The book I read on vacation: Heaven is a Playground

Vacation unplugged: I was on vacation last week down in Mexico and it was a great time.  And in the event this sounds interesting to anybody, one of the things I tried to do was completely remove myself from all forms of modern communication.  Nothing.  No international service on the blackberry, no wifi in the room, the newspapers were in Spanish, and I really never turned on the tv.  And for full disclosure, if you haven’t tried that in the days since Al Gore invented the internet, I’d be lying if I said it was easy initially.  But after the first couple days, and the realization that while wearing the wrist band I was given at the front desk all I had to do was literally stand at the pool bar and order whatever drink I wanted until I became hungry enough to leave the pool bar and eat whatever I wanted from the moment I woke up until the moment I fell asleep, well, I managed to get used to it.  In doing so, I also managed to forget about the emails, phone calls, and texts that went unanswered – sorry about that – as well as the breaking news I was “missing.”  And it was pretty nice I’d have to admit. 

No news, is no news:  As far as that news was concerned, while the draft came and went, there was no major move made by a Cavaliers team that has averaged about 1.5 major moves a season over the last 7 years because basically there’s only one more move to be made and it’s as far out of the organization’s hands at this point as it possibly could be.  And that’s because its in the hands of you know who, and as that speculaton wore on another week closer to the impending decision that Mr. James plans to make whenever he feels like making it, I ended up missing a lot, and missing nothing at the same time.  And you know what, I feel better for it.  Had I been here, I’d have been reading everything from every source that leaked any report saying this that or the other thing.  Now that I’m back, I’m sure I will be – sans swim-up bars I feel I have no choice – and in doing so I’ll be weighing in on those subjects in some form or fashion as the week goes by I’m sure.  But for now, I did just want to also offer my thoughts on the book I did also read on my trip before moving on to all that, because the book is a classic.

Heaven Is A Playground – Rick Telander:

I’ve read a lot of basketball books, tons of them.  And what’s interesting about this one, beyond the fact that its obviously a great read, is also the fact that it was the first of its kind a so many ways.  Originally published in 1973, it was in many ways the first time that hoop dreams type story was told in the ways that we’ve seen it told so many times since.  And while there were mentions of Cavaliers greats like Austin Carr, quotes from a Michigan All American by the name of Campy Russell, and prominent discussions of the boyhood friend of the main character (Rodney Parker – more on him later) and New York schoolboy legend Lenny Wilkens, there is also the underlying message that as much as we think the business of basketball has changed so much in the modern era, its really the same in a lot of ways.  The technology has changed to be sure, and money’s bigger in the business of basketball, and certainly more far reaching as far as levels of organized hoops go nowadays, but so much of the same things happened then, that happen now.  Some not so great, and others nevertheless inspiring. 


Recruiting was intense back then too:
  We – or maybe I should say I – tend to think that “now” recruiting has become far out of control, and maybe it has.  But the book also talks about the recruiting of 8th grader Albert King (the younger brother of Bernard King) who was 6’6″ going into the ninth grade and already a playground legend in New York’s Foster Park at that time.  And as I read it my thoughts drifted to modern comparisons.  That said, there’s a lot of people that wonder – fair or not – about how exactly LeBron and company ended up at Akron St. Vincent St. Mary’s instead of Butchel - Akron’s public school.  And I’m not trying to say anything about SVSM, because I by no way know of any wrong doing there, but whether there was or wasn’t any recruiting going on there at the time - or is at private prep athletic powerhouses like that all across the country - if so, that’s nothing new.  Not by a long shot actually, and it wasn’t that fact that simply surprised me as much as the level of recruting that went on for his services - and I imagine others like him - back then.  As far back as 40 years ago the detailed recruitment in the book of young Albert King – who was for a time considered to be the best post – player from New York since Lew Alcindor - was astonishing.  And by that I mean there was a highschool in Pennsylvannia that offered to pay his way to go there, pay his room and board, give him spending money, and move a family friend there with the same benefits to keep him company for the four years as well.  Its an interesting story, interesting how the kid turned out – if you didn’t know - and interesting to also think that say LeBron did get the benefits he was suspended for in HS illegally – the car and the jerseys – that in no way compares to the financial packaged King was offered 40 years ago. 

Before there was AAU, there was Rodney Parker:  Additionally, I found the detailed account of Rodney Parker to be inspiring as well as facisnating.  First facisnating in the sense that before there was the AAU circuit, before there were the Dru Joyce’s and Ted Ginn Sr.’s of the world, there were guys like Rodney Parker who did the same things, in a lot of the same ways.  Parker was a guy who worked tirelessly – for motivations not directly stated however the motivations did not appear to be finanical – to put kids into colleges all over the country.  Nowadays, he’d have done it like Coach Joyce did – forming an official AAU team, taking the kids at a young age to national tournaments, driving them in his minivan all across the country on his own dime for exposure, competition, and growth.  Or he’d have done it like Ted Ginn does.  Taking a group of Glenville kids across the country on scouting tours, picking up kids from other area highschools to do the same.  But 40 years ago Parker did it by running up phone bills I imagine he had a hard time paying, putting kids on trains, or planes to go to this school or that one, for a shot, exposure, and a way out that he convinced coaches and scouts all over the country to take a chance on for his kids from New York to have an opportunity at a better life.  If the AAU was then what it was today, I imagine he’d have also made some money – legit money – off his efforts and maybe lived a better life than he did back then.  Furthermore, if college basketball was then what it is now, he’d have been the type of guy that would been at least offered a six-figure type assistant job at a major college for his ability to recruit.  But he hustled, and for whatever reason, he did his best by those kids, and his story – despite any cynisim you might be tempted to feel reading it - read inspirationally to me in a lot of ways.

In closing: And that’s all I really wanted to say on the book before moving on because its been out for 37 years and I just wanted to say those things about it because after I read a book I want to talk about it and its tough to talk about it to people who never read it before.  Nobody I know has ever told me they read it, so I decided to blog about it.  Additionally, the tale of Fly Williams is a great one too, and despite the fact that I knew he never made it because I knew I never heard of him, I found myself rooting for him anyways.  In addition to that, there’s a ton of other interesting stuff, so if you’ve read it, feel free to comment with your thoughts, or shoot me an email if you feel so inclined.  If you didn’t read it, maybe turn off your blackberry for a few days and flip through…a great book, by a great writer, and I can’t believe it took me this long to read it.

Brendan Bowers

About Brendan Bowers

I am the founding editor of StepienRules.com. I am also a content strategist and social media manager with Electronic Merchant Systems in Cleveland. My work has been published in SLAM Magazine, KICKS Magazine, The Locker Room Magazine, Cleveland.com, BleacherReport.com, InsideFacebook.com and elsewhere. I've also written a lot of articles that have been published here.

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