2019 in reading

Every year at around this time, my friend Tevi Troy provides his list of books he recommends. I have found his recommendations to be sound and sometimes inspired. Here is Tevi’s list for 2019.

For me, this year in reading centered around my travels to Austria, Croatia, and England. Every country’s history interests me, but I found that of Austria (and its associated empires) to be especially intriguing.

I highly recommend The Austrians: A Thousand-Year Odyssey by Gordon-Brook Sheppard. If his excellemt survey makes you want to read more, there’s a rich selection from which to choose. It includes Hitler and the Habsburgs: The Führer’s Vendetta Against the Austrian Royals by James Longo and A Nervous Splendor: Vienna 1888-1889 by Frederic Morton.

But my favorite book among those I read this year has nothing to do with European history. That book is The City Game: Triumph, Scandal, and a Legendary Basketball Team by Matthew Goodman.

The legendary team is the 1950 City College of New York (CCNY) squad. The triumph was its championships in both the National Invitational Tournament (NIT) and the NCAA tourney, back when teams were allowed to participate in both. No team other than CCNY in 1950 ever pulled off that double.

The scandal involved point shaving. All five CCNY starters and its sixth man participated in this practice to one degree or another. As a result, they were banned from playing in the NBA and one player (who had been convicted for a crime as a juvenile) went to jail.

The 1950 team was remarkable not just for its championship runs and the point shaving scandal. This was a squad made up entirely of Jews (eleven) and Blacks (four) from New York City. Of the five usual starters, three were Jewish and two were Black.

CCNY was also a remarkable college. It was known as the “working man’s Harvard.” Entrance requirements were stringent (though they were bent or manipulated for a few basketball stars). CCNY was a preferred destination for top New York high school students who either couldn’t afford to attend Ivy League schools or were denied admission due to discriminatory policies.

In the 1950 NIT quarterfinals, CCNY defeated Adolph Rupp’s heralded all-white University of Kentucky team. This game was a harbinger of Texas Western’s famous victory over Rupp’s heralded all-white Kentucky team in the NCAA finals more than a decade and a half later, in which Texas Western played five black starters. But the 1950 beatdown, by a score of 89-50, was even more decisive. I’m informed that this was the most lopsided loss Rupp ever suffered at Kentucky.

It was fueled, in part, by the unwillingness of the UK players to shake hands with CCNY’s black players just before the opening tip. Similarly, it was fueled by a statement by Rupp from a few years earlier that he would never coach a team with “kikes” and “blacks.”

The scandal, by the way, was not confined to CCNY or to New York City. It extended to the University of Kentucky, among other institutions. Alex Groza, captain of Rupp’s NCAA championship teams in 1948 and 1949, was among those who shaved points.

Goodman does a masterful job, not just with the basketball story but with New York city politics of the era and with the Jewish (and to a lesser extent the Black) culture of the city at the turn of the last century. For readers like me with roots in Jewish New York, the book provides a nice glimpse of “the world of our fathers” (to borrow the title of Irving Howe’s book).

But even if you lack such roots (the book was a gift to me by a non-Jewish southerner), if you are even a casual basketball fan, you will likely enjoy The City Game.