Jeff Pearlman

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the gay athlete

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I wrote the following piece recently as a freelance assignment, but it never made print. Hence, I offer it below.

Obviously, the whole gay rights issue is one I feel very strongly about. I wish I had been alive for the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s, because I like to think (though one never knows for sure) I’d be out there marching and speaking up.

As I’ve said before, the gay rights movement is our civil rights moment.

Hence, this column …

I hope you are reading this.

You, the scared, closeted sufferer.

You, the potential trailblazer.

You, the gay major league baseball player.

No doubt, this dilemma has plagued your soul: Do I come out? Do I continue to hide? You have weighed the pros and cons of walking forth from the shadows, and they are, to understate, daunting. There will be heckles and catcalls; death threats and protests. You will be branded an outcast and a cancer; will be called “queer,” “fag” and 8,000 more heinous slurs. Teams that once craved your production will shy away. Fans once anxious to purchase your jersey will look elsewhere. Little boys and girls will snicker. Parents will warn their offspring who not to be like. The clubhouse, normally a sanctuary, will turn into a torture chamber. Teammates will avoid the shower in your presence. The team chaplain will thunderously cite Leviticus 18:22 (“Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination.”) You will no longer be invited to dinner; to bars; to family barbeques; to the offseason caravan. Many within the sport will speak of you in the manner Tim Hardaway spoke of John Amaechi, the former Orlando Magic center who came out two years ago. “If he was on my team, I would really distance myself from him because, I don’t think that’s right,” Hardaway said. “And you know I don’t think he should be in the locker room while we’re in the locker room.”

So why bother coming out of the closet? Why should you subject yourself to certain torture?

Why?

Because right now, at this precise moment in 2009, there is a desperate need for leaders in the gay-rights movement; a desperate need for high-profile people to make a Rosa Parks-esque statement. Just last week, the California Supreme Court came to a jarringly narrow conclusion, voting to uphold Proposition 8, which limits marriage to only between heterosexual couples. The decision serves as Exhibit 1A on how far this country has to go when it comes to accepting gays and lesbians as equals. It also serves as Exhibit 1A on why you are being called to action.
Baseball, as you know, represents something that the other major sports do not. It is Americana—a symbol of all that is good and righteous about who we are and what we stand for. It is a warm day in the sun; a beer and a hotdog; red, white, and blue bunting and the national anthem before every first pitch. It’s a beloved blue-eyed, sandy-haired boy chasing down a long fly into the gap.

Now what if that beloved blue-eyed, sandy-haired boy happens to be … gay? How will Americans—especially those in the heartland—handle the juxtaposition? How will they respond?

Answer: I’m not sure. It could be horrific. Worse than horrific. That said, Americans have been known to surprise. Maybe, just maybe, instead of heckles and catcalls, there will be cheers and standing ovations; curtain calls and sellouts. Maybe you will be branded a groundbreaker and a hero; will be referred to as “the Jackie Robinson of gay rights.” Maybe teams that once craved your production might shy away at first—until they realize you’re baseball’s biggest draw. Maybe fans will purchase your jerseys in droves. Maybe little boys and girls will sing your name. Maybe parents will urge their offspring to be just like you. Maybe the clubhouse, normally a sanctuary, will serve this role more than ever. Maybe teammates will stand up for your right to be yourself. Maybe your manager will say, “Gay or straight, he’s my guy.” Maybe the team chaplain will thunderously cite John 13:23 (“One of his disciples, the one whom Jesus kept loving, had been sitting very close to him.”) Maybe you will still be invited to dinner; to bars; to family barbeques; to the offseason caravan. Maybe many within the sport will speak of you in the manner Ken Griffey, Jr. spoke of Joe Valentine, a former Reds pitcher who was raised by lesbian parents. “I salute his mothers, and anything negative he’s gone through because of that is garbage,” Griffey said. “I would embrace a gay teammates just like I embrace straight teammates. Some of my closest friends are gay. It makes no difference to me. People are people.”

People are people.

We find ourselves at a riveting crossroads. For the first time ever, five states allow gay marriage, and in a recent New York Times/CBS poll, 57 percent of Americans under age 40 support same-sex nuptials. When a man like Dennis Prager appears on Larry King Live and says, “I would like children to be raised to believe that when they grow up they will get married. And that they are not asked when they are six or seven years old, ‘Will you marry a boy or a girl?’” he brings to mind the soundbites of George Wallace from four decades ago.

