With the NBA in the midst of a labor disagreement, players from the world’s premier basketball league are scattering in different directions to maintain their skills (and get paid). This past summer, a number of NBA players returned to their roots, so to speak, by playing in summer leagues in places like DC, LA, New York, and Baltimore. For many black players who grew up in big cities, summer leagues were the place where they first learned basketball, under the watchful eyes of older men who had also played the game—and made names for themselves—on the same courts.
Scott Brooks spent four years coaching youth basketball in one of these leagues in South Philadelphia, bringing the perspective of a sociologist to this institution of inner-city neighborhoods. The book based on his experiences and his research, Black Men Can’t Shoot (University of Chicago Press, 2009), follows two of the league’s young players, Jermaine and Ray, as they learn the game, develop their skills, and work to “get known” in the world of Philadelphia basketball. As Scott explains in the interview, “getting known” is a complicated and demanding process of gaining status on the court and in the community. Like athletes in other sports, young basketball players like Jermaine and Ray seek to get the attention of scouts and recruiters by participating in multiple leagues, traveling teams, and regional tournaments. But “getting known” in South Philly basketball is about much more than a coveted college scholarship. Being a known player brings social prestige at school and the protection and patronage of older men in the neighborhood, the chorus of elders known as “old heads.” Attaining this status, Scott explains, is not a matter of simple ability, the so-called natural athleticism of blacks. Instead, it is the product of disciplined work, careful networking, and study of the game.
Scott’s book is not about the hoop dreams of Jermaine and Ray. Instead, it is about hoop reality—about basketball as part of the social fabric of an inner-city neighborhood and the ways that black men, young and old, use the game to improve their personal situations and better their communities.
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