By Ryan McGowan
Neil Swidey and Michael Connelly have a lot in common, it seems. Both grew up in Boston or the surrounding area, write for local media outlets (Swidey for the Boston Globe and Connelly for the Boston Herald, and both have recently written books about sports, culture, and racial issues involving the city and its basketball tradition. One thing they don’t have in common: Swidey’s book The Assist: Hoops, Hope, and the Game of their Lives is a must-read, while Connelly’s Rebound! Basketball, Busing, Larry Bird, and the Rebirth of Boston pretty much sucks.
For fans of basketball in New England, there has always been a shortage of quality hoops writing. Sure, the Globe has had some talented basketball scribes through the years. Bob Ryan, Jackie MacMullen, Michael Holley, and Marc Spears are all nationally-respected basketball writers who have plied their journalistic trade on Morrissey Boulevard, and their work has certainly enhanced the experience of watching the 17-time world champion Boston Celtics.
However, there haven’t been too many exceptional basketball books on the market, at least not that I’ve come across. If anyone knows any, send some titles my way. Even Larry Bird’s autobiography, Drive: The Story of my Life (co-authored by Bob Ryan), which I devoured as a 12-year-old sports fanatic growing up south of Boston, is in retrospect a somewhat pedestrian account of the otherwise complex life and times of Larry Joe.
Which is why I was so disappointed by Rebound. Connelly’s book discusses a fascinating, controversial, and still-relevant topic: the Boston busing crisis of the 1970’s and subsequent Boston Celtics championships in 1974, 1976, and 1981. Still, the author’s prosaic diction and dumbing-down explanations of the issues involved transformed this subject matter from elegant sociocultural analysis to simplistic elementary school textbookery. Connelly’s background discussions of the demographic issues which led up to the decision to federally mandate busing of public school students to other neighborhoods of the city to achieve racial balance are almost cartoonish. (“For centuries, Boston had been known as a city of tolerance and freedom. Somehow it had lost its way.” Preach on, Brother Michael.)
The narrative of the book is too disjointed, jumping back and forth between chapters short enough to appease a typical middle school student who would complain that ten pages of reading in one night was way too much. Part of the narrative centers around an overly simplified, somewhat unobjective rendition of United States Federal Court judge W. Arthur Garrity’s 1974 decision to achieve racial balance in Boston Public Schools by busing black students from the city’s central and southern neighborhoods such as Roxbury and Mattapan to the predominantly white neighborhoods such as South Boston and Charlestown.
The issues contained in this story are so complex: the history of neighborhood settlement and the parochial mentality of the working-class Irish and Italians who had entrenched themselves in certain neighborhoods, the political machinery of the Irish politicians and their control through organizations such as the Boston School Committee, the cultural divide between the affluent, liberal white policymakers of the suburbs whose kids were tucked away safely in private schools or in suburban palaces and who therefore did not have to bear the brunt themselves of the desegregation order. But Connelly’s prose does not do the complexity of these issues justice; instead, he runs through them like a presenter at a conference who is zipping through his last few PowerPoint slides because he is running out of time.
It seems that the reason the book appears so superficial and rushed is that it tries to do too much. The story of busing and the complexity of the boiled-over unrest in the streets of Boston in the 1970’s would be enough to fill a 300-page book; unfortunately, that well has already been dug, most spectacularly by the iconic work Common Ground by the late J. Anthony Lukas, an extremely poignant and in-depth account of the different constituencies who were affected by busing. So Connelly had to take a different approach. He decided to interweave the story of the 1970’s Celtics, a dynasty in transition from its dominant glory days of the 1960’s under legendary coach Red Auerbach (and back-to-back titles with player-coach Hall of Famer Bill Russell).
This is where he made a terrible mistake as a writer. The angle of how the Celtics resurrected civic pride in the Hub and were symbolic of an urban rebirth in the capital city in the 1980’s (a renaissance which continues to this day) is intriguing enough to fill the entire book; he should have just run with that. The busing stories are well-documented. The core audience of this book will most likely have either read Common Ground, lived through the busing strife, or knows someone who did. We didn’t need to be told that Charlestown and South Boston were working class white neighborhoods with a lot of Irish guys and that Roxbury and Mattapan were black neighborhoods. We didn’t need to have our hands held and be walked through revelations that the Boston School Committee was wrapped around corruption in ethnic Boston politics – does anyone not know that?
Some of the anecdotes and researched stories Connelly gives us with regards to the Celtics stories are great. I particularly enjoyed the ongoing themes regarding how Auerbach consistently overlooked Heinsohn and his contributions to the franchise as a player, coach, broadcaster, and die-hard apologist of all things Celtic. But the diluted double-narrative leaves too little room for such rich expositions into the lives of the people involved in the Celtics part of the story, which is the angle people were looking for in the first place. I really wasn’t hoping to find one more anecdote about Louise Day Hicks and how she motivated frustrated working-class Southie whites to vote her onto the City Council. Enough already.
All in all, I don’t think I wasted a few days of my life by reading Rebound, but it certainly didn’t live up to what I was hoping for in a book that seemed to capture a number of themes that intrigue me: race, class, and the potential of sports to transcend both. Neil Swidey’s The Assist is a much better exploration of how those issues intermingle through Boston basketball. Pick that one up instead.
COMING NEXT: REVIEW OF NEIL SWIDEY’S THE ASSIST: HOOPS, HOPE, AND THE GAME OF THEIR LIVES