cover image Playing the Game

Playing the Game

Alan Lelchuk. Baskerville Publishers, $23 (361pp) ISBN 978-1-880909-32-4

While he does add several interesting twists to the standard rags-to-riches sports novel, Lelchuk's (American Mischief) saga about a team of Ivy League basketball misfits that lands in the NCAA Final Four ultimately falls victim to a combination of florid rhetoric and a conceit that stretches credibility well beyond the breaking point. Sydney Berger, a desultory, 50-ish assistant coach and history professor at moribund Conway College in Vermont, takes the reins in midseason after the team's head coach bolts for a better job. Bucking the status quo, the new leader forms a fresh lineup that consists primarily of his own recruits, a collection of mismatched players whose ethnic diversity-- they are black, Native American, white, Latino--makes them a veritable jump-shot melting pot. Berger's gamble raises the ire of his ivory tower colleagues, and his team takes a pounding in the early going. But the players come together, largely because of the coach's odd halftime pep talks, which draw freely from Emerson, Thoreau and other prominent literary and historical figures. As Conway cops the Ivy League crown and rolls into the postseason national tournament, Lelchuk presents several compelling versions of the many moral dilemmas faced by coaches and players. But there's a gee-whiz, feel-good shallowness to the characterizations of this minority-representative squad; and that simplicity undermines a reader's confidence in Berger's rambling soliloquies, which mix basketball theory, historical analysis and passages from literature. Instead of organic flow (justly celebrated in some of the basketball passages), we get a studied exercise in the universal applicability of Big Ideas, a well-told heartwarmer cooled by too much pseudo-purist dogma. (Apr.)