The dream of creating a greater life for oneself and family through the game of basketball is not restricted to any time or place in American history. As long as there is a court, there lies the opportunity to experience the hoop dream.
For the likes of Tchaka, Russell, Corey, and Bill Russell, their paths may have been different, but their struggle for greatness in the ever-shrinking window of the hoop dream is all too familiar.
The Last Shot by Darcy Frey chronicles the lives of three basketball players and their struggle on the streets of Coney Island, New York in the early 1990’s.
The book covers eight months of the journey of Tchaka Shipp, Russell Thomas, and Corey Johnson as they ward off the temptations of agents, college coaches, and drug lords in the ruthless city of Coney Island. Frey follows these athletes from the conclusion of their junior year at Abraham Lincoln High School through their senior year, allowing the reader to watch their growth as athletes, as well as their trials in attempting to realize the hoop dream.
For both the Coney Island classmates and Bill Russell, there was a limiting factor that in their time and place prevented them from reaching their full potential of success in the game of basketball. In the case of Corey, Russell, and in a lesser sense Tchaka, it was their intelligence in the classroom. Being raised in an inner-city educational environment such as the one provided by Coney Island is an entirely detrimental experience for those who are looking to experience a higher education at some point in their lives.
There were multiple occasions in the story that alluded to the players’ inability to score high enough on their SAT’s as the reason for being unable to play for a Division I team in the NCAA. However, their failure to score a 700, the required threshold to stay eligible for a Division 1 scholarship, was no fault of their own. “But the requirement has proved to be an insurmountable obstacle to thousands of black players like Russell, Corey, and Stephon with poor educations and no experience in taking standardized tests,” (Frey, 187).
Their school system had always put basketball before education, and for most of their lives the Coney Island crew did the same. They are merely a byproduct of a broken system that prevents thousands of talented basketball players in inner cities and beyond from realizing their full potential on the basketball court. Although intelligence was never a limiting factor for the likes of Bill Garrett, he dealt with a crueler discriminating factor that prevented him realizing the hoop dream in his upbringing- the color of his skin.
Despite excelling on and off the basketball court, Bill was plagued with the backdrop of 1950’s rural Indiana, where it took a lot more than a double-double for an African-American to be accepted in society. Before Bill suited up for Indiana University, there was a “gentleman’s agreement not to recruit or play blacks,” (Graham, 92). This prevented many star players before Garrett, including Johnny Wilson, who was named Indiana’s “Mr. Basketball” in 1946, from experiencing the hoop dream for themselves simply because of their skin color.
Whether these athletes were limited by their education, or limited by the color of their skin, their journeys in attempting to realize the hoop dream each had their share of road blocks in a system seemingly built for them to fail. Another harsh reality of the hoop dream is that it is painfully selective of who is fortunate enough to experience it for themselves. Although Tchaka’s, Russell’s, Corey’s, and Bill Garrett’s stories each unfolded differently, they were all dealt with the same harsh realization- that the hoop dream was not theirs to experience.
It was how each of these players handled their failure that defined them as basketball players, as well as human beings. In Coney Island, New York, the expectation of basketball players is to reach for the stars, and if they don’t make it then they spiral back down the Earth until they’ve hit rock bottom, just like all of those who came before. “All of the great Coney Island players, a few surviving all right, but most of them waiting vainly for a second chance, hanging out in the neighborhood, or dead,” (Frey, 227).
Precisely was the fate of Tchaka and Russell, who despite having years of playing in “the Garden” and blossoming as pure talents at Abraham Lincoln High School, they simply did not have what it took to make it in the NBA. Their stories after basketball was put in the rear-view mirror are nothing short of tragic, and leave the reader wondering what if certain events transpired differently for the stars of Coney Island.
Although Bill Garrett was also unable to experience the hoop dream as a member of the Boston Celtics, he was able to make the best of his situation as he had done many times before by remaining involved in the game he held so dear. This is where his story veers off from the likes of Tchaka and Russell. His life did not end with his basketball dreams; he instead used the education he earned at IU to make a name for himself off of the basketball court, and led his life in the same manner as he led himself as a forerunner for Indiana basketball.
Although there are so many similarities between these players in how they succeeded in their realms, but failed to reach to supreme goal of playing in the NBA, their vast differences in life after the hoop dream is a somber reminder of the much fewer opportunities for success there are for those who were raised in Coney Island, New York as compared to Shelbyville, Indiana. Following in the footsteps of those in The Last Shot, Sebastian Telfair emerged as a phenomenon in Coney Island during the early 2000’s.
The story of his transition from high school court menace to NBA lottery-pick superstar is chronicled in the ESPN documentary Through the Fire. And it’s easy to see that the piece was filmed right in the heart of the Coney Island projects, bringing Darcy Frey’s classic to life. There are many scenes from the book that almost come to life before the viewer’s very eyes as we watch Sebastian Telfair’s journey through the fire. The Last Shot focuses heavily on those who failed to realize the hoop dream, and who were left to live in Coney Island.
Darcy Frey often referred to the Marbury brothers, who all failed to reach the pinnacle of success that the youngest Stephon achieved in the NBA. However, the pain endured by those who failed before him is not truly investigated like Jamal Thomas’ struggle in Through the Fire. As Sebastian Telfair’s half-brother, he watched his younger brother realize the dream he had for himself, all while continuing to live in the dreaded Coney Island projects. When asked what it was like o return to Coney Island after getting so close to the hoop dream himself, he provided a chilling response that encapsulates the agony of reaching for the stars, and grabbing at nothing. “As long as I’m here, it’s pain. As long as I’m here, it’s pain,” said Thomas. (Through the Fire) One of the most interesting parts of The Last Shot to read through was Tchaka’s experience at the ABCD camp and his first blatant encounter with college coaches and the “sneaker pimps. ” It was the first time the pressure was heavily on him to succeed and make a name for himself in front of some of the top coaches in the nation.
While it was fantastic to read how Tchaka rose from essentially a no-name to a highly sought-after big man by the end of the camp, one could really get a feel for the intensity through Sebastian Telfair’s eyes in Through the Fire. Already headlined as one of the top prospects heading into the Nike camp, Telfair had a lot to prove in front of the big name coaches and agents who would help dictate where he would start his career. Like Tchaka nearly a decade before, Telfair stole the show at the camp, and even gained the attention of Sports Marketing legend Sonny Vaccarro (Through the Fire).