Two Seattle fathers, one black and one white, bring 10 boys including their sons together in a basketball team that wins a championship the first year of play. Half the players are students from prestigious Lakeside School, and half attend predominantly black public schools in the city’s south end.
That was 25 years ago. In The Hustle: One Team and Ten Lives in Black and White (Bloomsbury USA), Doug Merlino recalls his experiences as a team member and tells the stories of the players' lives since the group disbanded.
Their reunion in 2006 brings together individuals in occupations as varied as King County prosecutor, church pastor, hedge fund manager, winemaker, schoolteacher, and insurance broker. Those who don’t make it to the reunion include one man serving a prison sentence and another who was murdered five years after the team's victorious season.
But the book's characters are much more than the outcomes of their professional or personal strivings. Their lives unfold in the full mystery of each one's humanity, in narratives as compelling as well-crafted suspense stories. Success and failure, luck and misfortune, satisfaction and longing, the burdens and freedoms conferred by race and class — all are inseparably, unpredictably mixed in each man’s life as Merlino cuts back and forth between their stories.
And as he does, the title of his book acquires a relevance to realms far beyond sports. In the words of one of the book's most financially successful men, the affluent life he leads "has its claws." So do the lives that are led on Seattle's meaner streets.
"This book is a personal book," said Merlino in an interview. He grew up in the Richmond Beach area of Seattle, where his father owned a company that leased coin-operated washers and dryers to apartment buildings. "I was a total nerd in school," a lover of books, "a misfit other kids wanted to beat up." His mother, concerned, enrolled him at Lakeside School in the fifth grade. (Disclosure: I taught at Lakeside for 25 years.)
"I didn't know it was an elite school," said Merlino. "I liked it for the sports."
The Hustle opens when Merlino was in eighth grade, and his Lakeside basketball team was all white except for one student. A Lakeside parent, Randy Finley, joined with a revered black coach from central Seattle, Willie McClain, to form a racially mixed AAU (Amateur Athletic Union) team that might open new educational doors for students so far outside the private-school system they had never even heard of Lakeside.
"It was like a sports movie," said Merlino, "all these kids getting together from different sides of the city, getting pretty good, and winning the championship." It was also like the opening chapters of a Horatio Alger tale, in that McClain and Finley succeeded in placing quite a few students from impoverished or otherwise stressed families in private schools.
However, the kinds of support that even the most diligent of these students needed for catching up to the demands of rigorous academic programs weren't always available, and the feelings of being an outsider, on the margins of student life at exclusive, predominantly white schools, grew intolerable for some. A black student more recently at Lakeside told Merlino, "Kids in seventh grade were talking about going to the symphony and going out on boats. I was used to playing football in the street and having a sleepover."
It was similar for students 25 years ago. According to one of Merlino's black teammates who attended Lakeside, "People treat you differently because of your race, and, at the same time, you don’t really get their world because the financial gap means they do things that you don't." He summed it up this way: "I felt more tolerated than anything like being fully embraced, fully accepted. It was like I was accepted on the periphery."
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