The City Game: Tri­umph, Scan­dal, and a Leg­endary Bas­ket­ball Team

January 1, 2013

The City Game tells the thrilling and heart­break­ing sto­ry of the City Col­lege Beavers, which in 1950 became the only team ever to win the NIT and NCAA bas­ket­ball tour­na­ments in the same year. 

The dou­ble-cham­pi­onship team was, by every mea­sure, extra­or­di­nary. The City Col­lege of New York was known for intel­lec­tu­al achieve­ment, not ath­let­ic prowess. More­over, every sin­gle play­er was either Jew­ish or African-Amer­i­can; the coach was Jew­ish as well. Their great­est vic­to­ry came against the heav­i­ly favored Ken­tucky Wild­cats, a seg­re­gat­ed squad who refused to shake hands with them before the game. 

The fol­low­ing year, though, the team’s start­ing five were arrest­ed for con­spir­ing with gam­blers to shave points.” They were expelled from col­lege and banned from the NBA for life; overnight they turned from heroes to pariahs.

Informed by inter­views with every sur­viv­ing mem­ber of the team, The City Game tells a dif­fer­ent and more com­pli­cat­ed sto­ry: of scape­goats, cor­rup­tion, and how at least one oth­er col­lege – pro­tect­ed by police and pow­er­ful reli­gious and polit­i­cal lead­ers — man­aged to escape the scan­dal unscathed.

Discussion Questions

Cour­tesy of Matthew Goodman

  1. If you had been one of the play­ers on the City Col­lege team, do you think you would have accept­ed mon­ey to shave points? Why or why not?

  2. Should the play­ers have gone to prison for their actions? Should they have been expelled from school or banned from bas­ket­ball? What might have been the most appro­pri­ate response?

  3. After the scan­dal one edi­to­r­i­al writer stat­ed, There are no ama­teurs in big-time col­lege bas­ket­ball, only under­paid pro­fes­sion­als.” Do you agree with this state­ment? Why or why not? 

  4. This sto­ry is set in the ear­ly 1950s. Does it speak to social issues that are still rel­e­vant today, and if so, which ones and in what way? 

  5. The City Game is an exam­ple of the genre called nar­ra­tive his­to­ry” — that is to say, a work of his­to­ry that adopts some of the tech­niques gen­er­al­ly asso­ci­at­ed with fic­tion writ­ing. In what ways does the book read like a novel? 

  6. Why do you think the author might have titled the book The City Game

This absorb­ing and heart­break­ing nar­ra­tive takes you back to a time when col­lege bas­ket­ball was king and New York City was its hotbed. It weaves the tale of one of the most improb­a­ble and remark­able sports sto­ries of all time amidst the back­drop of gov­ern­men­tal cor­rup­tion and pro­tec­tion of a mas­sive gam­bling net­work that ensnared young play­ers in its web and changed their lives, and New York City col­lege bas­ket­ball, forever.

In March 1950, the City Col­lege of New York (CCNY) accom­plished a feat that will nev­er be repeat­ed by win­ning both the NCAA tour­na­ment and the Nation­al Invi­ta­tion­al Tour­na­ment. The team from CCNY, the first ful­ly free pub­lic insti­tu­tion of high­er edu­ca­tion in the Unit­ed States (and known as the Har­vard of the pro­le­tari­at”), was made up entire­ly of Jews and Blacks, chil­dren and descen­dents of immi­grants and slaves. Dur­ing the fol­low­ing sea­son, many of its play­ers and oth­er col­lege play­ers were found to have been involved in tak­ing bribes from gam­blers to shave points to alter the mar­gin of victory.

Good­man does an art­ful job in telling this poignant sto­ry through char­ac­ters that are rich and com­pelling. He pro­vides us with a piece of New York City his­to­ry and a glimpse into orga­nized crime and police cor­rup­tion that reached the high­est lev­els of City gov­ern­ment, as well as a tale of the exploita­tion of col­lege ath­letes and, sad­ly, how those at the bot­tom suf­fer the great­est punishments.

So much of the best lit­er­a­ture has been a vari­ety of sports writ­ing.” writes author Rich Cohen. He says The City Game is a sports-writ­ing mas­ter­piece,” and we hearti­ly agree.