This week, “The City Game: Triumph, Scandal, and a Legendary Basketball Team,” a book chronicling a sports scandal like no other in college basketball history, will appear in bookstores around the country. The author, Matthew Goodman, is a native of Brooklyn, one of New York City’s most fascinating boroughs. This March when Kit and I were in Manhattan, we walked across the Brooklyn Bridge to meet Matthew for lunch.
Our unexpected friendship began in March 2013 after I read his book, “Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s History-Making Race Around the World.” He’d chosen a story with roots in NYC, one he felt history had nearly forgotten. For almost five years, he’d researched and written the story of two female journalists who raced each other around the globe in an era when women rarely traveled across town without being escorted by a man.
I so loved Matthew’s prose and detailed research into the history and geography of the era that I sent an email asking if he’d come to Columbia, Missouri to talk about “Eighty Days.” His enthusiastic “Yes” led to a four-day event in October 2013 that focused on how women’s roles have changed in journalism over time. The events included a movie screening at Ragtag Cinema, and author discussions at MU’s Journalism School, Boone Country Museum, and the Columbia Public Library.
Dr. Anne Deaton, the only person I knew at the time with deep roots in Brooklyn, helped me organize Goodman’s visit. As an adjunct MU faculty member and spouse of Chancellor Brady Deaton, Anne invited Matthew to stay at their historic residence on the MU campus. That week, Vox Magazine reporter Maura Hohman included a quote by Anne Deaton on the relevance of Matthew’s book and tour in Columbia: “It’s about the adventure of life, and what better place to explore that idea than on a university campus.”
As with “Eighty Days,” Goodman’s new book, “The City Game,” revisits the story of an historic event rooted in NYC’s past—one almost forgotten today, yet still relevant. After almost a year of searching, Goodman unearthed a story involving NYC and national college basketball’s infamous 1949-50 season. The story primarily focuses on an unlikely team of highly talented players from The City College of New York (established as ‘The Free Academy’ in 1847). The team, made up entirely of Jewish and Black players, was coached by Nat Holman, a legend by then. That year, City College won both national college basketball tournaments—the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) and the National Invitational Tournament (NIT)—in the same season.
Coach Nat Holman—born Nathan Helmanowich just six years after Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s 1889-90 race around the world—grew up when the children of Jewish immigrants and African Americans learned their basketball skills playing in Manhattan’s playgrounds and neighborhood gyms. Fifty years later, racism against Jewish and black people still extended to organized college sports. During the 1949-50 basketball season, Kentucky players refused to shake the hand of a single player on the visiting City College team. In the game that followed, Kentucky suffered the worst loss in its school’s history.
Following a season of triumph from its duel national championships, the City College team fell from grace after seven of Holman’s players were arrested for shaving points as part of an illegal, Mafia-run betting scheme. Eventually 32 players from seven colleges across the country were arrested in a nationwide gambling crackdown. While researching his book, Goodman interviewed all of the surviving players from the 1949-50 City College basketball team. Set in NYC and America at the start of the Korean War and Cold War era, its lessons are still relevant today.
November 5 at 7:30 p.m., Goodman will launch his national book tour in the Great Hall of City College. One of the Beaver’s 1949-50 championship players, 89-year-old Floyd Layne, will attend. By the way, when I asked Matthew last week if he’d return to Columbia next spring for a second book tour, he replied, “You KNOW what my answer will be!” Boy howdy!
Cathy Salter is a geographer and columnist who lives with her husband, Kit, in southern Boone County at a place they call Boomerang Creek.