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Heaven Is a Playground Paperback – March 1, 2004

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Editorial Reviews Review

In 1974, Rick Telander intended to spend a few days doing a magazine piece on the court wizards of Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant area. He ended up staying the entire summer, become part of the players' lives and eventually the coach of a loose aggregation known as the Subway Stars.

Telander lets these kids speak for themselves, revealing their grand dreams and ambitions, but never flinches from showing us how far their dreams are from reality. The precursor to Ben Joravsky's Hoop Dreams. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


“Funny, sad, superbly written and intensely involving.”—New York Times Book Review
(New York Times Book Review )

“Telander’s open-ended chronicle of inner-city playground basketball life is a model of clarity and restraint. No one has written a more resonant or understanding book about kids playing basketball, and few books about sports have willingly pulled together so many truths about the disappointments and dislocating fantasies of athletic competition.”—Atlantic
(Atlantic )

“Even those who know little about the game should appreciate this intense and penetrating peek at growing up in the ghetto.”—Chicago Daily News
(Chicago Daily News )

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 236 pages
  • Publisher: Bison Books; second edition (March 1, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0803294530
  • ISBN-13: 978-0803294530
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.5 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (25 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,414,643 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

20 of 20 people found the following review helpful By Tyler Smith on April 2, 2004
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I've read a few really good books on basketball -- David Wolf's "Foul," and John Feinstein's "A Season on the Brink" immediately come to mind -- but Rick Telander's "Heaven Is a Playground" is the best, for my money. This book captures not only the spirit of the game, but also vividly recreates a time (the mid-70s) and a place (Brooklyn).
Telander was in his 20s in 1974 when he went to Brooklyn to spend a summer, in part because he was in search of the elusive playground legend James "Fly" Williams, who figures prominently in the book. During the course of the three months he was there, however, he met, played with, interviewed and befriended a host of regulars at the courts in Foster Park in the Flatbush section of the borough. They were African-American boys and men for whom basketball was far more than recreation. For many of them, the game was a way of life and even more importantly a form of self-expression.
Besides Williams, Telander also met Albert King, then an astonishingly gifted 14-year-old, who was to go on to a successful NBA career. Telander brings to life the court skills of King and others, but he humanizes them, and this is where the great strength of the book lies. For example, King agonized over his talent, which brought him attention and adulation that embarrassed him and sometimes made him angry and withdrawn. Williams' incredible pure talent was married to an unpredictable and sometimes violent temperament that ultimately shortened his career.
Despite an obvious empathy for his subjects -- he wound up coaching a group of teenage park regulars, with mixed on-the-court success -- Telander does not romanticize them.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By JCB Project on April 10, 2005
Format: Paperback
Certainly some other reviewers have me beat in the department of basketball-related literature, but I count "Heaven Is A Playground" amongst the many social science books that I have read. And indeed, it matches up quite well with the best reads of the past few decades. On the surface, the book seems to be about inner-city basketball, but within the pages, it is a complete dissection of the (one segment) inner city African-American man.

The amazing book "Tally's Corner" managed the same feat in its analysis of street corner men. Both have achieved great feats with their respective works. For basketball fans like myself, "Heaven Is A Playground" not only reads as great/sad/true/mystifying social commentary, but also as plain sports entertainment. Rick Telander, as a sports writer, was really able to hit home with the writing, really giving readers a feel of the 1970s game - which has many similarities and differences to the game of today.

Another great aspect of the book is that it reads as if you there. Telander makes only the necessary analysis in the pages about what went on, and basically leaves the facts as they are. The book could have easily become a textbook lesson on sociological concepts, a lofty preaching on the ills of inner city life, or a rambling 200+ page play-by-play. Fortunately, the easy going style of writing is great journalism. Telander's style fit me well.

Thanks Rick for a great read.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Douglas N. Hammer on January 28, 2000
Format: Paperback
I have read this book once a year since I first picked it up 14 years ago as a 16 year old playground junkie. It is a primer for learning the rhythms of America's premiere urban sport, basketball. It is also about Telander's love for the game. I always remember the manifesto on a sticker in Rodney Parker's Flatbush apartment - "Basketball - it's a way of life" One of the great thrills of my life was having the opportunity to interview Rick as an undergrad at DePaul University in Chicago for the student newspaper. He was encouraging to a young, aspiring writer to undertake such a project like this while still young if that's what I wanted to do. A couple of years later, I found myself living in Newark, NJ. While there in 1994, I went on a Saturday afternoon to Foster Park and hooped all day long. I remember being so happy going home on the subway, thinking, "I did it! I played in the spot that has given me such happiness over the years." To anyone who wants to visit Foster Park to go play, I say do it! You won't be disappointed.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By David Howse on December 28, 2006
Format: Paperback
I read this book around '93, just after having read the "white version" in both Larry Bird's biography and autobiography. What was interesting was these two very similar yet distinct experiences and how they related to my own experience, growing up it what would seem like a very safe and socially adjusted rural town.

Heaven is a Playground was a departure for me in to a world where basketball had the utmost symbolic and cultural meaning - where legends were born and died and everybody else was willing to take the gamble. Was basketball more a sacrifice of a better future (missing school) or a one shot escape from certain poverty? Telander would probably argue the latter. What I found interesting was that only a few of the characters in the story actually had the potential for professional basketball, yet all the other young men seemed (unconsciously) willing to sacrifice their own futures for those players. Not so much blinded by their dreams they were living them.
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