And yet, there are still miles to go. Living in the liberal Mecca of New York, it is easy to forget that, to millions of Americans, gays are alien creatures, no less scary than Wes Craven’s latest invention. People fear the idea of gay teachers and gay neighbors; literally fear catching “The Gay”—as if it were a strand of swine flu. This is especially true in the sheltered world of professional baseball, where most competitors have devoted their lives to the singular, non-thought-provoking tasks of seeing-ball, throwing-ball, hitting-ball, catching-ball. The major leagues are the domain of Maxim and strip clubs; of long-legged, large-breasted girlfriends and “Check out the blonde eight rows up …” mid-game commentaries. In the mid-1990s, an American League superstar confided in a small number of peers that he was gay, but insisted the information never be released. His reason? Fear of banishment. “Baseball just doesn’t lend itself to accepting gays,” says Billy Bean, the former major league journeyman who came out of the closet after retiring. “There’s very little empathy for people like me.”

Indeed, it has been 10 years since Bean announced that he was gay, and any initial hopes of change within the sport have been largely dashed. Bean has waited and waited and waited for an active player to stand up and say, “I’m a homosexual. So what?” but he no longer holds his breath. “There’s just so much to lose,” he says. “Your contract, your teammates’ trust, your place. Do I wish I came out when I was active? Yes, I do. But I wanted to be accepted, just like everyone else. Who would have accepted me if they knew I was gay?”

Yet here’s the mild shocker: In the aftermath of Bean’s announcement, a handful of high-profile big leaguers—Trevor Hoffman and Brad Ausmus among them—not only embraced Bean’s words, but spoke out on his behalf. “It wouldn’t have made a difference to me [when we were teammates],” said Ausmus, “and it doesn’t bother me now.” Brian Johnson, Bean’s Triple A roommate and a future Padres catcher, called his old chum and said, “I wish you had told me back then. I would have supported you 100 percent.”

Now, a decade after Bean’s courageous step, the time is at hand. You have the opportunity to be more than a ballplayer; more than just another blah notation buried deep within the pages of the Baseball Encyclopedia. For every 10,000 Bill Brutons and Joe Sambitos, there’s a Curt Flood. For every 10,000 Paul Blairs and Jack Clarks, there’s a Robinson. The country’s ever-dwindling holdouts to logic are ready to see that homosexual doesn’t mean weird or strange or frightening. They are ready to see that the most pure and wholesome and revered among us—our baseball players—can be pure, wholesome, revered … and gay.

It is time to step out of the closet.

It is time to shine.

  • http://thearenablog.net Andy

    Jeff, even though this is pushing an/your agenda, you’re right. This is one of the last few barriers we haven’t broken in sports; I’d hope to see it soon.

    And this isn’t about baiting gay athletes out of the closet: It’s about a person being powerful enough to own their sexuality and confront our own misconceptions about it. The double standard that makes it fine for our cousins and friends and people near us to be gay and not our hypermasculine sports figures is a stupid one, indeed.

  • http://thearenablog.net Andy

    Also: You have an Enter key, right?

  • Joseph

    This is a non-issue in my mind. No one is excluding them! There is no rule, collusion or other tool being used by management or anyone else to keep gays out of sports. It’s their own decision that keeps them quiet.

  • Mark

    I wanted to take this opportunity to tell you that your Roger Clemens book was poorly researched, awfully written, and filled with unsupported innuendo and sleazy generalizations. You must be the Kitty Kelly of sports writers. Clemens is no admirable character, but your writing was semi-coherent character assasination. Gay athletes? Fine. So what. Stigma? Paranoids like you imagine stigmas that don’t exist and then get angry about them.

  • Chad

    Jeff,

    You’re being naive.

    Think about this rationally, apart from your obvious agenda. Think about this as if you were on the baseball team when a teammate came out and said he was gay — that he is sexually attracted to men. Would you like to shower by that guy? Would you want to confide in that guy?

    Am I be simple-minded here or realistic?

    You’re writing from a pie-in-the-sky point of view. It sounds well and good to accept everybody no matter what their choices are. But I live in reality, and you should come back, too, Jeff.

