Friday, May 1, 2015

Review: Underbelly Hoops (2012)

It's been said that one of the basic stories in literature centers around a stranger in a strange land. The hero wanders through new adventures, meeting strange and different people along the way.

Welcome, then, to "Underbelly Hoops." Your tour guide is Carson Cunningham.

Cunningham probably struck some people as a bit of an enigma. He played Division I college basketball, earning academic All-American honors at Purdue. He was a good college player, but not quite good enough to earn a shot at the National Basketball Association. Even though he had all sorts of options after college, he was unwilling to do some of them - at least on a full-time basis - until he thoroughly got basketball out of his system.

That meant it was off to places like Estonia to play professional basketball. You can almost hear family members saying, "You're going where?" Cunningham eventually bounced back to the United States, where he played in the Continental Basketball Association for a year, and took a year off, and then tried it one last time starting in the fall of 2004. (By the way, "underbelly hoops" is Cunningham's term for those small leagues that operate mostly off the radar screen.)

For those who aren't hoop-ologists, the CBA grew out of the Eastern League, the sport's only minor league for years. Most of the teams either lost money or folded completely, and eventually the whole league went under. The NBA responded by starting its own developmental league, proving the point that some sort of minor league is necessary.

Cunningham lands with the Rockford Lightning, a previous stop on his basketball tour. And there he reunites with Chris "Dales" Daleo, who comes off for the most part as the proverbial maniac. Daleo also becomes the star of the book, as it's easy to wonder what crazy stunt he'll pull next. The highlight was when Cunningham's pregnant wife faints in a store and is taken to a hospital, and Daleo waits until after practice to tell Cunningham about it. Mostly, though, in Daleo's world everybody is a terrible player who is on the verge of a one-way trip to a fast-food stand for his next job. It's fairly entertaining to read about Daleo's antics, although it's fair to say that playing for him is not for the faint of heart.

It's obviously not a spoiler to say Cunningham makes the team in training camp, since there's no book without that step. He works with a wide variety of people who are in theory one step from the NBA, but find out it's a long step. Cunningham takes the time to give the biographies of the most interesting cases. There are men who got involved with gangs in high school, and finally worked their way through the back door to move this close to the big time. There are men with flaws, such as the center whose father gave him alcohol as a toddler to keep him quiet. It worked all right, but it also started the son on the road to alcoholism.

The team wanders through the schedule, playing in small cities or big towns, depending on your definition, before good-sized crowds and intimate gatherings. It's an odd, stressful living, as the players go from arena to arena hoping someone in the NBA impressed and make the call for even 10 days. Quite a few players did do just that in the CBA's life. The biggest name on the team is Kenny Fields, a Chicago high school legend who didn't quite reach the predicted heights.

Cunningham is a good tour guide to all of this, and throws in some references in passing that reveal that he's a little different than the rest of the members of the team.

There are a couple of problems with the story, and the most obvious is the timing. The book was finally published in 2012, more than seven years after the season in question. Even the biggest of basketball fans might have had a chance to remember some of the characters if the book had been done earlier. But since after some of the characters had moved on with their lives, and after the league itself had folded, it dropped a couple of notes in the compulsion rankings. (That's even more true if you read the book three years later.)

The other involves the season. I won't get into the details, but there's not much drama building in the story. That to a certain extent centers on luck - you get the season you get. Admittedly, there's an odd dynamic here in that the players are much more interested in moving up personally than winning games. But wins and losses usually provide a thread for such stories.

"Underground Hoops," then, works reasonably well ... and perhaps better than it should under the circumstances. I found myself caring enough for some of the characters to look into what they are doing now. Cunningham teaches history at DePaul University, has a PhD and has written a book on Olympic basketball. Daleo is still involved in minor-league basketball. He's still thinking that he's dribbling the ball while the reality is that the ball is chasing him.

The rating here might be a touch low (I went back and forth on it), but basketball fans who stumble on this ought to enjoy it.

Three stars

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