Review of Big Game, Small World

Wolff, Alexander. Big Game, Small World: A Basketball Adventure (Revised and Expanded Twentieth Anniversary Edition). Durham: Duke University Press, 2022. Pp. 424. $24.95 paperback and e-book.

Originally reported during a transformative time for basketball in the 1990s, Alexander Wolff’s book was (and unfortunately still remains) a product of its time. However, despite a fascination with Eastern philosophy, the perception of Brazil as the land of the future, and a somewhat patronizing eye towards Eastern Europe, as well as some questionable passages that disrupt the rhythm of the narrative, the book still contains valuable information and acute observations, and is an overall engaging reading experience. 

Duke University Press, 2022.

Wolff is at his best when he exhibits compassion to the people he interviews, actually listening to them and treating their experiences with respect. These moments contrast with those of hotdogging, when Wolff’s authorial choices resemble the play of Pete Maravich rather than that of Dave Cowens. Selected third and fourth overall, respectively, in the 1970 NBA Draft, both are in the Basketball Hall of Fame; however, while Maravich’s name is brought up whenever a new flashy NBA player emerges, it was Cowens who won an MVP award and a pair of NBA championships. This analogy (which I hope the author would appreciate) is intended to capture the sudden shifts in focus that Woff executes in order to arrive at a particular punchline. These machinations, like Maravich’s excessive flair, do not seem worth the hassle.

For example, Wolff offers a multilayered examination of women’s basketball in Brazil that benefits from his understanding of the peculiarities of the Portuguese phrases used to depict certain musical and sporting qualities. Yet, a desire to inject his narrative with supposedly clever jabs undercuts his analysis of the rivalry between two superstars, Hortência and Paula. When describing the former, Wolff writes that “like Brazilian ballplayers of both sexes, she cared little for defense, and in 1988 she let her guard down even for the Brazilian edition of Playboy” (247).

While intended to be humorous, as Wolff then explains how Hortência’s brand benefited from the publication, the choice of words is rather poor. He seems to depict the player’s posing for the magazine as a moral flaw and temporary weakness, rather than an expression of strength of female physicality, especially in a sport where the body is more exposed than concealed. After describing Hortência as “the diva who would meddle in the selection process” (251), Wolff recounts Paula’s rejection of a similar invite by Playboy, implying that she was superior because she refused to agree to a naked photoshoot. The two great antagonists enjoyed great success when playing together on the Brazilian National Team. Seeing how they overcame their differences for the greater good could make for the most engaging part of the chapter, yet Wolff offers no explanation for the unexpected cooperation other than a singular sentence: “Somehow [the coach] cajoled Hortência and Paula into sharing the ball” (252). This is a disappointing conclusion to what, in my opinion, is the best part of the book.

This chapter of Big Game, Small World works so well because of the infectious sense of wonder that Wolff successfully communicates. He genuinely wants to understand basketball culture in Brazil. This sentiment is absent in chapters on Poland and Switzerland, which are retellings of what happened to Americans coaching in Poland and playing in Switzerland rather than observations of the phenomenon of basketball in the respective countries. Wolff’s description of prostitutes leaning against roadside crucifixes near Warsaw, Poland seems like a product of his imagination. I was raised in that region and saw my fair share of sex workers whenever coming to or from Warsaw. Yet, never were they leaning on any religious symbols. Rather, they were standing near the woods, waiting to be picked up by their clients in cars.

Wolff makes an acute observation that the average annual income in Poland is $3,000, but he ignores how the economic hardships impacted the Polish mentality and, in consequence, Polish sports. It also is a shame that he does not treat Polish with the same reverence as Portuguese or Italian. Whereas fans of rival Italian teams are described as “serenading each other with perfectly pitched arias,” Wolff mistakenly quotes a Polish headline and calls the language “a hunter’s stew of unpronounceable gristle” (75, 47). Numerous times he mocks the Poles’ scarce knowledge of English, ignoring how, up until approximately 1989, the ability to speak English could lead to one getting convicted of treason by the oppressive regime. When the author’s friend, who is coaching in Poland, calls the country “an Al Bundy dreamworld,” Wolff takes it at face value. He later devotes a whole paragraph to his experiences of paying for a public restroom in the country. A whole paragraph. Discussing the NBA career of “The Polish Hammer,” Marcin Gortat, in the recently-added coda to the chapter, Wolff suggests that the center reached the league “despite the apparent handicap of his nation of origin,” proof that, despite having ample opportunity to reconsider some of the things he claimed 20 years ago, his Eastern European prejudices remain (20).

In the chapter on Switzerland, Wolff feels bad for his compatriots, as “Americans who play for pay abroad, particularly African Americans, have long labored under the extravagant expectations of elite clubs and their fans,” looking for racism where there was and is none (57). He conveniently overlooks how much Americans are paid in comparison to local players, how coaches prefer mediocre Americans to local talent, and how, more often than not, African American players are embraced by the local crowds. For example, players like Tyrice Walker and Joe McNaull became huge stars in Poland. The chapter does also little to anticipate players like A.J. Slaughter, who plays for the Polish National Team not because he loves the country but because he has a three-year contract with the Polish Basketball Association. Wolff also speciously casts any criticism of African American players as examples of racism, failing to consider the competitive contexts that provoked fan reactions. Wolff half-heartedly admits to being in the wrong in the chapter on Switzerland. But, this is a book––the contents are not etched in stone and mistakes can be corrected.

Apart from the analysis of Brazil, the chapter on the divided Balkan National Teams hits particularly strongly, with Wolff compassionately presenting how the fates of Croatian, Serbian, and Slovenian players were intertwined, only to be torn apart by the wars in the former Yugoslavia. The way Wolff manages to abolish the myth of Don Haskins as the white savior of Black college players also is done with class and respect to Haskins himself, and with the agreement of the legendary coach. The chapter on the NBA Draft is particularly fun and informative, just as is the one on Buzz Peterson, the commendable and loyal friend of Michael Jordan. All in all, Big Game, Small World is useful, informative, and engaging, in spite of some frustrating instances. It is a collection of postcards from the past, when basketball was truly becoming a global game.

Łukasz Muniowski recieved his Ph.D. in American Literature from the University of Warsaw. He is the author of Three-Pointer! A 40-Year NBA History (McFarland, 2020), Narrating the NBA: Representations of Leading Players after the Michael Jordan Era (Lexington, 2021), and The Sixth Man: A History of the NBA Off the Bench (McFarland, 2021)

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