The Hustle

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To write The Hustle, Doug Merlino, who now lives in New York City, returned to Seattle, where he grew up, and tried to reconnect with some of the men with whom he’d played basketball twenty five years ago. Their team had been assembled by a black coach named Willie McClain, who believed that introducing the teenagers in his neighborhood to a handful of white students who were living in much wealthier neighborhoods and attending selective private schools would benefit both groups.

To a limited extent Coach McClain’s experiment was successful. The boys had basketball in common. They got along reasonably well. Nobody insulted anybody else, except in fun. But the youngsters spent little time together off the court, and in one especially telling anecdote, Merlino indicates that when his disadvantaged teammates saw the palatial home in which he was living, Merlino was embarrassed to the point of shame.

What Doug Merlino discovered about his former teammates may discourage people who want to believe in progress in race relations and equal opportunity. For the most part, Merlino’s white ex-teammates have turned various opportunities into various successes. One is a multimillionaire hedge fund operator. Another is a prosecutor in Seattle. A third runs a one-man winery.

For the most part, the news for the black men, many of whom got their first look at the world beyond Seattle’s ghetto when they joined Coach McClain’s team, is not good. One was murdered, perhaps in the aftermath of a drug deal. Another has survived years of cocaine addiction, only to land in jail. A third is involved in various street hustles about which Doug Merlino remains vague.

There are lots of reasons to take issue with The Hustle. Doug Merlino’s sample is necessarily small. His experience – or at least the experience he brings to bear on the book - is limited in terms of geography. Everything is set in two neighborhoods in Seattle. Still, Merlino’s account of what happens to those of his former teammates granted all sorts of advantages as opposed to those who, as he puts it, “have no margin for error,” is worth our attention. His stories of the individuals he knew and knows are complimented by accounts of how various schools, private and public, have tried to address the de facto segregation that has always characterized U.S. cities. Many of these attempts have failed because, as Damian Joseph, a black ex-teammate who has become a teacher puts it, the election of President Obama “isn’t going to alter the underlying global economic structure.”

Not all white ex-basketball players who had poor and disadvantaged teammates end well. Some of them go on to careers as toxic asset peddlers, arms merchants, and lobbyists for pharmaceutical corporations and get caught. Not all disadvantaged black ex-basketball players die young or land in jail or on the street. Some of them find their way to good educations and productive community work.

But as he winds his way toward the end of his tale of basketball players grown older, Merlino finds himself turning to the observations of a very successful black man who found discouraging the lack of progress toward justice and equality during his lifetime. The author sites Jackie Robinson, who found that “celebrating people on the athletic fields can be a substitute for real equality.” Of his own boyhood experience, Merlino writes, “Our team was never going to do more than paper over this rift and perhaps give a few of the black players a shot at bettering their positions in life.” It’s a sobering assertion for those who would see in sports a tool for general and genuine progress.

This segment aired on January 8, 2011.


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