Monday, November 18, 2019

A shaving points scandal. A legendary youth basketball team. And redemption. Matthew Goodman talks about his latest page-turner, THE CITY GAME

Years ago, a client of my husband gave us court side tickets to see the Knicks. To say that we were enthralled is putting it lightly. I felt forever changed and I've loved basketball ever since. So, of course, I was excited to read Matthew Goodman's CITY GAME, about good kids on a team who seemed to have it all but couldn't resist the lure of easy money. The book reads like a thriller, every page full of hope, glory--and yeah, desperate yearning. And I'm not the only one to say so. Look at these raves:

“A wonderful book. . . . a fascinating look at a team full of talented young men who torpedoed their careers because they were unable to resist the lure of easy money. . . . The CCNY point-shaving scandal remains, decades after it happened, a heartbreaking story of venality, and Goodman turns out to be the perfect author to tell it. The City Game is a gripping history of one of college basketball’s darkest moments, an all too human tale of young people blowing up their futures in a misguided attempt to make good.”
–Michael Schaub, NPR Books

“Fans of college hoops will devour Goodman’s excellent history. . . . Goodman effectively combines interviews and extensive research to definitively recreate the unfortunate story of the 1949–50 City College of New York basketball team, which won an unprecedented two college championships in the same year (the NIT and the NCAA) before being tainted by a point-shaving scandal involving several of its stars.”
Publishers Weekly (★ starred review)

“Goodman not only chronicles the point-shaving scam that eventually brought down the team, but he also provides a richly detailed portrait of mid-twentieth-century New York City. . . . Goodman follows the principals through their lives, even interviewing their children. This is a marvelous, vibrant recounting of a bit of sports history in which the backdrop of New York dominates.”
Booklist (★ starred review)

“Matthew Goodman’s historical account of City College is far more than descriptions of games played in Madison Square Garden and other arenas. He takes readers to the halls of government; New York City courtrooms; backrooms where bookies and gamblers plied their trade; and police stations where willing officers were paid to look away from gambling activities. It is a story both inspiring and upsetting, and is told with skill, insight, and deep understanding of time and place. . . . Goodman’s stirring history reminds us that athletic success often comes at a price. His story of greed and exploitation in college sports one-half century ago is as relevant today as ever.”

“Goodman takes on the story more as a historian than sportswriter, and readers will be grateful for that. . . . Most of the riveting action unfolds outside the arena, in the halls of government and through the hands of bookies; here, Goodman is at his scene-setting best. . . . He smoothly shapes readable narratives of a deep roster of characters, including coaches, politicians, police, detectives, organized criminals, and, of course, players. Basketball fans are not the only readers who will be edified by this significant slice of New York City history.”
Kirkus Reviews

“Matthew Goodman has composed a portrait of an era that transcends sports. Painstakingly reported and written with great affection, The City Game is a masterpiece of American storytelling.”
—Gilbert King, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Devil in the Grove

Matthew Goodman is the New York Times-bestselling author of four books of nonfiction: The City Game: Triumph, Scandal, and a Legendary Basketball Team (Ballantine Books, 2019); Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s History-Making Race Around the World (Ballantine Books, 2013); The Sun and the Moon: Hoaxers, Showmen, Dueling Journalists, and Lunar Man-Bats in Nineteenth-Century New York (Basic Books, 2008); and Jewish Food: The World at Table (HarperCollins, 2005).

Matthew’s books have been Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers, Indie Next “Great Reads,” and Borders Original Voices selections, and a finalist for a GoodReads Choice Award, and have been translated into eight languages. His writing has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, The American Scholar, the Harvard Review, Salon, the Forward, Bon Appetit, and many other publications, and has been cited for Special Mention in the Pushcart Prize and Best American Short Stories anthologies.

Thank you so much for being here, Matthew!

I always think that writers are haunted into writing their books, that they are looking for answers to something and hope to find it in a novel. What was haunting you beside, obviously, the amazing story here?

