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The Big Dance

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The sportswriting background of Wilner and Rappoport is evident in the text’s short paragraphs, crisp sentences, and rhetorical questions, as well as their taste for quips. Game play is narrated in close-up detail, full of vibrant verbs and endearing anecdotes, as when we see the father of UCLA’s Lew Alcindor (later, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) celebrate his son’s 1969 championship by leaving his bleacher seats to play first trombone with the school band. Wilner and Rappaport’s fan energy is the book’s driving force: they glow in the light of a game they love. Their eagerness to talk ball is contagious, and their detailing of game-by-game strategy is enlightening.

But "The Big Dance" takes a victor-centric approach, flat-lining the natural drama of the sport by beginning and ending each chapter – nay, each anecdote – with the winners. It reads like a hero’s march. And yet, nearly everyone who has ever participated in March Madness has lost. Disappointment, or the victory of making a brief appearance, is part of the texture of the tournament. These teams deserve more than a casual mention in a book purporting to be as broad as this one.

Even among winners, we are given narrow vantage. Naturally, there is a full chapter on John Wooden’s ten championships in 12 years at UCLA. But the chapters that follow loop us right back to UCLA in the Wooden years. The authors give us identical turns of phrase and anecdotes about Lew Alcindor and Bill Walton. A quote from Wooden is literally recycled: “Alcindor was the most valuable player I’ve ever coached,” Wooden tells us on both page 36 and 55. “Bill Walton is the second most valuable player, and you can put up a pretty good argument that he was as valuable as Alcindor.”

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