A strange tale involving George Wallace, race relations and high-school basketball in Omaha, Neb.
ESPN researcher, former journalist and Omaha Central alum Marantz (Sorcery at Caesars: Sugar Ray’s Marvelous Fight, 2008) walks a fine line between impartial reporter and impassioned participant in telling the story of the 1968 Omaha Central boys’ basketball team, a talented team more notable for its unlikely role in the tapestry of the civil-rights movement than its on-court success. Featuring a rare all-black starting line-up led by star Dwaine Dillard, the “Rhythm Boys” (a nickname both stylishly apropos and implicitly racist) demolished opponents in a community that evinced an outward tolerance of racial and religious differences but featured distinctly separate white, black and Jewish neighborhoods. On the eve of the state playoffs, a visit from segregationist presidential candidate George Wallace lit the waiting match of racial tension, leading to a series of riots and the arrest of Dillard, who was either out to harm Wallace or simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. Regardless, the tumultuous events derailed the team’s championship hopes, as a lingering malaise spurred by Dillard’s off-court troubles doomed them against a less-talented but sharper-shooting team in the title game. Marantz’s meandering account wants for more riveting in-game descriptions of the team’s prowess, and the blurred line between the author’s role as a journalist chronicling the events and a classmate of his subjects makes for a jumbled composition. Still, the author spotlights a bizarre intersection of sports, culture and politics amid a volatile decade that deftly highlights how momentous, community-changing events could occur far away from the bright lights of major metropolitan areas.
Despite a sometimes muddled narrative, Marantz presents an ultimately compelling snapshot of an era—and a city—in the throes of social upheaval.