PistonPowered reader Jacob Tucker provides this week’s Book Club post. If you’d like to contribute, e-mail patrickhayes13(at)gmail(dot)com.
For many boys who grow up on Coney Island in southern Brooklyn the possibility of going to college, choosing their own career path, and finding success is remote. In neglected neighborhoods where the majority of the population lives in 20 story public housing projects, there is but one glimmer of hope for some: basketball.
In The Last Shot, Darcy Frey gives his firsthand account of following four players from Abraham Lincoln High School (alma mater of current NBA players Sebastian Telfair and Lance Stephenson) for close to a year beginning in the spring of 1991. Frey closely chronicles the lives of seniors Tchaka Shipp, Corey Johnson and Darryl Flicking (named Russell Thomas in the book for legal reasons), as well as an up-and-coming freshman named Stephon Marbury.
Shipp is the most physically gifted and perhaps the most “privileged” of the group. As the book begins he has just been invited to the Nike camp – an invitation-only summer camp designed to showcase the nation’s top high school players to college coaches. Johnson has no dearth of talent but his interests are wide and include poetry and fashion as he writes one-liners about as often as he dunks.
Flicking is a student of the game, ceaselessly practicing his fundamentals in unwavering heat. He also has the highest GPA on the team and always keeps vocabulary flash cards nearby in preparation for the SAT.
Frey’s first observation of the 14-year-old Marbury goes like this:
Caught somewhere between puberty and superstardom, he walks around with his sneakers untied, the ends of his belt drooping suggestively from his pants, and half a Snickers bar extruding from his mouth…..Dribbling by himself in a corner of the court, Stephon has raised a ball with one hand directly over his head and threaded it through his legs. From back to front. Without interrupting his dribble. Now he’s doing it with two balls!
Through the experiences of these four players, Frey addresses such topics as the social decline of Coney Island, the mixed messages players receive from corporate sponsors, the shady recruiting tactics of big-time college coaches, the NCAA’s Proposition 48, and other obstacles that stand in the way of that ever elusive hope of “making it.” To be clear, “making it” does not necessarily mean playing in the NBA. Flicking wants to become a nurse. Johnson wants to become a writer. But each player knows that the vehicle to get him where he wants to go is basketball.
Frey paints Coney Island as a desolate community where drugs and violence rule the day. The once proud Lincoln High that boasts such alumni as Joseph Heller and Arthur Miller has succumbed to gang wars and frequent student arrests. Despite the efforts of some dedicated faculty members, socioeconomic conditions have put academics down the priority list. As one local freelance coach notes, “Lincoln didn’t make Coney Island. Coney Island made Lincoln.”
When Shipp attends the Nike summer camp, Frey goes with him. The players are constantly told by Nike staff members that when it comes to basketball, “just go out there and have fun.” Moments later every aspect of a player’s game is analyzed by the top college coaches in the nation. Frey notes that from where they are sitting the coaches can’t even see the scoreboard during team scrimmages, putting the onus on individual play. The players notice this as one remarks, “…you got to be a ball hog at this camp…” and another says, “I’m…shooting every time I touch the ball.” With scholarship money on the line, these players’ futures are dependent on just ‘going out there and having fun.’
Frey witnesses a myriad of recruiting practices by Division I coaches. He hears Jim Boehiem’s constant reassurance as the Syracuse coach steadily backpedals because of recent NCAA allegations of improper benefits. He notes Rollie Massimino’s emphasis on being a family and doing everything together. Within the year Massimino would move three thousand miles away leaving Villanova for UNLV. Frey is entertained by Rick Barnes’ magic card tricks, three cups and a disappearing ball, and the old quarter behind the player’s ear. Barnes tells Shipp that he is the only player they’re recruiting at his position before listing two more and then saying, “…that’s it.” As Barnes gets up to conclude the recruiting meeting he drops his deck of cards revealing a two of spades stamped on every trick card. Rod Baker tells Flicking that they need another guard and he was the first person they thought of. His end of the conversation with Flicking is as follows:
Frankly, I think you could be a pioneer at Cal-Irvine, an impact player, a franchise player. A year from now, when you’re a freshman and we’re playing for a conference championship, it won’t take a brain surgeon to figure out it was [Darryl Flicking] who got us there. And five years from now, I wouldn’t be surprised if people are saying, “Remember when [Darryl Flicking] came in and completely changed the fortunes of Cal-Irvine?”
As soon as Flicking makes up his mind to sign with Cal-Irvine, Baker calls the Lincoln coach to say he’s no longer interested because a guard he thought was leaving decided to come back.
In 1986 the NCAA instituted Proposition 48 which requires student-athletes to score a minimum of 700 on the SAT to obtain a Division I athletic scholarship. Frey is critical of Prop 48 and provides compelling arguments. He points out that the NCAA does not consider any other indications of scholastic potential besides the standardized tests. Educationally disadvantaged and poorly schooled players like the ones at Lincoln have much intellectual ground to cover to meet this minimum requirement. In his pursuit of this Flicking sits at the front of his classes, asks stimulating questions, and even goes to study hall during lunch time. Regardless, he struggles in his attempts to reach the 700 threshold throughout the book.
Frey encountered his share of challenges when writing The Last Shot. He was banned from recruiting visits to all Big East campuses by the NCAA. Flicking’s mother ordered her son not to speak to Frey at one point. He is denied several requests for an interview by Marbury’s father. Having already seen three of his sons fail to “make it” Don Marbury won’t speak unless he is compensated. In the face of these challenges, Frey writes a timeless book. At times triumphant and at times sobering, it’s a case study of the burdens of four high school basketball players in less than fortunate circumstances with the game as their only alleviation. At one point the brash and surprisingly astute Marbury utters, “Man, I’m tired of all this … somebody’s got to make it, somebody’s got to go all the way…”
The concern for these young men is palpable as their actions lead to continual speculation about their outcomes, vacillating from potential NBA star to Coney Island casualty.
On a personal level, The Last Shot shook my naïve perception. The first time I read this book I was young and did not yet realize that having the skills, talent, and tenacity to play basketball at the highest level was merely half the battle. As NBA fans (particularly those of us Pistons fans over the last three years) we often experience emotions of frustration even anger as we bemoan the shortcomings of the players we follow. This book gave me a fresh appreciation for the fact that these players have reached the point where they can even put on jersey and step out onto an NBA floor. In 2004 Darcy Frey released an edition of The Last Shot with a new afterword, updating the lives of Tchaka Shipp, Corey Johnson, Darryl Flicking, and Stephon Marbury. I won’t give it away, but I will say that it is at the same time victorious and demoralizing.
Next up: When March Went Mad by Seth Davis