the holy grail of hoops

Reviewed by Myles Schrag, M.S., Human Kinetics Publishers

18 september 2013       archive

I'll get this out of the way right up front. I am no impartial reviewer for The Holy Grail of Hoops, Josh Swade's book that provides the written account of his acclaimed ESPN 30 for 30 documentary "There's No Place Like Home."

I grew up 30 miles from the University of Kansas. Some of my earliest sports memories are of watching Darnell Valentine lead the Jayhawks to victory and hearing "Rock Chalk Jayhawk" chanted at Allen Fieldhouse. I graduated from high school just down the road in Topeka two months after KU's 1988 basketball championship run. When I visited my oldest childhood friend on the eve of the NCAA basketball tournament this past March, after our wives and kids went to bed we watched "There's No Place Like Home." Too excited to sleep, we then tuned into some late-season KU highlights and watched a documentary about that 1988 "Danny (Manning) and the Miracles" title run.

I, as do Mr. Swade and many Jayhawk fans, feel that the East (North Carolina, Duke, Kentucky, Indiana) and West (UCLA) Coasts somehow overlook KU as the most obviously history-laden, fascinating, people-friendly college basketball program in the country. Josh Swade takes a hammer to these other basketball blue-bloods and affirms our perceived underdog persona with his documentary and now this book. I repeat: I am no impartial reviewer of The Holy Grail of Hoops.

But let me ask you this: How many times have you come up with some hare-brained idea that sounded lucrative or extremely fun, jotted down a few notes of earnest intention, then forgotten it? Or you've read a newspaper article, as Swade did, and couldn't get it out of your head for a few days. He didn't quite know what to do with this nagging interest, but he identified his obsession, enlisted the advice of his boss, and very quickly was off and rolling. The fact that he had such a short time frame to seek his fortune (or better said, to seek a fortune in order to win the rules for his beloved KU) gives this book, as did the documentary, significant built-in suspense.

You could say the book is not academic enough for use in the classroom. You could say you're not interested in basketball or KU. But the story of a naïve person with a brain, a heart, courage, and a wing-it approach to planning is more than enough to make the book worth reading … and the blatant Wizard of Oz allusions whirring.

What's not to love about that? Unless you're a Duke fan, I suppose.

In a nutshell, the story consists of a lifelong KU fan who becomes obsessed with the opportunity to purchase the original rules of basketball at auction because he is convinced the right place for those two historic pieces of paper to be housed is inside the hallowed ground of Allen Fieldhouse in Lawrence, Kan. Basketball inventor James Naismith actually created the game in Springfield, Mass., but he spent most of his adult life at KU, adored the town and university, and is buried there and memorialized on anything you can name: a street, a dormitory, the basketball court itself, and a statue. Success at the auction is expected to require multiple millions of dollars, which Swade does not have. It will require contacts with wealthy donors to secure that funding, which he also doesn't have. Oh, and he has 36 days to do it. Ready … go.

A legitimate question to ask if you've seen the documentary is if the book is offering you any more information or entertainment value. I will admit, if you're not a KU fan, you may not want to read his banal questions at NBA courtside of KU alumni who turned pro like Drew Gooden and Cole Aldrich, or blow-by-blow accounts of the Jayhawks' tournament games over the past three decades. Come to think of it, given the team's painfully common ignominious exits when they had the number-one seed, you may not want to endure that specifically if you are a KU fan.

As the title indicates, Swade takes a religious theme and drives it home repeatedly throughout the book, from chapter titles to some interesting (and semi-contrived) religious connections among key players in his story and KU's history. In the Author's Note and Introduction, this reader had to wonder if his sport-as-religion approach would be worth exploring or would only devolve into piling on to a well-worn cliché. Despite accurate portrayals of Naismith and his protégé-turned-coaching-legend Phog Allen's own spiritual paths and adherence to the muscular Christianity of their times, I was skeptical.

However, as the narrative builds, he uses religion to good effect, from explaining the significance of his Jayhawk-adorned yarmulke, to giving coaching legend Larry Brown the seemingly incongruent labels of "messiah" and "wandering Jew," to finding divine inspiration in his rabbi's speech, to pondering the Jewish burial implications amid his rash decision to get a tattoo, the Kansas-born/New York City-residing author shares with surprising depth his struggle to define self and home through his fandom.

Swade shows chutzpah in his quest, no one can deny that. Or, as current KU coach Bill Self says in the Afterword, "I told Josh that I think he is nuts … because he is. But it's a good kind of nuts (page 200)."

Swade does his readers a service by including significant detail about how the authenticity of the documents was confirmed, discussing how Naismith was honored at the 1936 Olympic Games, and describing the rich connections between KU and North Carolina's basketball programs over the decades.

But he and his editor let some very basic errors slip by that KU fans will catch immediately. The devastating tournament loss to UTEP occurred in 1992, not 1993. The long-time KU football coach is Don Fambrough, not Don Farmbrough. And the doozy: getting the year wrong in Roy Williams' initial decision to stay at Kansas rather than return to North Carolina. That occurred on July 6, 2000, not 2001. The book would have benefitted from a more thorough copyedit as well as the inclusion of an index.

Although it is sufficient to either watch the documentary or read the book, the two do work well in tandem, as modern-day multimedia projects have the potential to do. The film captures the suspense better as the clock ticks down on the auction without clarity about his donors' intentions. But the book offers the guy who is "a good kind of nuts" an opportunity to introduce himself to us. We learn about his family, his insecurities, what drives him, how he explores his faith (in KU basketball as well as Judaism), and just how in over his head he really is. That is a lot of fun.

I couldn't help but think of the documentary "Up for Grabs" as I read The Holy Grail of Hoops and watched "There's No Place Like Home." "Up for Grabs" chronicles the insanity behind the auction of Barry Bonds' record-setting 73rd home run ball in 2001. In that film, we learn about the greed of two men who both tried to lay claim to the treasure and expect to split a small fortune resulting from the sale. Swade also takes us into the inner workings of an auction house.

For those of us who know nothing about auctions, we come to realize they don't function all that differently from other human institutions – emotion, luck, and rivalries dictate actions and results. Perceptions that are shaped by the actions of those associated with the object up for bid have a significant impact on the ultimate value of the object. At the risk of spoiling the end of either film or this book, suffice it to say that the Bonds ball was cloaked in negativity while Swade's buzzer-beater is a feel-good sports story. Surely that is a legitimate contribution to the literature on fandom.

Well, unless maybe you're a Duke Blue Devil.

The Holy Grail of Hoops: One Fan's Quest to Buy the Original Rules of Basketball, Josh Swade. New York: Sports Publishing, 2013. Hardback $24.95. 224 pp. ISBN: 978-1-61321-383-4.

Copyright © 2013 by Myles Schrag

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