Every so often a small surprise will pop out of a big package, which is almost as gratifying as when the reverse occurs. Such a pleasure is provided by Echoes from the Schoolyard: Informal Portraits of NBA Greats (Hawthorn, $12.95), which looks for all the world like a glossy gift book but turns out to be a modest and unexpectedly affecting examination of what a number of basketball stars think about their game and themselves.
The book consists of two dozen interviews conducted by Anne Byrne Hoffman and illustrated with photos by George Kalinsky. The reader's skepticism is openly invited: not merely is the format strictly picture-book, but also Hoffman's credentials seem dubious. She is a ballerina and the wife of Dustin Hoffman, so it's natural enough to ask 1) what she knows about basketball, and 2) whether she's simply trading on her husband's name.
The answers would seem to be that 1) she knows enough to ask intelligent questions, and 2) maybe the book wouldn't have been published if she were someone else's wife, which would have been too bad. She stays in the background, letting the players talk, and they do so articulately and revealingly.
The profiles begin with the late Joe Fulks (Eddie Gottlieb talks about him) and end with David Thompson; many of the significant pro players of the intervening years are represented, two notable exceptions being Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain.
Most of the players came from poor families and lived in neighborhoods where basketball was the most readily available recreation. Most seem to have been born with a fierce desire for success and a love of competition—but few consciously pointed themselves toward basketball careers. Most are fascinated by the blend of team and individual play that basketball offers, and many see excellence in the game as an art form all its own. Most are aware that a career as a pro player is brief and that the transition to the "real world" can be rough. The theme that occurs over and over is that you have to make the most of yourself.
They talk about long hours of lonely practice, hours made bearable and even enjoyable by the dream of excellence. As Willis Reed says, "I don't care how much ability you've got, it's what you do with it that counts. If you can get the most out of yourself you can go to bed at night knowing you've given it all."
Sound advice for players of all ages.