    Of course gays shouldn’t be persecuted, just like blacks and hispanics and women and asains. No one deserves to be treated unfairly.

    The difference between being black and being gay (since you brought up the comparison) is simply that I would never suspect a black man to look at me differently. I wouldn’t suspect a black man to sexually attracted to me.

    I’m not saying that ever gay man runs around, longing to hook up with any guy. But the fact is this: he is gay because he is attracted to men. As a heterosexual man, it would make me uncomfortable to know that there is a chance my teammate was physically attracted to me.

    Would a woman want to go shower with a bunch of men? Well of course not. She knows that she would be turning on every straight man with a pulse. Why would I want to do that for my homosexual teammate?

    Get a grip on reality, Jeff. Being gay does not equal being black, so please quit making that comparison. If a guy “came out” he would not be the “Jackie Robinson of gay rights.”

    There’s a reason gay athletes don’t come out of the closet. It’s because they have a sense of reality, and they don’t want to make their teammates uncomfortable (and rightfully so).

    You’re no hero, Jeff, and your call for all of these gay athletes to “come out” is agenda-driven and detached from reality.

    By the way, you write well. Style-wise, at least.

  • Greg

    Are you implying with the John 13:23 quote that Jesus was gay? If so, sorry, but you’re wrong. God considers homosexuality a sin (YMMV), and Jesus was without sin.

  • http://www.pittsburgh-pirates.org Jim

    I gotta say, Jeff, you nailed it.
    But heres the problem. We, as Americans, still havent gotten past race. How can we get past sexuality?
    We should have no problem accepting gay athletes. We have accepted, Blacks, Hispanics, Asians, ect, in sports, but in life in general, we still have so many problems with race. its really a shame. As human beings, who are all created equal, we need to accept each person for who they are.

  • Ryan

    Love the column, Jeff.

    Regarding having gay teammates, your teammates are like brothers beforehand. You consider them family and would never consider checking out family, therefore other players have no reason to worry about someone checking them out.

  • Norton Avenue Scott

    This is terrific and important. Will you take some practical advice? It needs to be edited to about half its length so it can be considered for op-ed submission by leading newspapers. Let me know if I can help.

  • hunior89

    Jeff,
    So right on, again. Keep writing, keep believing, and keep being open and honest with your views.
    The right-wing, mostly white Bible-thumpers are a dying, bloated dinosaur whose influence is waning. I cannot wait until they are gone.

  • Josh

    Can’t say I like the implication that Jesus was gay. Using a skewed biblical quotation to support homosexuality is no different than using one to attack it.

    And, by the way, the California Supreme Court decision was legally correct and it is the court’s job to interpret the law, not interject its own politics. Blame the legislature or the electorate, not the court.

  • Lou

    I’m sorry but I think this is a non-issue. Sure they’ll be some jeers and some guys will be jerks, but most don’t care. All fans will care about is if he plays well as will his teammates. This is not a civil rights issue either. There are no Gay Water Fountains or ‘Gays can’t eat here’ signs. So you’re comparison to Jackie Robinson is way over the top.

    Just like the Left has a few nut-jobs, so do the Right. But the vast majority of us just don’t wake up in the morning worrying about who’s gay and who isn’t. So if a player comes out, I feel you might be a bit disappointed that their won’t be a march to participate in.

  • http://server.ericsbinaryworld.com/~dmesa/blog/ Dan

    Right on man!

    I can’t stand the bigotry that views homosexuality as such a fringe, evil lifestyle.

    The people commenting that being gay is not the same as being black are right, race is a fundamentally different issue, but what you are right about is that prejudice is prejudice, no matter what you apply it to. I hope to see a day where civil liberties are properly afforded to all citizens of the US

  • Greg

    Ryan,

    That’s nowhere approaching a valid comparison. Biological brotherhood exists from birth. Instantly becoming “brothers” with brand-new teammates (guys switch teams often – no pun intended) is unrealistic.

  • John

    What does being white have to do with it? There’s plenty of blacks and Latinos that don’t have very open views of homosexuality. Saying you will be glad when a group of people is gone is no better than those you condemn.

  • Jack

    Chad,

    Simple-minded is the answer. Your response reads like a manifesto for the ill-informed homophobe. You may not think you are, but the fact that you wouldn’t be comfortable with a gay teammate highlights your inability to get past the “gay thing” and see someone for who they are…as a PERSON.

