“The City Game: Triumph, Scandal and a Legendary Basketball Team” by
Basketball, college, scandal, gambling, politics, championship
November 5, 2019
5 of 5 stars (outstanding)
The 1949-50 basketball team from the City College of New York accomplished a feat that will never be done again. They won both the National Invitational Tournament (NIT) and the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) tourney in the same season. At that time, they were held at different times rather than concurrently as is done now. These championships came at a time when college basketball was much more popular than the professional game and also at a time when gamblers have a large influence in the sport. Through these gamblers, City College was found to have participated in a point shaving scandal along with several other college teams. This City College team, its players and both the good and bad times for them is captured in this outstanding book by Matthew Goodman.
What is the most striking feature about the book and the writing is how a reader will have a deep connection with the City College players, especially Eddie Roman and Floyd Layne. Roman is Jewish and Layne is black, making them the perfect symbols to represent the student body make up of City College, which was tuition free and comprised mainly of black and Jewish students who were gifted intellectually but would not otherwise have been able to pursue higher education. Goodman starts the book off by introducing the reader to Roman and his family and ends it with a wonderful success story achieved by Layne in a surprising twist. In between, the reader will be taken back to that era of smoke-filled arenas and students cramming the cheap seats while the gamblers, politicians and businessmen filled the lower bowls with other items to take care of than watching the games.
While the writing about the basketball was very good and the recap of that special season for City College was easy to follow (and to cheer for them), the coverage of the point shaving scandal is even better. The reader will get information from several viewpoints – the City College players who accepted bribes to shave points, the gamblers who set up the players and the informants who provided the information prosecutors needed to charge the players and gamblers. On the latter, the story of Joseph Gross and his flip-flopping on his willingness to testify was especially entertaining. Between his arrogance when he was arrested and his speedy exit from the courtroom when he was supposed to testify, he is just one character of many with whom readers will become very familiar.
However, that quality is best illustrated when writing about the City College players and their lives. Whether Goodman is sharing their family life, their basketball prowess, the shame they felt when arrested and deposed, or their various degrees of success after City College, the reader will feel like they have known these men for a long time. The best section in the entire book is when the players are arrested at Penn Station after disembarking a train after a road game – the emotions of not only the players but Coach Nat Holman are on full display.
One more quality about the book that makes it an outstanding read is how several issues that are still discussed today are raised in this book. Only two of the City College players that were arrested served jail time – both of them African American. Several times it was pointed out that nearly everyone involved – the schools, the arenas, the gamblers – were making money off college basketball except the players. These are issues that are still being discussed today.
For these and many other reasons, this is a book that should be picked up by either college basketball fans or readers who want to learn more about the history and times of New York City in the 1950’s as the dialogue has an authentic feel.
I wish to thank Ballentine Press for providing a copy of the book via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
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