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Two sports stories that transcend the genre.

Life Stories


Ivan Doig tackles everything from the environment to terminal illness in his new novel "Mountain Time," (Scribner, $25). After hiking 20 miles into Montana's Bob Marshall Wilderness Area and seeing bear tracks, the protagonist of "Mountain Time" takes a weary seat, opens his backpack, and pulls out — what else? — a laptop computer. The digital notebook isn't just incongruous, it's extra weight, but Mitch Rozier is carrying a lot more baggage. At 50, he's out of work, sorting through his father's life, and trying to understand where things have gone wrong with his live-in girlfriend, Lexa McCaskill. A former sheepherder, Lexa is making the rugged hike look easy, and her beautiful sister, Mariah, isn't breaking much of a sweat either.

Doig is building a lot more than a triangle with Mitch and the two McCaskills. As with his earlier novels and nonfiction, the environment, especially along the Continental Divide, dominates this story. But when we learn that Mitch's father, Lyle, has leukemia, the novel takes another turn. Mariah, a photographer, wants to record Lyle's final days. She puts it to him bluntly: "How you face death is worth telling readers. There's this aging population, and a bazillion of us lint-free Baby Boomers who've never had to deal with anything more serious than burying the class hamster … people need to see your kind of situation."

If that dialogue sounds a little forced, it's a side effect of Doig's prose. He works hard — sometimes too hard — at packing information into every sentence. Still, when it comes to the heart, Doig is much more subtle, and Mitch's struggle with his dying father and his attempts to reconnect with Lexa are touching. So is the pitch and yawl of Lexa and Mariah's sisterhood. The lives in this book are rife with missteps — characters managing to do exactly the wrong thing, usually with the best of intentions — which keeps them thoroughly real and engaging. And Doig never lets up. His men and women constantly push forward, one rocky step at a time.

They're the best basketball players you never heard of. Guys like John Staggers, James "Speedy" Williams and Earl "the Goat" Manigault are inner-city playground legends who never made it to an NBA court.

Their stories bounce around courts in Harlem, Brooklyn, Philadelphia and Los Angeles like tall tales, but word of mouth was the only way their stories spread. Until the recent publication of "Pickup Artists," (Verso Books, paper $15), that is.

Lars Anderson, who writes for Sports Illustrated; and Chad Millman, an editor at ESPN Magazine, have compiled an informal, loose, scintillating history of the game that glows with portraits of would-be stars who never made it past the playground, and frequently, tragically, wound up in jail.

But while the highlights of the book are the profiles, complete with vivid descriptions of legendary blacktop moves and contests, "Pickup Artists" does more than just shine a light on unknown individuals. Anderson and Millman trace the roots of the playground game, beginning in the 1920s and '30s, when basketball belonged to Jewish and Irish inner-city kids. They describe the rising influence of black street players, who came to dominate the game in the middle part of the century.

The authors tell how money, drugs and crime began to infiltrate the playground, fueled by bigtime college programs and bigtime urban dealers. Along the way, they also fascinatingly describe how Converse and then Reebok and Nike rode the nationwide infatuation with inner-city chic to billion dollar athletic apparal profits.

It's a massive mosaic, but the authors never lose control of the material. They jump from era to era, but keep the narrative personality-driven, so the story never drags.

"Pickup Artists" is about basketball, but only on the surface. It's about the lure of money, the temptation of crime and ephemeral fame. It's a rare book, a story about sport that transcends the

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