That’s a wonderful question. In his short story “The Leather Man,” E. L. Doctorow wrote of “individuals in whom history intensifies like electroshock.” It’s just sort of a tossed-off phrase, but for some reason it hit me very powerfully, because in reading it I suddenly realized that in a certain way that’s my whole writing project. I was trained as a fiction writer, with all of that emphasis on characterization and narrative structure and authorial voice and all the rest, but ever since I was a kid I’ve loved history, and now in writing narrative history I’ve been able to combine those two disciplines. I think what I’m trying to do in my writing is to find and then think as deeply as I can about individuals who get caught up in historical events and then have to negotiate their way through them. That’s the thing that I seem to return to again and again in my work.

So, for instance, in my previous book, Eighty Days, about Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s race around the world in 1889, I found that for me the prime motivator, the thing that really kept me going in the writing, was less the events of the trip – although I loved writing about all those fascinating places like Hong Kong and Yemen and the Suez Canal – than the idea of how in embarking on this around-the-world race these two young women were stepping into a historical whirlwind unlike anything they had ever experienced, a vast roaring wave of publicity and controversy, that would ultimately lead to some unexpected after-effects in their later lives. In my earlier book, The Sun and the Moon, it was the notion of this privately radical English newspaperman in New York, Richard Adams Locke, who concocts a hoax about life on the moon as a way of satirizing the religious astronomers of the time, and who gets caught up in a social frenzy that he had not anticipated and which he doesn’t really know how to handle.

With my current book, The City Game, I loved writing about the amazing history of City College and the incredibly exciting double-championship season, and then the uproarious victory celebrations and all that. But if the story had ended with the triumphant season, I don’t think I would have written the book. Again, the aspect of the story that I found most motivating – that I guess you could say “haunted” me in the writing – was how these talented young guys, these really smart and sympathetic black and Jewish kids with a bit of fame but not much money, got themselves involved in a web of corruption that they didn’t really understand, and which they spend the rest of their lives trying to overcome.

As a result of their encounters with history, these young City College basketball players, like Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland and Richard Adams Locke before them, ended up not necessarily happier, but certainly with a deeper understanding of themselves and of society: they were individuals in whom history has intensified like electroshock.

 What’s so astonishing is that this team you are writing about was the only team in history to win the NIT and NCAA tournaments in the same year. It's so shocking to me that such talented kids had conspired to shave points, but then again, given that they were sort of powerless, and not making money, is it really any wonder that they were susceptible to others’ schemes and their own dreams of easy money? But what is more astonishing is how they were able to redeem themselves. I often feel that America says it likes redemption, but it never follows through total acceptance. Why do you feel this was different?

They were not the first poor kids to take money from gamblers, nor would they be the last. But what I was so fascinated to discover, in researching this book, was how widely divergent the motivations among them were for what they did. It was so much more complicated and ambiguous than the typical “they were corrupt and amoral and sold out their school” lessons of the newspaper editorialists. I mean, some of them were more willing participants and some were less willing, but they all had their own motivations. One of them did it, as he explained, simply because “I wanted the other guys to like me.” He was this handsome, talented guy, a classic golden-boy star athlete, but he came from a rather sheltered family and had grown up feeling socially awkward and left out; as somebody who knew him told me, “He always wanted to be a guy hanging out on a street corner, but he had nobody to hang out with.” Another one of the guys was almost entrepreneurial in his motivations – he felt that a lot of people were making money off his talents, and he had a right to get a small piece of those profits. Another guy left the money entirely untouched in a box in the basement: he hoped someday to be able to give it to his parents, who were really struggling financially.

One of the main characters of my book, a guy named Floyd Layne, resisted the scheme for a long time before he finally caved and accepted the money. He took $3,000, which he wrapped up in a handkerchief and buried in a flowerpot in his bedroom, and didn’t use any of it except for $110 that he spent on a washing machine for his mother. I focus a lot on him in the book, because of all the guys, he was the one who refused to leave the scandal behind him; he was the one who continued to fight for years to clear his name, to earn a spot in professional basketball, to prove to the world that he was an honorable, decent person, not the criminal he was made out to be in the papers. And of all the guys, he was the one who really found redemption – in a way that was almost too amazing to be true. (When I discovered what had happened to him, I almost couldn’t believe my luck as a writer! It was a ready-made ending to the story.)

