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Vol. LXI, No. 3
February 6, 2009

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Moonlighting Author
NIDCR’s Kuska Writes Second Hoops Book, A Third Planned

On the front page...

Just before Christmas, Bob Kuska, a science writer at the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, published his second book in 4 years on the topic of basketball in America.

The new volume, Cinderella Ball: A Look Inside Small College Basketball in West Virginia, was published by the University of Nebraska Press and follows a plot line similar to the movie Hoosiers. In that film, explains Kuska, a small high school team that no one expects to accomplish anything winds up in the state championship game.


  Author Bob Kuska  
  Author Bob Kuska  

A similar story presented itself to Kuska 4 years ago. He had completed his first book—Hot Potato: How Washington and New York Gave Birth to Black Basketball and Changed America’s Game Forever, published by the University of Virginia Press—and was spending his daily commutes between NIH and his 8-acre retreat in Shepherdstown, W. Va., thinking up new creative projects to occupy the train ride.

“I read John Feinstein’s [occasional Washington Post sportswriter and prolific sports author] book The Last Amateurs while battling a case of food poisoning,” he recalls. “He wrote about the Patriot League, a Division 1 NCAA program. It was supposed to be about the last true amateurs in sports.”

But Kuska, an avid basketball fan and historian, knew from attending Shepherd College basketball games in Shepherds-town that “the real, more interesting (amateurs) were those who play in small colleges. They worked just as hard as the kids in Division 1.”

Intrigued by the passion of players in a league little noticed by the public or press, Kuska wanted his book to answer two questions: What happens when towns stop gathering at games as a social nexus? And what do kids who have no hope of NBA careers get out of the experience?

“These are kids who travel to games in vans driven by their coaches,” Kuska explained. “They eat their meals at McDonald’s and play in front of what they call ‘funeral crowds’—family and friends.”
Cover art of Kuska’s new book about basketball, published by the University of Nebraska Press
This is the cover art of Kuska’s new book about basketball, published by the University of Nebraska Press.

Kuska was also interested in larger cultural themes: “The things that make people different—religion, politics, race—are erased when people are rooting for the home team. But across the country, people are not supporting their local teams anymore. They can stay home and watch a tripleheader on ESPN any night of the week.” Cinderella Ball examines what is lost in the transition.

For his book, Kuska focused on a single school, Alderson-Broaddus College in Philippi, W. Va., which had enjoyed boom years as a coal-mining town but had fallen into decline. Real life provided the script for his book.

“Prior to the 2001-2002 season, the coach at A-B became disgruntled and walked out on the team 2 weeks before the season started. He had been offered better pay to coach at a local high school,” Kuska explained. “There was complete chaos. The athletic director pleaded with the kids [in the basketball program] to stay. He promised to find a coach, but he really had no clue.”

In desperation, the AD contacted a former A-B basketball standout from the 1970s, who had coached high school basketball in Cleveland but had since taken a job in a factory.

“This guy, Greg Zimmerman, had to leave his wife and two daughters behind, and took a 40 percent pay cut” to return to Alderson-Broaddus, Kuska relates. As in the film Hoosiers, “the players hated him. He stressed the fundamentals, and told the kids they didn’t know how to play. These were a bunch of slow-footed white guys from West Virginia, and one black kid from P.G. County. The tallest guy was 6’6”.”

In the space of a single season, Zimmerman transformed the Battlers; they won their conference tournament in his first year there. “They went from famine to feast.”

Kuska calls his new work “a then-and-now book. I studied how the town used to support the team during the coal-boom years, then tailed off as cable TV came in and March Madness became part of American culture.” He followed A-B basketball, a Division 2 program, for 4 years, visiting the school periodically and calling Coach Zimmerman after most games.

Although on sale for only a short time, Cinderella Ball has garnered excellent reviews. A reporter for The Sporting News called it a “wonderfully written elegy” and respected basketball authority Richard Lapchick labeled it “monumental.”

The University of Nebraska Press had offered to bring the 328-page book out in hard cover, but Kuska asked that it debut as a cheaper ( sells it for under $15) paperback. He also is going for the 3-point play: Nebraska has already contracted with him to produce a third basketball book by September 2009.

“It’s going to be about my favorite player, Archie Clark,” he said. Clark played for five teams—most prominently the Baltimore Bullets and Philadelphia 76’ers—in a 10-season (1966-1976) pro career.

“He was a hero of mine growing up,” Kuska said. “His career spanned a key period in the NBA. Black players were becoming more prominent, the league was growing in popularity and the competition for players between the NBA and ABA was escalating salaries. Archie was always involved in contract disputes. At one point he was in a trade involving Wilt Chamberlain.”

The book will be titled Shake and Bake: The Life and Times of Archie Clark. Kuska has already met with and continues to speak on the phone with Clark, who now lives outside Detroit. Like the other books, this one “is a labor of love. I don’t care about making money, but it’s really cool for me. This is my nostalgia, this is what I grew up with. I’m a good person to tackle this story.” NIHRecord Icon

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