In "The Game They Played," Stanley Cohen tells the compelling story of the college basketball scandals of the early 1950s, focusing on the Cinderella team of the City College of New York, the unique winner of both the NIT and NCAA tournments in 1950. The power of the story itself is so great that it makes this severely flawed book genuinely exciting to read.
But the book takes stength from its author as well as its subject. Cohen played high school and school-yard basketball in New York at the time of the scandals, and he knows well both the game and its socail milieu. Best of all, he brings to the story a canniness, a street wisdom, that cuts through legalities and official fictions and rules of evidence to first-hand knowledge of sports, gambling, corruption, false information and hypocrisy. Thus, for example, for the first time I knwo of in print, there is an account of why the district attorney went after certain institutions and avoided implicaing others.
Moving back and forth between reporting the action on and off the court and recording directly the emotional responses to it, Cohen takes the leader through the athletic triumphs and the ethical collapses. He not only provides reasons for what happened, he also expresses judgements for the reasons. While much of what he says rings true, some seems pat or borrowed or imagined.
It is, after all, a personal document and does not pretend otherwise. Cohen is a good reporter who can give the sense of first-hand observation, particularly of ballgames and court cases. He is not, however, the careful researcher one would want to document thebasketball scandals. It is typical that on the one occasion when he cites a scholarly source he chooses the only of a half-dozen that supports his particular argument.
One of the major strengthas of the book lies in one of its flaws. The politics and sociology of New York in the 1950s and very much a prt of the story, and Cohen knows that scene as one who has experienced all its traumas. But he is so parochially a New Yorker that he seems to know nothing else. It is the city versus the world beyond.
Smarting under the nonsense that others have uttered in condemning the evil city, he utters some of his own about the Peorias of the world.Thus he speaks of the University of Kentucky in Lexingotn as being no farther from the atmosphere of gambling than the short trip to Churchill Downs in Louisville, as if Covington were not a short trip down the road from Cincinnati and as if Keeneland were not just minutes from the UK campus.
Cohen makes other troubles for himself, getting gored on the twin horses of metaphor and metaphysics. Too many times he says something like, "In the soul of every athlete resides the mood of the mystic," or "Name . . . was the sacramental root to the truth of one's past." Images of basketball moves being like "spokes slicing past the hub of a wheel" are painful instrusions on the traffic patterns of the narrative. The deepest flaw is the stylistic device of second person narration for all the autobiographical segments. The result is a breathless-harboiled-detective effect that undermines the book's strongest passages.
Nevertheless, "The Game They Played" is recommended reading for all who know or even suspect for all who know or even suspect the significance of sports in our value systems and in the American Dream itself. It is social history of a sort, a valuable sort of alarm, if not a clarion call for reform.