Bayne, Bijan C. Martha’s Vineyard Basketball: How a Resort League Defied Notions of Race and Class. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015. Pp. xv + 213. $40.00 clothback.
Reviewed by Tyran Kai Steward
In 1975, Universal Pictures released the blockbuster film Jaws, the Steven Spielberg-directed American thriller based on Peter Benchley’s 1974 novel of the same name. Prior to the production of Star Wars, Jaws was the highest-grossing film of all time, and critics glimpsed it as a watershed moment in motion picture history for its use of a simple and succinctly-stated premise that drew big box office returns. The film featured an enormous, man-eating great white shark that terrorized beachgoers on Amity Island, a fictional New England summer resort town. To most moviegoers, Amity was secondary to the storyline—a mere backdrop to the more gripping tale of a killer shark’s dreadful attacks on unsuspecting tourists. But for the many persons who summer annually in Martha’s Vineyard or did so during the early 1970s, Amity or, more accurately, Jaws froze the tony resort colony in time. “A lot of the kids who played summer basketball, or watched it there,” as Bijan C. Bayne writes, “are captured on camera” (p. 97). For these vacationers in particular, Amity was neither a fictive nor unsafe destination. Instead, it was a time capsule to the mid-1970s Oak Bluffs—not only as an attractive setting for an epic big screen but also as the actual site of a resort basketball league that created a summer, recreational love affair for young and old, year-round islanders and annual travelers.
Bayne’s Martha’s Vineyard Basketball: How a Resort League Defied Notions of Race and Class recounts this love story in a jagged but passionately-written history. Bayne argues that basketball brought “Vineyarders…male and female, rich and not-so-rich, and across ethnic and social lines” together (p. 204). Bayne promptly introduces readers to “The Courts”—for him a nearly sacred venue of exceptional above-the-rim performances not unlike the hallowed Rucker Park in Harlem, New York. Though Bayne acknowledges that “basketball…does not come to mind when people think of this New England resort,” he reveals the many luminaries, from former NBA players like Stephon Marbury and Alonzo Mourning to President Barack Obama, who have played at “The Courts” or elsewhere on the island (p. 66).
Yet, for Bayne, his admiration of the league emerged with lesser-known basketball coaches and players during the 1970s, shortly after its founding, and well-ahead of 1990s when Martha’s Vineyard “became a more popular tourist destination due to media exposure” and to President Clinton’s family vacation there (p. 31). He lauds individuals like Coach Jay Schofield of Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School who helped to organize the league. Bayne also celebrates on-the-court talents of all ages such as Ronnie Brown, Johnny Rogers, and Troy Gaskin for their contributions to the Oak Bluffs league. Brown and Rogers, Bayne notes, participated as morning instructors for the “college”—the youngest boys’ division of the league—before displaying their hooping skills in the “NBA,” the league’s highest-ranked category (the other two divisions were called “semipro” and “ABA”). Bayne, himself a streetballer, never competed officially in the league though he accustomed himself to playing “pickup ball with many of [the young men in the league] at 1:30 to 5 p.m., which was called ‘free time’” (p. xiii).
Bayne demonstrates an impressive memory, vividly recalling the minutest details about the games and players that inspired his love for Martha’s Vineyard basketball. The book, however, comes apart at times because of Bayne’s digressions. He offers arresting yet excessive minutiae on everything from the controversial death of Mary Jo Kopechne to Stanford’s refusal to hire the aforementioned Brown for his views on homosexuality. Martha’s Vineyard Basketball is also folksy narrative teeming with rambling prose, and Bayne occasionally loses his reader with multi-page quotes from the countless interviews he conducted. There is, for example, Coach Schofield’s semi-biographical description that begins on page thirty-three and concludes on page thirty-six. A separate quote of Troy Gaskin spans four pages. Additionally, Bayne emphasizes how African Americans have felt comfortable vacationing in Martha’s Vineyard (what he calls “the black vacation haven”) and draws attention to the cross-racial interactions between black and white residents and visitors on the island. Bayne contends that “no matter who played basketball together in Oak Bluffs, in terms of class, all were afforded the benefit of the doubt” (p. 24-25). But his argument that the Oak Bluffs league defied notions of class and race seems a tad unconvincing, especially given that college and professional sporting leagues had integrated by the mid-1970s in spite of violent objections. In the Southeastern Conference, for instance, black athletes made up 45% of the players competing on the conference’s respective teams by 1975.
These shortcomings aside, Bayne’s authenticity in retelling the story of Martha’s Vineyard basketball as well as his fervor for “The Courts” transform an otherwise disjointed history into somewhat of love note that basketball enthusiasts, New Englanders, non-academics, and nostalgic visitors to the island will enjoy. His all but psychoanalytic assertions that “you can learn a lot about a person by observing them in the environment of recreational basketball” and that “a pickup game can help reveal the way a person sees himself within the human family,” further reflect the influence that basketball in the popular resort town has had in shaping his worldview (p. 30). This book, therefore, will also appeal to readers who, like Bayne, envision sport to be “a great tool with which to instill life skills and leadership development” (p. 66). Bayne’s chronicling of the summer resort league in Oak Bluffs is imperfect but his genuineness and passion help to overcome the flaws and make for a remarkable account that evinces both the allure of Martha’s Vineyard and the unifying power of basketball.
Tyran Steward is a Lecturer in the Department of History at the University of Michigan. His research focuses on American race relations, black politics and sport. Follow him on Twitter: www.twitter.com/Tyrankai.