Miss B: Do you ever wonder what it’s like for the kids in Coney Island who don’t play basketball? What are they supposed to do?
Disco: What do you mean, “kids who don’t play ball?” … Basketball is all we got. There ain’t nothing else to do in Coney Island.
Miss B: I know. That’s exactly my point.
Space is a funny thing.
I’m not talking about space like Mars space, or some Star Trek “Final Frontier”-type space. I mean the actual personal concept – having a space. Think about what you’re doing right now. You’re probably sitting at a desk or on a couch, pouring your mind into a computer screen, reading words that are in a space – but not a physical space, a cyberspace. Depending on your social class, you’re probably doing it in a room in your house or apartment. Or maybe you’re out – lucky enough to have a desk job that allows you to use a computer, or perhaps at a library or coffee shop, or even using HoopSpeak to distract you from a class. (If you’re in Yago’s class, turn this off now! Pay attention!) This is probably taking place in your rural, suburban, or urban area, mostly defined by the economic similarities between the landowners.
Or maybe you’re at Coney Island. The space, originally designated for immigrants coming to the New World, has since been stripped down and rebuilt as a multitude of housing projects for poor minority families, buried deep in the southeast corner of New York City. That’s the area where Darcy Frey’s The Last Shot is set. If it were a stage, it’d be described as “dimly lit.” Coney Island is a “final stop” on four NYC subway lines (D/F/N/Q, and yes, I know that by heart), more than any other subway stop. As a man raised in the New York metro (suburban) area & carries a subway map in his wallet, I can say with confidence: you don’t go through Coney Island, you would only go to Coney Island. Unless you live in that space, there are rarely reasons to enter.
In short, Coney Island is constructed to be devoid of art – just block upon block of housing projects, empty space, and basketball hoops. Yet, it’s here, on those basketball courts, that our protagonists Tchaka Shipp, Russell Thomas, Corey Johnson, and Stephon Marbury burst with creativity. There are pages upon pages with vivid descriptions of Marbury’s dribbling wizardry, Thomas’s uncanny shooting ability, Shipp’s toughness, and Johnson’s athletic displays. Frey’s truly describing, as Tupac said, roses growing from concrete.
But The Last Shot isn’t really a book about basketball. Well, it’s kind of about basketball. But to call it a book about basketball would be silly and reductionist. It’s a closer look into the recruiting practices of NCAA men’s basketball, which at its core was (and still is) a business in the market of buying and selling young, male, usually black bodies. It’s similarly a thorough criticism of the desolate state of urban education, where most all top basketball players from the Coney Island area struggled to score the base 700 on their SAT’s to qualify for Division I basketball. It’s a glimpse of what it means to be poor & black in a nation that mostly rewards its rich, white citizens. It’s a time capsule examination of young Marbury, who since the book, has transitioned seamlessly from a basketball star to a star in his own tragic comedy.
But none of this happens without the space that was constructed for these kids, this overpopulated stretch of thirty blocks where New York City tosses aside its embarrassingly poor. To make things slightly less depressing, they threw in a couple of hoops on vacant lots. The Coney Island population, lacking nearly all else, gravitated towards them.
The most dire of social circumstances often beget the most strongly knit communities. That’s a commonly understood phenomenon, and the Garden in Coney Island is a testament to that. Residents simultaneously profess love for their neighborhood and a strong desire to get the hell out of there as fast as possible. It sounds confusing, but it makes perfect sense to those involved. However, there’s an inherently tragic element in that. Frey discusses the three pillars of a young basketball player’s life: his schooling, his family, and his neighborhood. An intelligent player can overcome a depravity in one, and an even sharper one can overcome two. But no matter who you are, it’s damn near impossible to overcome a depravity in all three.
Basketball’s not on that list of pillars. It can foster a community, but there has to be a community already in place. It’s not a foundation. It builds upon one. Coney Island, with three pillars damaged by a faulty system, with no solution in sight, looked to basketball to surrogate all three. And it couldn’t. It can’t.
Because of that, The Last Shot is a tragedy well before the afterword. While the final pages do serve as a harsh reminder of what’s awaiting most of these kids post-graduation, The Last Shot is about the deplorable social, cultural, & economic circumstances that make that harsh other side too often a reality for Coney Island youth. It’s about the cruel nature of The American Dream, which seems to only work for specific people in specific contexts, and leaves places like Coney Island to rot. Stephon Marbury was the first Coney Island ballplayer to really succeed, and he should be commended for it. But too many of them end up like the other three – lost in a world their upbringing couldn’t have prepared them for.