Misfortune led Sports Illustrated writer L. Jon Wertheim to check in on the boys basketball team of his former high school in Bloomington, Ind., a few years ago for the first time in more than a decade. Wertheim was seeking a momentary diversion while visiting his ill father, who was waging an ultimately unsuccessful battle with cancer. But Wertheim's old stomping grounds looked anything but familiar, with the mostly white, crew-cut, earth-bound jump-shooters he knew from the late '80s having been replaced by Jay Z-playing, multi-ethnic skywalkers who struggled to make a free throw.
Fortunately for readers, that one discordant night in a southern Indiana high school gym was the genesis of the terrific Transition Game: How Hoosiers Went Hip-Hop. Wertheim uses Indiana high school hoops, and the 2003-04 Bloomington North boys team in particular, to demonstrate how much the game of basketball has changed -- not just in the Hoosier state but across the broader culture as well.
Transition Game is really two books in one. The heart of the book is a narrative of the Bloomington North Cougars' season. We get to know coach Tom McKinney and his players as they chase a state title. When the Cougars play arch rival Bloomington South in the sectional playoffs late in the book, we really care who wins.
Interspersed between the chronicling of the Cougars' quest are a number of lengthy interludes touching on other aspects of Indiana basketball. Here we check in with former Indiana legend Damon Bailey, who never made it in the NBA; the seismic changes at the Indiana University basketball program after coach Bob Knight was forced out; the rise of the women's game at the high school level and at Purdue; and glitzy Conseco Fieldhouse, home to the Pacers and their phalanx of straight-from-high-school players.
A less talented writer could have gotten bogged down with this dual approach, but Wertheim pulls it off with aplomb. The lengthy diversions don't feel pasted on to the Bloomington North story but become organic to the larger theme that the times, they are a' changing. The author never overreaches in tying his various threads together, instead making a case by dint of far-reaching reporting and clear prose that becomes much stronger for its subtlety.
Of course, it doesn't hurt that Wertheim can craft elegant sentences like this one: "The school bus transporting the Bloomington North basketball team rolled down State Road 37, rumbling like an empty stomach as a marmalade sun ducked beneath the horizon."