Andrew Maraniss Talks About Basketball, the Olympics, and His New Book Games of Deception

Games of Deception is the incredible true story of the invention of basketball and the first U.S. Olympic basketball team. Andrew Maraniss visits schools all over the country to talk about his books and his writing. He takes sports history and tells deeply layered stories that resonate with both young readers and adults. His first book, Strong Inside, about Perry Wallace, the first African-American basketball player in the SEC, was a bestseller. I am thrilled to interview Andrew and can’t wait for you to read his new book. I hope you’ll join us for the release of Games of Deception on Tuesday, November 5 at 6:30 p.m.
—Rae Ann Parker, Director of Books and Events for Young Readers

Rae Ann Parker: Games of Deception is a nonfiction account of the invention of basketball to the first U. S. basketball team competing at the 1936 Olympics in Nazi Germany. How did this story come to you and what do you hope readers take away from it?

Andrew Maraniss. Photo by Keith Miles

Andrew Maraniss: I was visiting the University of Kansas to speak about Strong Inside a couple of years ago and toured their basketball facilities. James Naismith’s original rules of basketball sit under glass, and there was a photo of Naismith standing with a Japanese player. The person giving me the tour mentioned that Naismith had seen his invention make its Olympic debut. When he said that it was at the Nazi Olympics in 1936, I was intrigued. I realized I would have an opportunity to write about the invention and growth of what is now such a popular international game, while at the same time writing about the rise of fascism. Much has been written about the 1936 Olympics, but most people don’t realize that’s where Olympic basketball got started. Anyone who has read Daniel James Brown’s bestseller Boys in the Boat knows how popular crew was at those Olympics. The gold medal basketball game took place on the exact same day and time as the rowing gold medal race, but crew was a much more popular sport then. Nobody paid any attention to basketball.

As far as what I hope readers will take away from the story, it has nothing to do with basketball. The whole story leads to messages about the necessity of standing up to persecution, dehumanization and injustice, of being an upstander rather than a bystander. A Holocaust survivor I interviewed for the book who attended the ’36 Olympic as a kid told me the key to resisting fascism in our own time is remembering five simple words from the pledge of allegiance: “liberty and justice for all,” with an emphasis on “all.”

RAP: You have written for both adults and young readers. Why was it important to you to tell this story for young readers?

AM: In my travels to schools to discuss Strong Inside, I noticed that a lot of kids were really interested in the origins of basketball. I think they were fascinated that this game they love could be traced back to an inventor at a specific time and place in history, that we have the original rules and we know when the very first game was ever played. So I knew young readers would be interested in that aspect of this story. But the real opportunity with this book is to use basketball as a hook to discuss more important issues about fascism, antisemitism, racism and propaganda. Students learn about the Holocaust and World War II, but they don’t typically learn as much about the years just prior. So many of the issues then are issues of our time as well. It’s important that students recognize that, so they can be good citizens and act on the side of justice.

I believe this book will also be of interest to adults. Adults love reading YA fiction and don’t think a thing of it. So why not YA narrative nonfiction? There’s no reason an adult wouldn’t enjoy Games of Deception. It’s just shorter than a typical adult book, but with attention spans and free time the way they are for most people now, that’s probably a welcome thing.

RAP: The historical photos, newspaper clippings, and basketball facts in Games of Deception layer the story in a compelling way. What is your favorite piece of history you uncovered for this story?

AM: My favorite discovery that’s a bit quirky is that half of the players on the first U.S. Olympic basketball team worked as stage hands at Universal Pictures in Hollywood. Back then, companies sponsored basketball teams as a form of marketing. Universal had a great team, and when they traveled around playing games, they were also promoting Universal’s movies. The organizer of the team was a man named Jack Pierce, who was the lead make-up artist at the studio. He created the iconic looks for characters such as Frankenstein, Dracula and the Hunchback of Notre Dame. There was a really tall player on the basketball team named Frank Lubin. Before games, Pierce would put green make-up on Lubin and dress him in a Frankenstein costume. He’d entertain the crowd and then once the game started, he’d clean off the make-up and change into his basketball uniform.

RAP: Basketball and politics are in the news again. Do you think there’s something about the sport, or its history, that lends itself to politics?

AM: Sports and politics have always been intertwined, so when people say they should be kept separate, they’re misguided about reality. There’s no more stark example of the connection between the two than the Olympic Games. That’s a theme in this book. As far as basketball, I think one of the reasons that we see the connection is because that since the very beginning, basketball has been an international game. Global issues are relevant to basketball, as we’ve seen with the NBA-China controversy and with NBA players speaking out about social justice issues the last few years.

In Games of Deception, I show how Phog Allen, the legendary coach at the University of Kansas, worked for years lobbying international sports officials to have basketball included in the Olympics. He failed to get basketball included at the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles, but he succeeded with the Nazis in 1936. An important connection for him was a leader of the Hitler Youth who had previously attended a basketball camp with Allen in the United States. That was a connection between sports and politics I had not anticipated. I’d also say that we see connections between basketball and politics because it is a city game, so issues related to urban issues like race, immigration, wealth and poverty, education, crime, labor and neighborhoods are relevant.

Also, it’s a game that in the United States has always been popular with immigrants and African Americans. In the 1930s, some of the best basketball was played by Jews in New York City. The team at Long Island University had several Jewish players, and the team voted not to participate in the U.S. Olympic qualifying tournament in protest of Hitler. Today, African-American players in the NBA have tremendous power, even relative to professional athletes in other sports, and many of them are using their platforms to speak out about injustices.

RAP: If you could travel back in time to attend the 1936 Olympics, which person in your story would you most want to talk to?

AM: Wow, there were so many iconic figures at those Olympics, including the great Jesse Owens. One of the major characters in my book that I would like to meet is Sam Balter. He was the only Jewish player on the U.S. basketball team, and was the only player who was conflicted about participating in the Nazi Olympics. He ultimately decided that the best way he could stand up to Hitler was to perform well — and he indeed was the only Jewish American athlete to win a gold medal in Berlin. Balter was disappointed in the antisemitism of American Olympic Committee president Avery Brundage. He heard Brundage say things on the boat to Germany that made him wonder if he’d made a big mistake in participating. In Berlin, he was startled by the presence of Nazi soldiers in the Olympic Village and the numerous pieces of propaganda left in the dormitories. Still, he enjoyed his one Olympic experience and later said it was the highlight of his life. He became a radio star after the Olympics and was on the air to announce the end of World War II after the Japanese surrender. He also started a national sports radio show that was a sort of precursor to ESPN SportsCenter. His granddaughter now works for NPR. So, I’d love to meet Sam and see the 1936 Olympics through a Jewish Olympian’s eyes.

RAP: And finally, we ask everyone: What’s your favorite thing about indie bookstores?

AM: I love the sense of community and the personal relationships. When I walk into Parnassus, I feel like I know everyone and they know me. My kids even feel like they are known there, and that makes them feel special. Booksellers at independent bookstores get to know their customers so well that they are able to make personalized recommendations. Independent bookstores bring out-of-town authors to a community, which is an important civic function. I suppose this all boils down to people. Independent bookstores are about books, obviously, but they are about real human relationships and conversations, which is something that can’t be replicated online or at other stores that don’t have the same community ties.


Join author Andrew Maraniss
as we celebrate the publication of Games of Deception
Tuesday, November 5, 2019
6:30 p.m. at Parnassus Books
This event is open to the public and free to attend!