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The City Game: Triumph, Scandal, and a Legendary Basketball Team

Review

The City Game: Triumph, Scandal, and a Legendary Basketball Team

THE CITY GAME is two separate stories. The first is the saga of The City College of New York, a tuition-free, merit-based college in Harlem that was far better known for intellectual achievement than sports victories. In 1950, their basketball team won both the NIT and NCAA championships, and remains the only school to have pulled off that feat in the same year. But the glory of that accomplishment is tempered by the second part of the book: an account of college basketball’s point-shaving scandal that almost destroyed the game and even today profoundly impacts college and professional sports in America.

Recently, accomplished scholarly writers have ventured into the world of athletics to produce histories that provide readers with far more than box scores and highlights. The stories of athletes and coaches like Roberto Clemente, Jackie Robinson and Vince Lombardi place the lives of their subjects in the context of American culture. Matthew Goodman’s historical account of City College is far more than descriptions of games played in Madison Square Garden and other arenas. He takes readers to the halls of governments; New York City courtrooms; backrooms, where bookies and gamblers plied their trade; and police stations, where willing officers were paid to look away from gambling activities. It is a story both inspiring and upsetting, and is told with skill, insight and a deep understanding of time and place.

"[THE CITY GAME] is a story both inspiring and upsetting, and is told with skill, insight and a deep understanding of time and place."

During the 1950 season, City College was a team like no other. They were not a powerhouse state school like Kentucky, Indiana or Kansas. Only two years after Jackie Robinson integrated baseball, and at a time when the NBA did not have a single black player and the NFL had very few, the City College starting five consisted of two black and three Jewish players. Of the 15 on the team roster, 11 were Jewish and four were black. Every player was the child of immigrants, from Eastern Europe and the West Indies.

Later in the season, when City College would face Kentucky in the NIT, the starting lineup included three black players. As the officials prepared for the opening jump ball, the City College players extended their hands for the pregame handshake, a ritual of courtesy and sportsmanship. Three Kentucky players turned away. City College destroyed Kentucky 89-50, a score so one-sided and surprising that the Kentucky legislature proposed lowering the flag at the statehouse to half-staff.

Goodman’s descriptions of these games are riveting. In fairness to history, the rules no longer provide for teams to play in both tournaments, and March Madness far surpasses any level of fan attention present in the 1950s, when no television and limited radio broadcasts were available. In New York City, the City College players and coaches were treated like heroes.

If the story of their improbable victories is exhilarating and inspiring, part two of THE CITY GAME, which recounts the point-shaving scandal that rocked college basketball, is sad and depressing. It reminds us that the game is still one of unequal financial benefits. Following the arrests of college athletes, one journalist wrote, “[T]here are no amateurs in big-time college sports: there are only underpaid professionals.” Everyone made money in college basketball except the players, who were the reason anyone watched games at all. Many athletes justified taking money because they recognized how everyone else was benefiting from their skills. As Goodman notes, even today, as college players are denied any form of financial compensation, the temptation to accept money illegally is still present. The next scandal is always around the corner.

Goodman’s stirring history reminds us that athletic success often comes at a price. His story of greed and exploitation in college sports one-half century ago is as relevant today as ever.

Reviewed by Stuart Shiffman on November 8, 2019

The City Game: Triumph, Scandal, and a Legendary Basketball Team
by Matthew Goodman

  • Publication Date: November 5, 2019
  • Genres: History, Nonfiction, Sports
  • Hardcover: 448 pages
  • Publisher: Ballantine Books
  • ISBN-10: 1101882832
  • ISBN-13: 9781101882832