I’m not sure that any of the guys, other than Floyd, were ever able to fully redeem themselves: When they died, their obituaries always put the scandal in the headline. Over time, I think the pain became less sharp – got subsumed by the good things in their lives, families and careers and what have you – but I don’t know that it ever really went away. There was always this gnawing sense of disappointment and regret and anger, some of it directed inward, some outward. Floyd did experience a kind of redemption, but it was genuinely hard won; he had spent years and years toiling away in community centers in New York’s most impoverished neighborhoods in the Bronx, helping kids get away from drugs and gangs and violence and into colleges and occupations. Over time, he told me many years later, he had even begun to see himself as fortunate: “I would have been unreachable and untouchable in the NBA,” he said. “Instead, I was able to touch the lives of so many kids.”

For Floyd, the scandal had been a defining personal tragedy; but through him, it had been for so many of the city’s children a kind of blessing. That, I think, more than anything, was ultimately the source of Floyd’s sense of redemption – of coming to terms with the pain of his own past.

 Your research must have been fascinating. What surprised you the most about it? What did you expect to find and what did you find instead?

In writing my books, I’m hoping not just to tell the reader what happened, but also, crucially, to give as strong a sense of possible of what it felt like to be living in that particular time and place, to provide a sense of life as it was actually lived. My absolutely favorite responses from readers is when they tell me, “Wow, I felt like I was really in New York in 1835,” or some such thing. Thus, in Eighty Days, I was hoping that readers would feel what it was like to be barreling down the Wasatch mountain range on a train; or sailing along the Suez Canal on a moonlight night; or raising a glass of wine with Jules Verne in his home in Amiens, France. With The City Game, I was looking for a more jazzy sense of mid-century New York, of Times Square with its arcades and flea circuses and neon lights; or the insanely plentiful breakfasts at the old “Borscht Belt” hotels in the Catskills; or Madison Square Garden in the moments before a game, the darkness inside the arena punctuated by what seemed like thousands of fireflies – the burning tips of cigarettes.
Much like a fiction writer, I’m always looking for those vivid, specific details that work together to conjure up a scene. And you can find those in what might not seem to be the most obvious places. Oddly enough, one source that I’ve found to be particularly helpful is travel guidebooks from the period I’m writing about. A historian is, in a sense, a kind of traveler, though one who is traveling through time rather than space, and just like those other travelers, a historian can use guidebooks to get descriptions of the city, and discussions of restaurants and hotels, the most interesting sights, appropriate forms of dress (for weather and style alike), and the habits of the “locals.”

Of course, I’ll always read as many newspapers as I can from the particular place and time about which I’m writing. And in reading the newspapers about the 1951 basketball scandal, I began to notice that there was another sports bookmaking scandal going on in New York at the very same time – the Harry Gross scandal, in which it was revealed that this big-time bookmaker from Brooklyn was laying out millions of dollars in bribes to policemen and politicians to protect his syndicate. How was it possible, I wondered, for there to be two sports bookmaking scandals going on in New York at the very same time? And, more to the point, might there somehow be connections between them?

Well, as I delved into the Harry Gross scandal (which never even got mentioned in my book proposal, as I didn’t know it existed when I began the book), I did begin to see, more and more, that there were connections between these two scandals, and I began to understand how these young basketball players had gotten caught up in a vast web of corruption that eventually reached the very top levels of government in New York. It was a system of bribes and favors and back-room deals that kept the city running – that got statutes passed and buildings built and candidates elected and, for those who really knew how it worked, fortunes made. That was the way things were done in the city: that was the real “city game” of the book’s title.

What’s obsessing you now and why?
I’m obsessed with trying to find my next book topic! Honestly, finding the right topic is the hardest and most painful part of the whole process. Good narrative history requires a story with compelling characters, a dramatic narrative arc, vivid setting, rich subject matter. For me, it’s also important for the main story line – while it has it to be exciting in itself – to also provide a window into larger questions of politics and history. And those types of stories are awfully hard to come by – particularly ones that haven’t already been written! (Or at least not written in the way that you yourself are proposing to do.) It took me about eighteen months to settle on the City College story, after finishing work on Eighty Days. Now I’m entering the same process after having completed work on The City Game. I have no idea what it is that I’m going to find – and no assurance, indeed, that I’ll be able to find anything at all.

What question didn’t I ask that I should have?

Hmm. Maybe: “Do you mind if I tell you the perfect subject for your next book?”

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