This first book by a pair of veterans of Sports Illustrated is a highly intelligent look at the colorful world of playground hoops and, with it, the ghettos that support the game. Basketball has changed more radically in the past half-century than any of our other major sports, and the influence of playground ball has been one of the major reasons. From its opening portrait of street legend James "Speedy" Williams, a 29-year-old black man from Brooklyn who supports himself by playing in games organized by drug dealers and hustling one-on-one contests with unsuspecting marks, Pickup Artists is an unusually well-written and astute picture of the ways that basketball has evolved in this country. The soil from which the game sprung to its current tremendous size can be found in the cracked blacktop of dozens of inner-city playgrounds where creative athletes challenge one another with reputation and sometimes money on the line, a way for disadvantaged youth to climb out of the economic trough. As Anderson and Millman amply show, that reality has begun to change subtly. Big corporate money has found the playground—big college money, too—and the playground has succumbed in ways that are leading to its demise as an arena for self-expression, turning instead into a showcase for talent that resembles a meat market. Along the way, the authors give telling glimpses of an array of near-mythical figures, from Nat Holman to Earl "The Goat" Manigault (who died shortly after the book's completion). They mince no words in reporting on the ugly deaths and drug problems that have clung to the playground game. Indeed, after reading this volume, one realizes that playground ball has often been a fabulous jewel with a lethal curse; one wonders how something so beautiful can destroy so many. An exemplary piece of reporting and writing, transcending sports to give us a somber view of America's crumbling cities.
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