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Science Writer Kuska Publishes Basketball Book
By Rich McManus
On the Front Page...
There are at least two kinds of dribbling in the world, and dental institute science writer Bob Kuska is interested in them both: by day he might be found describing the evolution of saliva in the animal kingdom for a magazine article. But at night and on weekends he's likely to be writing and thinking about a game that has consumed him from his youth basketball.
Kuska, a long-time NIH science writer, has spent the last decade writing a definitive history of black basketball, focusing on what he determined were the sport's twin African American cradles Washington, D.C., and New York City.
Standing 6'1" and formerly a starting guard for his Sacramento, Calif., high school, Kuska spent evenings and weekends researching his topic, mostly at the Library of Congress. His book, Hot Potato: How Washington and New York Gave Birth to Black Basketball and Changed America's Game Forever, was published this spring by the University of Virginia Press.
The book idea was an outgrowth of some freelance reporting that Kuska had embarked upon more than 10 years ago. "I wanted to keep my journalistic skills honed, so I freelanced a couple stories, including a story for the Washington City Paper," he said.
Kuska had been a comparative literature major at Brigham Young University, then got a graduate degree in journalism at Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. He was working as an environmental reporter for Medill News Service in Washington, D.C., when word came of a job opening at NIH in 1987.
"I had no background in biology whatsoever," he recalls, but took a job at the National Institute of Dental Research anyway. He spent almost 2 years there, then moved briefly to NIDDK where he began freelancing. The odyssey that culminated in his new book (and spawned work on a second) began with a City Paper cover story Kuska wrote about a teenage drug dealer in Prince George's County who had dropped out of high school twice, but resurrected his life by dropping in on a midnight basketball league where he became a star player. The young man eventually played ball at a military school and earned a G.E.D.
Kuska's editor at the City Paper was Katherine Boo, who later would earn a Pulitzer Prize at the Washington Post. "She suggested that I try another sports story, so my next idea was a history of the playground legends of D.C.," Kuska recalls. "I was going to name the city's best five current playground players."
Basketball had been Kuska's favorite sport as a kid. "I used to play anywhere from 2 to 8 hours a day. I completely lived the game."
He decided to consult a range of recreation authorities in the D.C. area, and develop a sort of ballot or consensus about who the best ballers were, then profile the individuals.
His first contact was Harold Bates, a local AAU coach. Bates put Kuska in touch with Arnold George, a particularly talkative source who had attended high school with Elgin Baylor, a 1954 graduate of Spingarn High who was perhaps the most legendary basketball player in D.C. history.
"I had a 3-hour conversation with Arnold, hung up the phone, and realized, 'There's a book in this,'" Kuska says.
He abandoned the idea of naming a top five, instead choosing to chronicle the emergence of black basketball decades earlier in segregated D.C. How, he wondered, could a segregated city give rise to a talent such as Baylor, who is credited with elevating, or "putting the float into" modern basketball?
To plot the game's beginnings in Washington, Kuska, who back then was living in LeDroit Park, near Howard University, began visiting the Library of Congress after work, examining microfilm of old copies of the Washington Evening Star newspaper.
"It's hard, hard research to find the origins of black basketball," he said. "Everything fades out [from traditional historical records] in the 1920's and 1930's." He picked 1910 as a place to begin. "The Star, which was a white paper, ran occasional filler items on black sports. I'm a good researcher, so I didn't mind reviewing lots of microfilm. And I ran into an incredible story."
He found that in 1907, a man named Edwin Henderson, who had graduated from the old M St. High School in the District, was the first black physical education teacher in the country. Henderson, who had learned to play basketball while attending Harvard University, often visited the local white YMCA to keep up with the sport, which was then played by whites only. One night, Henderson and a friend were thrown out of the white YMCA because of their skin color. Indignant at his rough treatment, he became determined to launch a black league.
"Henderson was very philosophical, a deep thinker," Kuska said. "He observed whites and blacks in sports and decided that the only difference between them was the lack of formal athletic training for blacks. He knew that blacks could be as good or better than whites, with proper training."
Henderson decided that the best and brightest of his athletes could be exemplars; he would groom them to excel at elite, white universities, thereby debunking the notion that blacks were physically inferior to whites, then a popular idea in American culture. "He saw basketball as a way to advance civil rights. My book is that story how sports were organized to advance fitness and civil rights."
Not yet guaranteed that his efforts would ever pay off, Kuska plowed ahead with his research, having found his talisman in Henderson. "I'm cocky," he admits. "I know a good story when I see one. This became a labor of love. I only do things that I believe in."
Most of the 10 years he spent on the book involved research, not writing. Convinced he had a story he could sell, he retained an agent in 1993, who shopped the book in New York. Publishers there advised him his book was too much of a Washington story, and Kuska decided to broaden his scope to include not just D.C., but New York City as well.
By now, Kuska was working at what was then the National Center for Human Genome Research as a science writer. He says he simply embarked on "the genome project of black basketball," and systematically went back through historical files, spending thousands of dollars on xeroxing to find such items as a 1908 "first world's championship" basketball game pitting the stars of D.C. against New York's best black team.
"I discovered that what New Orleans was to jazz, D.C. and New York were to black basketball," Kuska says. "The game evolved very differently in New York and Washington over the years, though, given the different social conditions in the cities."
Though vanishingly few living sources on the early era of black basketball survive, Kuska was able to consult with a few, including famed black sportswriter Sam Lacy before he died, and the late Hall of Famer Pop Gates.
Around 1997, Kuska moved out of D.C. to an 8-acre farm in Shepherdstown, W.Va., and began working for the National Cancer Institute, which further honed his science writing skills. The 4-hour daily commutes via MARC train and Metro allowed him plenty of time to edit his opus on black basketball.
Kuska eventually submitted the manuscript to three academic presses Kentucky, Nebraska and Virginia, and all were interested in the book. Only Virginia, however, took the book sight unseen, and showed the keenest followup interest.
Though the book was finished in 2001, the editorial process dragged on for a few years. The book formally becomes available June 2004 as the Virginia press's lead title, but copies have been available since late March on Amazon.com. The initial press run is 3,000, which is fairly typical for an academic title.
Reviews have been laudatory so far, says Kuska, who is now back with the dental institute, where he began his NIH career 17 years ago. The Washington Post has planned a review, and its sportswriter Leonard Shapiro has already pronounced it a "brilliantly researched" tome.
The difficulty of bringing out a book, essentially in his spare time, was nonetheless worth it to Kuska. "This is my gift to D.C.," he says. "It's something they can celebrate. It's a seminal book it will have a long shelf-life. I knew all along that it would never make the New York Times best-seller list."
Kuska is further consoled by the reviews of some old-timers who have read it. "They told me I got it," he says proudly. "That makes it all worthwhile."
The book ends in 1930, before Elgin Baylor was even born. "It was a tough book," Kuska concludes. "I relied almost entirely on primary sources. It was very intensive research."
But the subject of basketball is far from tapped out for Kuska. He is already possessed by a story that grabbed him 2 years ago and which culminated this past March, when he attended the West Virginia Intercollegiate Athletic Conference tournament (Division II, NCAA), in Charleston. "My second book is going to be about small-college basketball," he says, eyes widening. "I've attended numerous conference games over the past 2 years and I'm fascinated by the question of why these kids play if no one comes to see them?"
He intends to focus on a particular school Alderson-Broaddus College of Philippi, W.Va., which has won the WVIAC tourney 3 years in a row and has budgeted 3 years of part-time work for the project. "The tournament in March was just fantastic," he enthuses of a sport best seen in person. "You can't get that watching Carolina play Duke on television."
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