- Heaven Is a Playground
First published in 1976, the book has been deemed a "seminal ode to New York City streetball," in a recent (December 2009) Sports Illustrated review of this latest edition of the volume with a new introduction by the author. So much has changed since then. So little has changed. As Telander notes in his very brief new introduction to this edition, there was no internet, no cell phones, no laptops, no disco; gas cost forty cents a gallon, Vietnam was just ending, the World Trade Center had just been completed. But there was and still is poverty, inequality, violent death, and drug use in the poorer sections of American cities (and more widespread use now). And, there was basketball.
Telander, a young aspiring writer, just out of Northwestern, spent part of the summer of 1973 and all of the summer of 1974 in and around Foster Park in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, observing urban basketball and writing what amounts to an ethnography of the phenomenon. His major informant was a man named Rodney Parker, a self-styled basketball scout/recruiter who made his living as a ticket scalper. Not long after Telander's arrival in the summer of 1974, a group of teenagers recruit him to coach them in an informal playground league in New York. Thus, he becomes a participant observer as he coaches, plays—at times—and lives with his subjects and explores the culture of the playground and surrounding area.
The team that Telander coaches, the Subway Stars, provide personal portraits of the young residents of the playground, and their cultural goals are seen as emulating the "royalty" of the region, an honor bestowed on those who manage to escape the ghetto by attaining college basketball scholarships of some sort. Many of these have been achieved through the intervention of Rodney Parker, who seemingly asks nothing in return, other than being recognized for his expertise.
Another part of Telander's latest introduction includes his description of attending Parker's wake in December of 2007 where he is able to see old friends from his Brooklyn summer, some of whom were the aforementioned royalty like Bernard and Albert King, James "Fly" Williams and youth coach George Murden. In prior editions Telander had updated the lives of these individuals, as well as the fates of some of his Subway Stars, many of whom had been given pseudonyms in the book because of their youth or to protect them from ramifications of negative actions in which they might have engaged.
The book includes Telander's photographs, a vital part of ethnography, and those same photographs were also part of a photographic exhibition by Telander in New York, that coincided with the release of the book in late 2009. The culture of the time as indicated by dress, posture, and hair styles is depicted well. Telander's descriptions fit well with his photographs as do his philosophical musings on the future possibilities of these youngsters. Ultimately, some of these young men disappear, some die, some become reasonably successful. Part of the power in these later editions is the updating that Telander does, an indication of the respect with which he was held by the members of the culture that he [End Page 490] entered. In fact, in the 1988 edition, that has an updated postscript, one of the players on the Subway Stars tells Telander, "We respected you. You didn't let us do a lot of punk stuff, and that meant a lot to us" (p. 214).
Sports Illustrated ranked this book as one of the Top 100 Sports Books of All Time, and it is a marvelous portrait of basketball as the center of young people's lives in the inner city of 1974. As a historical "document," it carries the insight of Telander's excellent observation and reporting, although there is not a lot here for sport historians per se. The book will continue to have value to sociologists of sport, ethnographers of inner city life, and those entertained by good writing...