Games of Deception – Basketball and History on the Brink of War

Lynn: Did you know the championship game of the first Olympic Basketball game was played on a converted tennis court and so much rain fell, the court looked like a “kiddie swimming pool?” Or that the inventor of the game, James Naismith, came to the Olympics but was refused admission to the first game? Or that while the male athletes had luxurious quarters with fantastic plentiful food, the female athletes were housed in a dormitory and fed on a sparse diet of boiled cabbage and sausage?

Andrew Maraniss packs Games of Deception: The True Story of the First U.S. Olympic Basketball Team at the 1936 Olympics in Hitler’s Germany (Penguin/Philomel 2019) with fascinating sports tidbits like this and provides a breathless sense of being an eye-witness at these pivotal games. While the sports information is terrific, Maraniss is doing a lot more than historical play-by-play. The modern Olympics have always given us a window on the social and political events of their time but the 1936 games especially so. A crippling economic depression still gripped the world, Germany was preparing for war, the forces of racial, religious and gender prejudices and systemic discrimination afflicted people everywhere and the growing fanaticism of nationalistic hatred was intensifying. The Germans deliberately used the games to create a benign image of Nazism and while many were fooled, the truth was seen by a worried minority.

Maraniss does an excellent job of providing the complicated background of this intense and fraught period of history for young people, including information on the political, social, and economic situation as well as the origins of the game of basketball, the state of the game, and its inclusion in the Olympic games as a medal sport. And in a subject that will stand out to teen readers, he paints a horrifying picture of a state deliberately manipulating the truth to deceive the entire world.

With a broad array of primary sources, Maraniss includes the recollections of the team members, coaches, other athletes, and sportswriters of the day and their stories add a lively personal touch to the book. Often humorous, sometimes rueful, these accounts do a wonderful job of giving readers a sense of the attitudes and experiences of the moment. And in important concluding chapters, Maraniss also includes the stories of what happened to the athletes when they returned home. I especially enjoyed the Afterword chapter where the author writes about the origins of the book and his extensive research. Back matter includes excellent documentation and statistics.

This fascinating book will interest a wide range of readers, celebrating the first Olympic basketball competition, and placing it vividly in a critical moment of history.

Nikki on the Line: A Basketball Novel That Measures Up

Cindy: March Madness is upon us and that always means a basketball book recommendation from Bookends! This year, we are excited to have one with a female player, a rare find, especially one with basketball play as descriptive and exciting as that in Nikki on the Line (Little, Brown, 2019) by Barbara Carroll Roberts. Many players, female and male, will relate to Nikki’s dawning realization that her status as a premier player is on the line as she moves up to an elite club team in 8th grade where she is just one of many talented players. Nikki is forced to find where she fits now, both on the team, and with her friends, along with handling the expense of the team and additional struggles at home and at school with a troublesome genetics-related science project. Roberts not only understands basketball but also middle school girls.

I sat a mean bench on my school basketball team in the 70s
and read lots of basketball fiction featuring boys,
but this is the book I wish had been on my school library shelves.

The scenes at the tryouts, the grueling practices, and the exciting games are full of basketball written by someone who knows the drill. I sat a mean bench on my school basketball team in the 70s, and read lots of basketball fiction featuring boys, but this is the book I wish had been on my school library shelves.

P.S. Go Indiana Hoosiers!!!!

Lynn:  One of my pet peeves is a sports book with little sports action, something that happens way too often in sports books featuring girls. So this terrific book has made me very happy! As Cindy says, not only are the game scenes great, but Roberts captures the tryouts, practices, drills, and aching muscles too.  Present, too, are the related experiences of the too-intense parents, fierce competition, and the significant expenses of these elite travel teams.

While the sports action was a highlight for me, there are a lot of other elements to admire. The characters are richly developed, especially Nikki, who is struggling to balance school, family responsibilities, and her practice schedule as well as new pressures on friendships and family finances. Nikki’s family is a charming feature and I loved her research librarian mother who is baffled by her daughter’s love of sports and her super high-energy little brother and his pogo stick. 

A sweet first crush, the minefield of middle school, and the challenges of evolving friendship provide additional elements that keep the pages turning for readers not basketball-obsessed. This is a dynamite debut and I can’t wait to see what this author does next!

P.S. Go Purdue Boilermakers!!!!!!