PLAYING THE GAME by Alan Lelchuk


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 A preachy tale about an aging basketball coach who unexpectedly reaches the big time--in a sixth novel from the author of Brooklyn Boy, 1989, etc. Former history professor and narrator Sydney Berger loves basketball with a passion great enough to have forsaken the classroom for a series of dead-end coaching positions. When events thrust him into the top job at Conway College, a buttoned-down New Hampshire institution (that bears more than a passing resemblance to Dartmouth, where Lelchuk teaches), the ex-prof is ready. First off, Sydney (whose penchant for introspective sermonettes on education, racial bias, inner-city pathologies, etc., soon becomes tiresome) assembles an ethnically diverse crew of players. Their culturally disadvantaged ranks encompass a stylish black crack- addict, a guitar-strumming Puerto Rican, an Israeli math whiz, a lippy Irish kid destined to win a Rhodes scholarship, a gifted Native American ball handler, and a hulking forward from a working- class Polish family. After some early reverses, the lads master Sydney's ``high-flew'' system and go on a winning streak that gains them the Ivy League championship. The real secret of the squad's success, however, lies in the coach's inspirational readings at halftime, when he lets Emerson, Parkman, Whitman, Santayana, and other literary lights do his talking. Conway continues its winning ways in the post-season NCAA tournament, earning a coveted berth in the Final Four, but not before Sydney is briefly suspended for alleged violations of recruitment and financial-aid rules. In the anticlimactic windup, Sydney (Ö la Thoreau) goes to prison after refusing a judge's request to produce records that could prove embarrassing or even incriminating for his players. Then, free at last, he heads West to embrace a morally ambiguous future. Fast-breaking sports fiction ultimately defeated by an implausible plot and a schoolmasterish hero who periodically sounds as alienated as any Walker Percy hero.

Pub Date: April 17th, 1995
ISBN: 1-880909-32-4
Page count: 335pp
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15th, 1995