  • Ryan

    Greg,

    Didn’t mean the brother thing literally. But many teams, including most of the good ones, are close with one another.

  • Ryan

    Lou,

    There aren’t buses or water fountains, but there are hospital visitation rights, parental custody of children, tax benefits and several other institutional biases built in against gays.

  • Kevin

    Gay people should not be compared to black people. They are not even in the same ballpark, so to speak.

    Everyone can tell if someone is black. Jackie Robinson couldn’t hide that fact. His people were previously banned from baseball.

    Gay players are not banned from baseball. Plus, they can keep their private life private, if they so choose.

    In fact, that’s why it’s call a “private life.” Yes, I know that straight players are out in the open. But when straight guys talk about how many women they’ve had or talk rudely about women, I wish sometimes they would keep their private life private. Sexual innuendos are too prevelant in commercials and sitcoms and everywhere else. Straight or gay should not define anyone. It should be character, what kind of friend they are, what their on-base percentage is, etc.

    I’m not conservative. I think gays should be allowed to marry and have all the same rights as straight people.

    But I think this article overstates the anti-gay thoughts in America. I don’t see it.

    It’s OK to think being gay is wrong. The test of a good teammate or friend is, can you still stand by them, no matter what. Teams that have good chemistry don’t agree on everything and hold hands and sing. They put aside differences for the good of the team.

  • Tony

    Ah, yes. The “liberal, tolerant” man attacking the unwashed mass of middle Americans simply because they disagree with him. Look, I have no problem with homosexuals living a life true to who they are. Come “out of the closet,” whether you are in sports or otherwise.

    But what I do have a problem with is people like Mr. Pearlman making claims that the reason gays don’t come forward is because of all the people living between New York and LA. If it only weren’t for those ***holes in Ohio, Iowa, Mississipi, Alabama, Texas, and Nebraska, this world would be a perfect place where people of all sexuality are loved equally. Such garbage. Generally speaking, the people of the midwest and south are very gracious and accepting. Might they disagree with your lifestyle, of course, but so what? We are Americans, we have the right to disagree.

    So, Mr. Pearlman, focus on what you should be focusing on: telling people it is all right to live your life and be who you want to be. You may face ridicule, you may face hatred, you may face scorn, but then pretty much every person does at some point because there are jerks and morons everywhere. The only way to change the world, is to live in it, not hide from it.

  • http://tyduffy.com/ tyduffy

    Great Column. Glad someone is saying it. I agree 100 percent.

  • Jason Cohen

    Surprised you didn’t mention this (the “Out” editor writing about his long affair with gay baseball player):

    http://out.com/html/edletter90.html

  • nunya

    If your version of what is wholesome and All-American is “sandy-haired and blue-eyed,” why can’t other Americans envision him as straight as well? If I hadn’t formerly supported the gay rights struggle with a naive idea of reciprocity, I wouldn’t be quite so offended at your racial characterization of what is “American”, in spite of the pictures you have up. Color me indifferent.

  • http://www.tregibbs.com Carl

    Chad – you’re being naive and showing your ignorance. Gays need to come out – it’s the only way to change the archaic attitudes that keep people oppressed. Just ask Billy Bean about being a baseball player and not hiding who you are. His career was ruined due to homophobic bigotry of his teammates and the climate of intolerance, insecurity and hatred that dominates sports.

  • CD

    Great column. I agree wholeheartedly with all of it.

  • Jake

    Heterosexuals are responsible for anti-gay bigotry.

    Gay people live with heterosexuals from day one yet one group can openly express their sexuality (heterosexuals) to any degree and be praised for it and the other is condemned. Heterosexuals want an advantage in every area of life. They don’t want a level playing field. That’s why 30 state constitutions now have heterosexual-only marriage amendments. It’s an unwritten rule in sports for gay men to conceal their homosexuality or else. Heterosexual males will have a identity crisis when the playing field is level and they realize gay men can play in any arena.

    BTW, heterosexual males look at guys privates all the time. I know this from experience and from eye tracking research that shows men look at other guys’ crotches and upper chest first no matter if they are clothed or not.

  • obamaisbad

    You know I don’t really care if your gay or straight, but I am really getting tired of people trying to make me accept something that I feel is wrong.

