Uniting the team

It's a funny time in race relations in America. In the big picture, America should be patted on the back for being perhaps the most sincerely racially integrated place in the history of the planet. At the same time, I can't ever remember seeing so many mainstream white people express such open racial hostility. Chris Rock talks sincerely about white people being crazy, and these days you don't have to look far to understand his point. (This is a little PG-13, but in the spirit.)

These issues are so delicate, and almost anything you say about it can get you yelled at by all sides. However, at the same time, not talking about it seems to be what got us in this trouble in the first place. So I guess we talk about it.

Doug Merlino is talking about race, especially in his new book, called "The Hustle."

Merlino went to what he admits is probably the ritziest school in one of America's whitest cities, Seattle. (Bill Gates, Paul Allen and one of Jeopardy's greatest champions -- Ben Bishop -- are among the notable alumni.) And yet, thanks to an experiment in social engineering masquerading as an AAU basketball team, Merlino spent quality time in the mid-80s stuffed into a team van with some rich white players, but more black teammates from Seattle's beleaguered Central District (home of Brandon Roy, incidentally).

Most of Merlino's upbringing would have counted as pretty sheltered, but not the part where he swapped comedic insults, and became close friends with, for instance, JT. Merlino says "at 15, JT says he was making a grand or two a day just standing out on the street in front of his house selling crack."

The kids bonded easily, and -- no thanks to Merlino, who readily confesses that basketball-wise he should not have been on that team -- won a state championship. Relationships were built. But no small part of the reason they persist is because of tragedy. Merlino went about looking up all his former teammates for "The Hustle." The inspiration, in no small part, came from one of the team's friendliest and most beloved players, Tyrell, making the front page of the newspaper. Merlino writes:

On August 10, 1991, a couple out taking their baby and dog for a stroll on a beautiful summer afternoon saw a bundle lying in a ditch along a wooded road in the South End. The man noticed it was about four feet long and wrapped in a blanket. It looked suspicious, so he went to take a closer look, poking at it with his walking stick. Whatever was inside was firm. He thought that maybe someone had disposed of a dead dog. He reached down, pulled the blanket back, and found Tyrell.

Tyrell's murder made clear that a group that had been on the same path for a time in high school was now experiencing life very differently. What had happened to Tyrell? What was becoming of that team? And what can we learn about race in America from answering that?

The book digs deeply, compassionately and intelligently into that question, mostly by catching up with the different members of the team more than two decades later. The stories break in all different directions, and they do in real life, but see if you can guess the race of the one who is still trying to stop selling drugs, or the one who runs the hedge fund.

Money is no small part of the story. When it was insanely plentiful for crack dealers, a lot of Merlino's black friends tossed aside their life goals for that cash."You're totally poor, and you have no money, and you have this chance to make a lot of money quick, and you're a young, young man. Young men are young men. You don't really have that fine a sense of your future. So all of a sudden you're making all this money," he explains. "To some extent, in my own experience, less than a decade later you had the dot-com thing happen and I saw my own friends completely lose their minds for the money too. All of a sudden people completely changed all their life plans. All they could talk about was getting in on a start-up. The lure of making quick cash warps people."

Hovering over the book is a question about this team, and how these young men met.

Was it a good idea to shove these kids together in the back of that team van?

"Oh. Totally. Totally," says Merlino now, in retrospect. "Dino, now, is not just some guy who runs a hedge fund that's outside my experience. That's my friend from childhood. Or this guy who is now in jail, being locked up for being the middle man in a 40 dollar crack deal ... he's not just some dude on the street. I remember when we used to hang out and play basketball. I remember when he used to cap on me. As an adult, you can go a little deeper, and extend the friendship beyond arguing about LL Cool J or who's better out of Isiah, Bird and Jordan.

"Bringing kids together like that, it's not the panacea, but it's definitely a powerful thing to do. I see it when the group gets back together now. Through a lot of dissimilarities, the group has just such a basis, through the memories of playing together as kids. ... I don't know about forced integration, but definitely some way of bringing kids together is definitely very powerful.

"We just got to know people that it's hard to get to know. JT had a criminal record from doing this and that. When I tried to reach him, I dug up his court records and mailed these letters to all the different addresses I found. And I just thought hmm, I don't know. I doubt if this guy's getting back to me. But he's such a sweet kid, and I didn't know what was going on with him. And then he called me right away, as soon as he got it, and was like 'let's get together.' And we got together, and he talked about how much the team meant to him, and how he lost his way. How he had misgivings about his life. From there we've gone on to become quite close.

"You get to know people in a way that undercuts whatever you may have thought from a surface read. As kids, you didn't understand that. The pressures. What people might have been dealing with at home, throughout the whole team. That bond that people had as kids really opened up something as adults that would have been really impossible any other way.

"We're slowing getting to know each other again right now. ... People see it now through their kids. Dino, the hedge fund manager, is helping JT get his godson into private school. There are lots of connections. They joke about, when the kids are older and in high school they'll make another AAU powerhouse."