Growing up in the suburbs of Chicago, my sportswriting idol was Rick Telander, a former Sports Illustrated senior writer (now a Chicago Sun-Times columnist) who lived nearby. In the mid and late 1980s Telander wrote groundbreaking stories about corruption in college football. But, to me, his best work was a book he wrote in the early 1970s called Heaven is a Playground. He had spent a summer living in Brooklyn, the one white guy in an all-black neighborhood, and became the coach of a playground basketball team. The book was elegant and fresh and funny, and it sent basketball junkies all over the country scrambling to the nearest playground to watch some hardcore pick-up hoops.
When I moved to New York after college and began working at Sports Illustrated, I spent a lot of time watching the games at The Cage on West 4th Street in Greenwich Village. There were plenty of other hoops junkies at SI, and we often sat around talking about the most talented players, wondering what had kept them from playing 30 blocks north at Madison Square Garden. One of my colleagues, Lars Anderson, had an idea: discover the best players all over the country at the time (this was 1996-97), and write about why they never got their shot. We profiled players from New York, L.A. and Chicago, a woman from Philly, a guy in jail, a shooter from Indiana and player on an Indian reservation. We wrapped the profiles in decade-by-decade accounts of how the playground game developed, from the early 1900s on New York’s lower east side ghettos, to today in every suburb across the country.