The NBA is locked out and with the latest news that the players have traded in their union for a trip to the court house we will be searching a bit to satisfy our basketball fix. The Sun Devils and Wildcats can be fun but that still leaves a Steve Nash-sized hole that only a dryly funny, crime noir novel set in the world of 1930's American basketball can fill.
Enter Jewball, a fun little book by author Neal Pollack.
"I decided to try and come up with a plot where I could weave basketball and fascism together and I came up with a Jews versus Nazis melodrama," Pollack explained.
What Pollack (no relation to this writer) ended up with was a crazy journey through a little-known time in basketball and American history.
Written as a historical fiction, the plot features real-life characters including famous Philadelphia Warriors owner, Eddie Gottlieb, as the drunk but lovable coach who gets himself into a bind through a street loan turned bad. In real life, Gottlieb is a member of the Naismith Hall of Fame and one of the founding fathers of the modern NBA.
Basketball junkies will recognize the Gottlieb name since it's on the trophy given to the NBA Rookie of the Year (thus completing the connection between Amar'e Stoudemire and his Jewish roots).
The story focuses on the adventures of point guard Inky Lautman who in real life might have been the youngest professional in the history of American basketball when he began playing for the South Philadelphia Hebrew Association (SPHA) of the American Basketball League (ABL) in the early 1930's.
In Pollack's fictional world, Inky is a poor kid with great court vision and a sweet stroke. He lives above a bar, beats people up for money and gets involved with both his teammate's sister and the Nazis from the German American Bund.
Through Lautman's (fictional) work for the Bund as a hired thug, we get a peek into the very real world of 1930's American fascism. At one point Inky finds himself at Madison Square Garden in a rally of 20,000 Nazis. That rally, by the way, actually happened in 1939 even if a Jewish point guard from Philadelphia wasn't really there.
Without giving anything away, the plot happily finds itself at the intersection of Inky's basketball team, his hot girlfriend and the Bund's desire to get one over on the Jews of the SPHA. It's a lot funnier than that description makes it out to be.
The book is light and breezy and for Pollack writing every page was a pleasure, "I got to let my imagination run free. It was not a hard book to write."
Neal Pollack is an accomplished author and journalist (and longtime Phoenix Suns fan) but this work is his first in the sports genre. It's also his first work of crime noir and his first dealing with Jewish history, culture or anything.
"I wanted to write something that felt like it might have been written in the 1930's that doesn't totally exist in the shadow of the Holocaust, or the State of Israel, or heavy Jewish issues. I tried to make it a light book," he said.
"If I had an agenda it was to write a Jewish book that was actually fun to read."
Here's a few excerpts from Jewball:
[...]That's why Gottlieb loved Inky Lautman. Inky carried more resentment within his blood than a thousand lovers spurned. Even Litwack, who seemed to cruise through life with princely ease, kept a secret store of bitterness that he could draw upon in the fourth quarter, when the game was tight and the opposing knees where headed toward your nutsack. They were all from Philly, and being from Philly bred resentment. Fuck you, I'm a Jew from Philly, Gottlieb had taught his boys to think. The city's already beaten me down in a thousand ways you can't imagine. Try to show me something I ain't seen. -- Chapter Thirteen, Jewball
Inky turned to the crowd, gave a little bow, and then pulled down his shorts, revealing his full, circumcised glory. Fuck you, Inky mouthed. Fuck you all.
The SPHAs had about twenty seconds to get out of there before the crowd tore down the chicken wire. Gottlieb already by the fire exit, screaming at the team to move, move, move! They could mail him the trophy. Right now, he had to get his guys out of there. He didn't really have the funds for a funeral.
Inky got to the car intact. They all did. Because Inky had agree to show the crowd his schlong, Gottlieb had given him a $50 bonus and the promise that he'd get to ride shotgun...Inky thought, This is why I play the game. -- Chapter Fourteen, Jewball
Pollack decided to self-publish Jewball and offer it for $4.99 as an e-book on Amazon or $13.99 in paperback. He lives in Austin, TX where he practices Yoga and sends me emails about his dislike for Robert Sarver. You can follow him on Twitter and learn more at his web site.
* It's probably worth noting that while Neal Pollack and Seth Pollack are not related, we did both grow up in Phoenix at the same time, both enjoyed seeing Walter Davis play at Veterans Memorial Coliseum, and likely crossed paths as kids attending Temple Beth Israel in Phoenix. Neither of us made much of an impression on the other since we don't recall ever meeting before our recent discussion about Jewball.