Book Review: The Hustle


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Race, class and education take center stage in Doug Merlino's "The Hustle," a true account chronicling the "social experiment" in 1980s Seattle that brought poor inner-city blacks with upper-class whites into one basketball team. Pegged on the squad were the hopes that poorer players might gain entry into better schools, and that the sheltered, prep school kids might be exposed to the city's other half. With the team winning the league championship, the experiment seemed to extol the virtuosity of integration.

The book, alternately a memoir, historical account and social study on the influence of upbringing and opportunity on one's success, takes a journalistic approach in the author's search for answers: Whatever happened to the members of his childhood basketball team?

One member became a hedge fund investor; another, a county prosecutor. Others now work in auditing, the ministry and the wine industry. Then there is the imprisoned drug dealer, and another member, Tyrell Johnson, dead at age 19, left in a ditch with his legs cut off.

Johnson's death motivated Merlino to analyze the conditions leading to it - a search that prompts an examination of the effect of religion, drugs, and money as influential factors in many of the players' lives. From the start of the book, it's already a given that the well-off, well-educated whites are destined for success; what creates the emotional thread of the story is the struggles - and sometimes, failures - of some of the team's less wealthy. Promoting basketball as a sport that fosters discipline, cooperation and manhood, Merlino also uses it to establish life as a game itself, where the hustle isn't relegated to winning, but getting past the first cut.

Liz Mak is the assistant arts & entertainment editor. Contact her at [email protected]

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