey and round-the-world races by intrepid female reporters. His first book was a compendium of ethnic recipes representing the worldwide Jewish diaspora. Historical research seems to be his passion.
Now Goodman has penned The City Game: Triumph, Scandal and a Legendary Basketball Team. It’s the story of the 1949/50 CCNY Beavers, an all-minority team – African Americans and Jews – of small repute who broke records and won not one, but two major tournaments, both the NIIT and NCAA, playing against colleges much larger (and whiter) than they were. That’s the triumphant part of the story.
The spoiler in the subtitle foretells the reader that something ruinously bad is going to happen. A few of the disciplined, motivated, hard-driving, perhaps-a-little-naïve players fall into a point-shaving scheme run by local bookies. It was illegal, yes. They weren’t that naïve. But it only happened a couple of times, and the ruse wasn’t set up to cause the Beavers to lose any games. So, how bad could it be, especially if everyone was doing it?
“Everyone” included the entire metropolis of New York City: politicians, police force, public services; the whole culture was saturated in payoffs and extortions and one-hand-washing-the-other for profit. Meanwhile, the absolute glory and goodwill the Beavers generated for the City overshadowed any consequences those few players considered. But underneath, the fact of their complicity, even on the occasion that a couple of them refused to skew a final score, was “a virus that floated through the air, seeking weakness, reinfecting all those who had ever been exposed to it.”
In fast-moving detail, Goodman describes the multiple subcultures at work to shape events. He creates a vivid scenario around the team and college basketball as it existed in postwar New York City, including a fascinating exposé about City College itself. One of the few integrated institutions in the country, it was known to be progressive and left-leaning – and free to anyone who could qualify academically.
The die-cut personalities of the Beaver coaches stand out against the backdrop of well-delineated midcentury culture. The players themselves come across as the real young men they were: unhomogenized, unpasteurized for the reader’s consumption – just a bunch of earnest guys feeling lucky to be where they were.
And then there’s the determined assistant district attorney who commits his own team of rookie policemen to become undercover investigators in colleges throughout the City for the purpose of routing out gambling corruption. They succeed, even knowing that, as individuals, they’ll be known as rats in the department.
Goodman writes, “As I’ve discovered, however (in part thanks to interviews with all of the surviving members of the team), the reality is a good deal more complicated and emotionally affecting than the newspaper headlines might suggest. Ultimately, what might seem to be just a basketball story becomes a far larger one about loyalty, about personal and political corruption and about the consequences of youthful decisions that last a lifetime.”
The scene is set with a familiarity that only a New Yorker might be able to pull off; Goodman is a Brooklynite, through and through. You can almost feel your eyes sting when he mentions halls filled with cigarette and cigar smoke. You can hear the roar of fans in Madison Square Garden. You can see the cold, crowded city streets of yesteryear. You can feel the pride that cometh before the fall for everyone involved.
The City Game is a compelling read. The author will be at Oblong Books in Rhinebeck on Friday, January 17 at 6 p.m. for a free book talk and signing.
Book-signing & talk: The City Game by Matthew Goodman, Friday, January 17, 6 p.m., Oblong Books, 6422 Montgomery Street, Rhinebeck; (845) 876-0500, www.oblongbooks.com.