Hoop nation

Indiana is not widely known for its luminaries. However, the roster of notable Hoosiers is as random as anything an iPod shuffle might spew. There’s native socialist son Eugene Debs and, uh, Dan Quayle; John Mellencamp and the Jackson family; and Ernie Pyle and Kurt Vonnegut. In sports, well, there’s basketball and there’s also basketball.

In Transition Game: How Hoosiers Went Hip-Hop, Sports Illustrated’s L. Jon Wertheim explores the significance of hoops in Hoosier land, which is not unlike measuring the impact of butter on Betty Crocker. The book is hyped as a “season in the life” of a high-school team, and it’s been likened to H.G. Bissinger’s Friday Night Lights: A Town, a Team, and a Dream, which exposed the cult of high-school football in West Texas. Although it’s less epic than Bissinger’s opus, it’s a compulsively readable book that’s both a series of personality profiles and a b-ball travelogue spiced up with polemical garnishing.

Unfortunately, the team Wertheim profiles, his alma mater of Bloomington High School North, is not terribly compelling. Its coach Tom McKinney is stolid and stoic and speaks in a nauseating patois of jock shibboleth: “Don’t embarrass the program” and “Do a few things, but do them well.” The players are ordinary kids, none bound for NBA glory. They listen to hip-hop, eat junk food and celebrate their season’s biggest win with a PlayStation 2 sleepover party. (Oh, the depravity.) Absent any tensions within the team or between it and its predominantly middle-class community, this aspect of the book seems little more than a narrative tool.

Wertheim seems to know this, so he turns his eye on broader issues within Hoosier nation. In Indiana, the cult of high-school hoops suffers the indignity of the “class” system (not that class system). Since 1998, the state’s high-school athletic association has stratified schools into “classes” based on school size. Instead of a single team winning an authentic state championship, four teams do.

“Affirmative action on the hardwood,” Wertheim calls it. Only the racial politics are reversed. According to some Hoosierati, the switch to “class” ball is, at least in part, rooted in the resentment of lily-white teams who’re served up by more, ahem, diverse schools. Having talked to gaggles of coaches, players and b-ball wonks, Wertheim says the issue is not controversial: Everyone hates the system except, of course, the board of school principals that instituted it.

Wertheim understands that in so much as Indiana lays claim to the sports’ grassroots, basketball can’t be discussed within the borders of a state or even a hemisphere. With high schools increasingly serving as an NBA farm league, the rise of the WNBA and the decline of college hoops, basketball’s borders are in a state of flux. The game is blowing up in Europe, Asia and beyond. Of the 58 players in the 2003 draft, 20 were from overseas.

Transition Game won’t convince you that basketball truly has gone hip-hop, at least not in a way that can elicit a “Hell yeah!” from Dr. Dre. The crowds at NBA games are too full of investment bankers to claim any street cred. If anything, Wertheim furthers the idea of basketball as a commodity as global as Hollywood or McDonald’s. It’s a notion that will take some getting used to. As Wertheim deftly asks, will a culture that prices a LeBron James jersey at $120 be willing to pay as much for ones with names like “Milicic” or “Tskitishvili?” Depends on how the ball bounces.