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A captivating ‘Hustle’

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."

Merlino's portrayal of the conflicts that roiled Lakeside's faculty and administration during its years of trying to diversify racially is intended to evoke the difficulties experienced by any elite institution, he said. "Bringing people into a culture established in the '20s is going to be contentious. People are going to have different ideas. If a place is not really prepared for that, it will end up in court, and it did."

On the other hand, public schools in south Seattle were miserably failing Merlino's teammates, as well as generations of students on either side of them, according to the author's capsule history of the system. And broader economic, social, and political forces that he traces in the book had their own differing impacts on individuals rich, poor, and in the middle. So did youth sports. Merlino explores how middle-class kids leave organized sports with relative ease for other options as they grow older, while poor kids experience the shock of losing a less easily replaced sense of identity.

In these ways and others, Merlino creates for the characters in his book a rich historical context — America’s and, especially, Seattle’s. If you’ve ever despaired of getting a grip on some of the forces of the past that shaped our city of today, and its people and neighborhoods, read this book. Here history is no abstraction. Political, social, and economic tendencies and their times become unforgettable when they put on flesh in the lives of a few unique, very real individuals, black and white, rich and poor, male and female.

"You need to know your history," Merlino told me, and he has taken his own advice. His book describes Seattle's Italian-American community in Rainier Valley, once called "Garlic Gulch," where his great-grandfather settled, and he has traveled to his ancestral village in Italy. "Looking back locates you in a much longer narrative," said Merlino. Without that, "you don't know why things are the way they are."

Still, history in The Hustle isn't personal destiny. The magic of the book is in its insistence on making the reader think, and think again: How did each of these men become the person he became?

Merlino presents the background material needed for answering questions like that in the ways we typically answer them, but in each case the individual human mystery eludes conventional summing-up. Because the author relishes complexity and provides no easy answers, The Hustle would make a wonderful book club selection — thankfully, with no generic discussion questions in the appendix. The questions are there to be inferred from every page.

The gruesome murder of his former teammate Tyrell Johnson in 1991 eventually led Merlino to start reconnecting with his friends from long ago. "It made me wonder what happened to all these kids, the white ones and the black kids who came from poor backgrounds," he said.

"That was the seed of this book. It took about a decade" to research and write, even with his background in journalism, said Merlino. He spent eight years traveling back and forth between New York City, where he now lives, and the Seattle area. He loved the hours he was able to spend with each of his former teammates during that time, he said, and his affection pervades the book. The men reminisced, shared their professional and personal pathways since 1986, and swapped stories funny and sad. Merlino assembled family histories reaching back to the 19th century and studied Seattle's past.

The result is a captivating memoir that sees racial and class divides in intimate personal terms, but with no easy pieties or excuses, no righteous indignation or blame. It's an honest examination of 10 lives, framed by a fine, readable history of important, sometimes overlooked aspects of Seattle from boots-on-the-ground perspectives. The driving force of the book is not a social or political agenda but a warm fascination with how a human life unfolds, coupled with a genuine interest in individuals and an ethic of making sure they get to speak for themselves, in their own voices.

Doug Merlino reads on Friday, April 1, 7 p.m., at Elliott Bay Book Company, 1521 Tenth Ave. on Capitol Hill, (206) 624-6600.–Hustle-/

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