    I won’t push my values on you, you don’t push your values on me

  • GMB

    Um…

    Why do athletes shower together?

    No really. Is it just tradition? It has to be. It can’t be because they get hot and sweaty…

    Cuz hey, so do auto-mechanics. And steelworkers. And the guys who work the grill at my local burger joint. All hot, sweaty, and gross by the end of their day’s work.

    They don’t shower together.

    Is it because it promotes team camaraderie?

    Well, I’m sure my office could use some better camaraderie while we attempt to tackle our tech issues and survive the economic downfall. But even though my company could certainly afford it, we don’t shower together.

    Is it because… in sports… like in gymnasiums, the shower is just part of the athletic experience?

    Probably. And, like my gym, it’s probably just time to install separate shower and change rooms. People have got to start thinking outside the box.

    Team sports have nothing to do with showers, or the gay men inside them.

  • Brian

    Hey, Greg, how do you know Jesus wasn’t gay? He never married and hung around with a bunch of guys. So what about the Old Testament – Jesus said he was there to change that, like not just love your neighbor but love your enemy. Jesus was a radical, maybe a gay one.

  • Fred

    The gay movement has all the earmarks of a religion. They proselytize…they push their agenda at every opportunity….they have their cultural and ritual earmarks. That’s a religion. And yes, many gays do try to approach and solicit straights for relationships and sex—knowing they are straight. Happens regularly.

    I don’t support them, and I don’t support their agenda. It’s obvious that mere tolerance is not what the gay movement is really looking for. They are looking for unequivocal approval and enthusiasm. Gays can do what they want—they should respect the fact that most of us are straight and don’t wish to try or to embrace their lifestyle. That’s fair enough.

  • C J Dunmore

    Another special interest group trying to get something. But, don’t even think about equating this with the plight of blacks. Very different issues.

  • Chris

    Most of what he writes is very true, even here in Canada. But it’s getting better. You don’t get invited near as much to weddings, barbq’s and wedding stags, etc. I used to be a pretty good pitcher, for two teams, we won quite a few leagues and tournaments. I played on soccer teams regularly. When I was sort of outed and then just came out, I suddenly was no longer part of either team. The guys could not even look at me; whether it was shame or not wanting to appear too close. I was Best Man in two of my friends weddings; they no longer speak to me, I know because of fear others will think we are still very close, so they told me. It was one of the toughest things I’ve ever done, especially for a “military” guy. But the best thing is you will know who your true Str8 friends are, and I am fortunate to have many who I am closer to now than before….happens that they are the most educated, well-travelled, happily married and successful guys I know. The other sweet thing is when gradually so many guys will open up and talk about it, actually heaping praise on me for blazing a trail of sorts, pointing to me as an example of what a gay guy can be like. No different, but we know we’re smarter right?? Bottom line: don’t come out until you are emotionally prepared for alot of gossip and lies and slurs. If you live in a large city it won’t matter near as much, but smaller cities can be hell of you are high profile. Finally, I certainly do know several closeted guys in the NHL, but haven’t heard anything concrete about baseball. Look at many of our Olympians who came out after the medals: solid gold athletes, men and women.

  • kww

    Hey Brian the Blasphemous… I dare you to ask a Muslim if Mohammed was gay…haha…you so tough right ask that question…I dare you to post it on the internet on a Islamic message board…LOL…I don’t recommend it without having a will first…

  • Frank

    Obamaisbad, I like how you feel the need to tell us that you wouldn’t flaunt your values on us, so others shouldn’t flaunt them in front of you. Given that, I wonder…what do you think of President Obama?

  • Pasquale

    The gay players are simple to figure out. They’re the only ones that don’t spit.

  • obamaisbad

    Frank, I truly believe Obama’s policies are not good for this country, other than that I do not know him….remember policies and values are not the same. Also if you read my post I never once said the word flaunt, I think there is a difference between flaunting in front of a person and pushing your values on them…..When you flaunt in front of me I will either leave or tell you to get a room :), when you try to push your values on me then I will push back.

    I know some people will say there is not much of a difference between flaunting and imposing, but to me there is a big difference.

