The Basketball Lie
A sociologist shares the positives of the game’s dreams in the book, “Living Through The Hoop.”
The elements of a typical Hollywood inspirational sports movie can be found in the book Living Through the Hoop: High School Basketball, Race, and the American Dream by sociologist Reuben A. Buford May.
There are young black players dreaming of going to the National Basketball Association, courageously battling the tough inner-city social conditions of poverty, drugs, and limited opportunities. There’s the gruff father-figure of a coach. There’s sex. There’s the death of one of the basketball stars, which serves as inspiration for the pivotal championship game at the end.
But Living Through the Hoop is not a Hollywood movie. The team loses the game. The 20-year-old star committed suicide. At least two players are teenage fathers. And none of the players will ever, ever play in the NBA.
Those black high school basketball players who dream of playing in the NBA are being lied to—and that’s a good thing.
May, an associate professor of sociology at Texas A&M University, spent seven years as an assistant high school basketball coach. His ethnographic study of one team in Georgia is detailed in his award-winning book, Living Through the Hoop (New York University Press). The deception about playing pro ball is necessary as a part of the American dream, May says.
The numbers don’t lie—of the more than half a million high school students who play basketball annually, only .001 percent play professional basketball. There’s just a .03 probability for even college basketball. But coaches, parents, the media, and society continue to encourage young black males to reach for the college and professional level, May said.
“With the limited opportunity for athletic success beyond high school, why do we insist on setting the players up for failure?” said May.
May contends that despite the practically-insurmountable odds of success, supporting high school players to strive for the improbable goal of making the NBA—or even playing in college—is necessary and ultimately positive, even if it is a deception.
For many black teenagers, the perception of choices for identity in their lives is limited, May said. The sport of basketball in particular becomes central for their lives as a method of bringing sense into their world, he said.
“Basketball is key to their salvation,” May said. “Our American social system is based upon the very real human need for hope, and even the difficult aspiration to play professional basketball is part of that system.”
May’s book focuses on his exhaustive study of the boys’ basketball team—the Knights—at Northeast High School in Northeast, Georgia primarily over a five-year span ending in 2005. The practice of ethnography, or participant observation, allows the researcher to learn firsthand about the subjects he is studying by being a part of their activities.
In addition to serving as assistant coach at practices and games, May took elaborate notes over the years as the Knights players interacted with each other, coaches, parents, school officials, and other players. He also conducted extensive one-on-one interviews with players at the end of each season.
As a participant observer, May’s research brought him very close to the team, the players, and their lives. He watched how Knights Coach William Benson, year after year, gave his young charges a constant in their lives.
“Basketball was their reason for staying in school, and Coach Benson was an advocate for the kids in keeping them in the classroom,” May said.
May learned what the teenage players admired in basketball stars, about what makes a man a man, and what they knew about the opposite sex. “These kids’ lives are very complex,” he said.
That closeness with his research subjects is best evidenced by what he called “the most important chapter in the book,” the epilogue titled “The Death of Calvin Cody.” In 2006, May learned of the suicide of Cody, ironically the most talented of the Knights who had gone on to play college basketball.
Even after he rejoined the Knights team for the high school region championship the evening of Cody’s funeral, May questioned if the encouragement of Cody to continue to play basketball had been the right thing to do.
“Then I realized we had given Calvin Cody a chance. In the end, that is all we could do, a chance to hope for better despite a dismal starting point,” May said.
The final game goes to double-overtime, but the emotional Knights are unable to pull out a victory in the end, May said. The real victory was watching those young men play so hard “who had not more than a few hours before attended a funeral to bury Calvin Cody,” May said.
The ethical tension to provide hope to those teenage basketball players knowing the odds against them is part of what May wanted to research in this his second scholarly book. He called it the necessary deception the “dirty trick.”
“The dirty trick is to keep the young players going, but we still have to give it to them, and we have to be sincere because it’s part of the American dream,” May said.
The powerful passion for basketball was another part of what May wanted to examine in this book, driven by his own love of the sport. Why did he love it so much, and why did so many other black men? Part of the answer he learned from his research of the Knights. The simple mechanics of the game help erase the complex problems the players face every day, May said.
“Through playing basketball, the young men learn to hope for something more out of life,” May said.
May’s book was named co-winner of the Association for Humanist Sociology (AHS) 2008 Book of the Year award. His first book, Talking at Trena’s: Everyday Conversation at an African American Tavern, was published in 2001 .
May is working on his third book and will be a Fellow at the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard University this fall. The institute is directed by Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr., who has been in the news lately for events not unrelated to his research.
Mike L. Downey is a freelance writer and teacher in Bryan, Texas. He has written for diverse publications ranging from American Songwriter to Indie Slate Magazine to ComputorEdge.
Reuben A. Buford May, Ph.D., is an associate professor of sociology at Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas. Living Through the Hoop is published by New York University Press.