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Passing fancy, from the NBA to Jersey City

Cousy: His Life, Career, and the Birth of Big-Time Basketball
By Bill Reynolds
Simon & Schuster, 307 pp., illustrated, $25

The Miracle of St. Anthony: A Season With Coach Bob Hurley and Basketball’s Most Improbable Dynasty
By Adrian Wojnarowski
Gotham, 400 pp., illustrated, $25

Tricksters in the Madhouse: Lakers vs. Globetrotters, 1948
By John Christgau
University of Nebraska, 219 pp., $26.95

Last Shot: A Final Four Mystery
By John Feinstein
Knopf, 251 pp., $16.95

''Cousy," the new biography by Bill Reynolds, is remarkable on several counts. It celebrates Bob Cousy, of course. How could it be otherwise? Cousy may have been the man most responsible for transforming pro basketball from a series of dubious, ill-lit brawls between short-lived teams to the glitzy, multibillion-dollar enterprise it is today.

But Reynolds is exceptionally candid when exploring aspects of the beloved Celtic that even Cousy's most devoted fans may have overlooked. Bob Cousy grew up with very little, and acknowledged to Reynolds that his contempt for waste still inclines him to wander around his house, turning off the lights. As a little guy on the playgrounds, Cousy realized that he'd be chosen to play only if he learned to get the ball to the big guys who did the choosing. He carried that habit into the National Basketball Association and astonished both his teammates and his fans with his creative and productive passing. He played with what Reynolds calls the hunger of the poor kid, for whom ''to not be successful is a death of the spirit."

But Cousy also worried constantly about not being able to match each night the level of play he'd previously taught everybody to expect. And when he turned to coaching, he discovered how quickly the need to win could lead to what Reynolds describes as ''a distortion of values." Ultimately Cousy quit coaching because the muck of the recruiting process and the pressure to bend the rules in order to enrich the school and satisfy the alumni, the athletic director, and the president were, as Cousy himself puts it, ''dehumanizing."

Perhaps in part because he was a player himself, Reynolds brings to this biography an understanding of Cousy's achievement and an appreciation for his bemusement at the degree to which he's been celebrated for ''playing a child's game."

For ''The Miracle of St. Anthony," sports columnist Adrian Wojnarowski spent a season with the boys' basketball team at St. Anthony High School in Jersey City. Since 1972, that team has been coached by Bob Hurley, who has bullied several generations of players toward college scholarships and pro careers as well as state and national championships. Hurley's achievement would be considerable under any circumstances, but it's especially remarkable given that the school has only a couple of hundred students and no gym.

Wojnarowski acknowledges that he was won over by Hurley's success and his commitment to St. Anthony High School, which, Wojnarowski maintains, would have ceased to exist long ago if not for Hurley's dedication and financial support. Readers will have to decide for themselves whether the coach needs to be such a foulmouthed bully to succeed. Wojnarowski's contention is that though the world has changed, Hurley has not, and that if he had, lots of the youngsters whom he's insulted, sworn at, and demeaned would have been lost to the streets rather than saved by the type of discipline he brings to basketball. He does not explore the possibility that players who win because the coach screams at them and tells them their lives will be meaningless if they don't submit to his tyranny may find they have no particular motivation to continue playing, let alone succeeding, when they've left that coach behind.

On Feb. 19, 1948, the Minneapolis Lakers played a game of basketball against the Harlem Globetrotters. The game came about in part because the owners of the two teams each maintained he had the best team on the planet. As far as author John Christgau could determine, most of the players involved initially regarded the exercise as just another night's work. But the contest drew 18,000 fans to Chicago Stadium, and when it was over and the Globetrotters had won on a last-second shot, it began to become apparent that the game had not only changed basketball but had sent some serious ripples out into the swamp of racism in the culture at large.

''Tricksters in the Madhouse" strings various intriguing vignettes and contentions along with the narrative of the game itself, which Christgau has convincingly re-created.

It's possible that John Feinstein eats and sleeps. It's also possible that producing books at the rate he maintains leaves him no time to do those things. His latest, ''Last Shot," is a brisk novel set in the madness of the NCAA's Final Four and aimed at young readers. Exceptionally knowledgeable about the college basketball world, Feinstein has a fine time lampooning broadcaster Dick Vitale and the bureaucrats who populate the NCAA itself. The blackmailing plot that unfolds over the course of Final Four weekend threatens a student-athlete who isn't a student, implicates an ethics professor with no ethics, and otherwise introduces to young readers the sleaze beneath the glitter of college basketball's biggest show.

Remarkably, Feinstein pokes holes in the illusions without diminishing the excitement of the games themselves as seen though the eyes of two eighth-grade reporters. He writes as if he's having a fine time at the keyboard, and the result will entertain not only young readers, but the oldsters looking over their shoulders as well.

Bill Littlefield hosts NPR's ''Only a Game" each Saturday from WBUR in Boston.

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