  • Andy Cordero, MA, LMHC

    Kudos to you, Jeff, for having the courage to address this issue so directly. It takes balls for someone to put themselves out there to make a plea for Gay professional baseball players (or any sportsmen) to be open about their Affectional Orientation while still active. Along those same lines, it will require huge courage & strength to be the men who do so – not unlike the characteristics Jackie Robinson displayed!!

    Yes, folks, any barrier to access is similar to any other; they all use oppression as a means of maintaining the inequities – & will fight for their status quo. And yes, the freedom for the oppressed must come from within, in this case, pro ball player(s) with the strength to do just what Jeff asks. Before those of you who have been historically favored all your lives respond, “How can players who make millions be oppressed?”, in this case the oppression is emotional, moral & characteriological – since it has to do with one’s identity & sense of self, not just what is done in private.

    To minimize the Gay issue to just sexual behaviors is to misunderstand the full social ramifications of being Gay. Those who argue that it is different than being Black are correct, at least in one important aspect. And, it is not that Gays can hide their nature successfully for years, while Blacks typically cannot. (Btw, Chad, it’s naive to think you have showered in athletic locker rooms & not have been in the present of Gay Men) Blacks typically grow up in Black families or communities that share their plight. Thus, even at very early ages, when they are oppressed, they can usually find support & solace among their family members, friends, & even churches.

    Contrastingly, Gays usually endure their situations in silence & isolation. Some even find comfort in sports. So, to threaten a place of sanctuary can be devastating. Yet, maintaining a straight facade requires incredible psychic energy. Thus, the choice to come out requires phenomenal inner strength!

    Male athletes can take comfort in the success their female counterparts have had in both individual & team sports. And myopic teammates can reflect on how WNBA locker rooms didn’t become orgy scenes after some active players came out. Yes, homophobia is usually stronger among men, but the wave of change suggested by increased support for Gay marriages provides hope that the Gay professional athlete to fully embrace his affectional (it’s not just @ sex!) orientation one day w/o reprisal – from teammates, fans, owners, sponsors, etc.

    As a society, we all have our role to play to enable this to happen. No, you don’t have to agree that being Gay is okay; just that oppressing others for being Gay is Not Okay!! Because, just as Dr. Martin Luther King said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”!!

  • bj

    Great writing Jeff. In reading your reader’s responses, it is amazing the selfishness in the ones opposed to it, and the selflessness of those that are cool with it.

    How is it that, because you may be “uncomfortable” with someone, it somehow gives you a say as to how they choose live their life.

    Those that oppose all things gay seem to regularly get grossed out at the visual that comes to their mind. Or, they use the Bible as if an unconditional and loving God makes exceptions for those that choose to love “certain people”.

    Guys, get over yourselves because it is really not about you.

  • http://groups.google.com/group/microsoft.public.mom/browse_thread/thread/fd51d90dea49e6bc incest 3d toons

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  • overmann

    It was, it is and will not always be accepted. It is the contrary of a woman for a man to be gay. It is not accepeted in society and that is why there are so many in closets. Poor ladies having to sleep with a man that is gay and she doesn’t or will never know. It is condemed by God, not the person but the action. anything out of marriage as it was meant to be is not acceptable and never will be. Do u know that the arabs come out in USA. Most of them love sex with men. In their country if they are cought, tyhe are put in prison and the guards torture and burn their dicks with a cig.? Check that out. I was into bisexualism.It is very good sex to have sex with men. I lie to women and many men I know are gay behind their loyal wives. Romans use to take teenagers with them to war to get relive from their lusty desires, it is even accounted in THE BIBLE. I am not religious and even when I did practice sex w men since I was 5 yrs old, I always knew I always wanted to b a man. The thoughts still linger but as any other “sin”, rather, I replace bad thoughts with natural manly thoughts. Come on u people, ignorant and fools….it will always be avoided. it is just another one of our demons. You choose which ones you want to pursue. And you Greg…do not use a lie to aproach us, the people. I stand my ground. We know the end and who wins…fill the blank if you are wise…which you are not but you could be…who wins????????? Answers with facdts. Answer with the thruth…u don’t know the thruth!

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Once again, Jeff Pearlman has produced an exhaustively researched, elegantly written book that re-creates one of the most colorful and memorable teams of the modern era. No basketball fan's bookshelf will be complete without it.

— Seth Davis, author of Wooden: A Coach's Life