Jonathan Tjarks

Jonathan Tjarks
December 31
A basketball writer who occasionally delves into public policy, popular culture and society. All of my articles are collected at

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MARCH 5, 2011 6:49PM

Book Review: Doug Merlino's "The Hustle"

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 More than a game.
In the late 1980’s, an AAU basketball team of inner-city black kids and white kids from Lakeside Prep, Bill Gates’ alma mater, won the citywide championship. Twenty years later, Doug Merlino, a member of that team, tracks them down in his memoir “The Hustle.” He uses their lives to tell a broader story of race, class and modern American society.

Five years after the team disbanded, Merlino is relaxing at his parent’s home on a summer break from college when he sees a jarring headline: Tyrell Johnson, one of his AAU teammates, is “young, black, male – and murdered.”  

The paper uses a photo of a smiling Tyrell, holding up the team’s championship trophy, with the other players cropped out. Merlino writes that “[his] version of Hoosiers ends with Jimmy Chitwood hacked up in a ditch.”

The team was a social experiment with an unspoken goal bigger than basketball. A Lakeside parent – Randy Finley – wanted his son and his prep-school teammates to be exposed to a different world, while a black parent – Willie McClain – saw it as a tool to get his son and his friends’ entrance into the world of white private schools.

The book’s first section covers the awkward integration of the two groups of teenagers, as Merlino is introduced to the world of “snapping” – where kids make fun of each other in a fraught back-and-forth that walks a thin line between light-hearted humor and cold-hearted insults. It ends with a now tragic picture of them holding their AAU trophy high as a wide smile crosses Tyrell Johnson’s face.  

And while their basketball careers would soon be over, their lives were only just beginning. The white kids return to their suburban mansions and slowly move away from sports and towards college, while the black kids shuffle between public schools in an attempt to earn the elusive ticket out – an athletic scholarship.  

But what makes “The Hustle” unique is the stories of the kids caught in the middle – the black kids, like Eric Hampton, who are enrolled at Lakeside, and the middle-class kids, like Merlino, who feel like “anthropologists” observing a world of upper-class privilege they don’t quite understand.

For while the kids were going through the natural changes of adolescence, Lakeside, an institution with a tuition upwards of $20,000 a year, was changing as well – aiming to a model for a more “diverse” 21rst century America and not just a school for the sons of lawyers and doctors. But what “diversity” actually meant in that context was unclear:

“[Was] it simply letting in more students and teachers of color and then assuming they will assimilate the ‘Lakeside Way’? Or did it mean that the majority of students should somehow change to be more accommodating of students who come from different racial, ethnic and financial backgrounds? Wasn’t one of the main functions of institutions such as Lakeside preparing and shaping students to assume positions of power in society? If so, how does ‘diversity’ – letting in more people of different economic and racial background – fit in with that?”

Merlino expertly contrasts the two modern-day gold rushes that were re-shaping Seattle at the time: the “crack boom” and the “tech boom”. Both injected huge amounts of capital into the city, and suddenly “the euphoria of easy money” was in the air.

In the inner city, crack dealers flaunted their newfound success – rolling around in designer cars and tempting kids like Tyrell with dreams of easy money and even easier women. In the suburbs, everyone seemed to know someone – an old classmate, a neighbor, an in-law – who had made a killing with Microsoft stock options, as the local company emerged to become one of the goliaths of the new post-industrial economy.

And while the skills involved in flipping stocks and flipping rocks weren’t that different, the end results were. One teammate, Dino Christopholis, the son of Greek immigrants, becomes a wildly successful hedge-fund manager with an office in Rainier Tower, one of downtown Seattle’s most prominent skyscrapers. Another, Myran, becomes involved in the same drug game that got Tyrell killed, selling crack out of a nightclub and becoming enmeshed in the criminal justice system.

Through their lives, Merlino illustrates America’s growing income inequality.  

It’s partly the result of government policy, with the Reagan Administration lowering the marginal tax rates on the top 1% while simultaneously waging a War on Drugs with increased ferocity.  

And it’s partly the function of structural forces. We're living in a post-industrial economy where blue-collar manufacturing jobs, with strong unions and the “one-for-all” ethos of the assembly line, are being replaced by white-collar office jobs, where a winner-take-all mentality generously rewards the top earners and ruthlessly culls those unable to keep up.

In one of the book’s final sections, Merlino follows the career of another teammate, Damian Joseph, who becomes a teacher at Zion Prep, an inner-city charter school that serves as a “feeder” for private schools like Lakeside looking for minority students.  

Zion, a school constantly walking a financial tight-rope due to its commitment to teach every kid who walks through its doors, finds itself being lapped by the Rainier Scholars Program, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, whose goal is “to identify sixty of Seattle’s highest-testing minority students a year and get them into private schools or the advanced tracks of public schools.”

But, as Merlino asks, what about kid #61:

What about the next sixty, who barely miss the cut.  Or what about all the kids after that? How many talented kids lose out because their families lack the means or the background to guide them through the system? What about the students who don’t score high on standardized tests, the ones who aren’t going to go to college? Have we just accepted that a certain number of kids aren’t going to make it? Are the Rainier Scholar kids the educational equivalents of Jackie Robinson, with thousands of others missing the chance?

More broadly, how are we defining societal justice?  The American compact used to be that if you worked hard, and you followed the rules, you could find yourself a decent job and support a family.  Hard work, not the cruel realities of IQ and intelligence, could guarantee a middle-class lifestyle.

Now, are schools like Lakeside, whose alumni fill many of the limited number of slots at top 50 universities and then graduate into high-paying careers in government, business and law, creating a new more meritocratic upper class? And does that fact that they are opening their doors to minorities and the under-privileged make that acceptable?

Has the core injustice of American society been solved now that minorities are being allowed into this club? Or does this increasingly stratified elite, regardless of race, reflect the creation of an oligarchy that is slowly changing things for the worse? Does the fact that a kid with a Kenyan dad and a Kansan mom can become President excuse the fact that so many of his contemporaries are entering a society with no room, and no jobs, for them?

“The Hustle” ends with a pick-up game between the now grown members of that AAU team, as the men fondly reminisce on their times goofing around with Tyrell on the team bus and the innocence of their carefree masculine bonding. The book’s final image is a mirror of its first: they pose around their now twenty-year old AAU trophy.

The game ends, the shutter closes and the men return to their lives. Dino returns to his office to rebuild his portfolio, while Myran returns to his grandmother's home, unable to find a job that will support his two young children.

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