Seizing His Shot: A Black History Month Post
February 4, 2021 § 1 Comment
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it ‘till the cows come home: picture books aren’t just for little kids! Keeping picture books alive and well at home, even after our kids are reading independently, means not only continuing to expose them to arresting art and sensational storytelling, it means piquing their interest about a range of subjects they might not seek out on their own. After all, it can be much less intimidating to pick up a picture book than a chapter book, especially on a subject you don’t know much about.
I love a picture book that sneaks in a history lesson without ever feeling instructional. One of my favorite picture book biographies published last year, Above the Rim: How Elgin Baylor Changed Basketball (Ages 6-10), also happens to be an excellent primer on the Civil Rights Movement. But you’d expect nothing left from the all-star team of Sibert Medalist, Jen Bryant, and two-time Coretta Scott King Medalist, Frank Morrison.
Jen Bryant is best known for her picture book biographies of artists and writers (A River of Words: The Story of William Carlos Williams is a favorite), but she was drawn to NBA Hall of Famer, Elgin Baylor, because in addition to his undeniable talent on the court, he also fundamentally changed the game itself. “Artists change how we see things, how we perceive human limits, and how we define ourselves and our culture,” Bryant writes in the Author’s Note at the end of the book. By this definition, Elgin Baylor—who as one of the first professional African-American players broke nearly every tradition in the sport—was every bit the artist. And Bryant uses her love of language to make his story leap off the page.
In that vein, too, it seems fitting that Frank Morrison should illustrate the basketball icon, using his signature unconventional style of oil painting that distorts and elongates the human figure, giving it both elasticity and a larger-than-life aura. (Morrison illustrates one of my other favorite 2020 picture book biographies, R-E-S-P-E-C-T: Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul.) Morrison’s art in Above the Rim is kinetic; it buzzes like the energy on a court. But it’s also dramatic, moving from shadow into light, much like the broader social movement in which Elgin Baylor found himself a quiet but powerful participant.
Should I mention my ten-year-old daughter (mourning the loss of basketball in this pandemic) adores this book and reaches for it often?
Elgin’s name came from his father’s watch, a reminder that “things can change in time,” and in many respects his is a story of seizing moments. In 1945, when our story opens, Elgin and his brothers play stickball in the streets, since the parks in Washington D.C. were for “whites only.”
The only chance Elgins’ neighbors had to play basketball was if they tunneled under “padlocked fences” in the cover of darkness—that is, until a hoop appeared on an unmarked field when Elgin was fourteen. It wasn’t a proper court, and Elgin and his friends didn’t have a proper ball (they made due first with a tennis ball and then with a volleyball), but Elgin took to the sport immediately. Where others boasted openly about their skill, Elgin “let his body do the talking.”
In one smooth move,
like a plane taking off,
he would leap…
higher and higher
as if pulled by some
and just when it seemed he’d have to come down,
When Elvin jumped, his body seemed to stop, suspended, in front of the basket; in what appeared like slow motion, he would maneuver his body in the air just so, then with a “flick of his wrist,/ or a roll off the fingertips,/ he put the ball IN.” It was innate, it was spontaneous, and it was amazing to behold. “The way he played was so different that people stopped what they were doing and watched.” It was as if Elgin could freeze time itself.
Elgin was quickly nicknamed Rabbit for his powerful jumps and leaps—another thing Morrison’s art beautifully captures—and soon he “brought his outdoor moves inside,” first at an all-black high school in DC and then, since the DC colleges were “whites only,” at college in Idaho. His coaches and teammates had never seen anyone move around a court like Elgin did.
While Elgin was winning games for his team in Idaho, on the other side of the country in Alabama, Rosa Parks was creating waves and turning heads. When she refused to give up her bus seat to a white man, “that was a victory, too.”
From here, the book moves between the milestones in Elgin’s basketball career and the headlines happening concurrently in the Civil Rights Movement. Elvin transferred to Seattle and led his team to the 1958 college championship finals, while in Arkansas the first black students integrated a white classroom. When Elgin was chosen to play professionally for the Minneapolis Lakers, sit-ins were happening at “white only” lunch counters in Wichita, Kansas.
Young readers might be surprised to learn that the NBA “was not like it is today,” with players making little money, playing through sickness and injury, and even traveling to games in cargo planes.
Elgin also continued to experience racism and discrimination. During a trip with the Lakers to West Virginia, he was turned away at every hotel and restaurant. When game time came, he elected to trade his basketball uniform for a shirt and tie and sit on the sidelines, angering a crowd who complained that they had “paid to see the whole team!” Elgin’s white teammates were supportive; they understood he would not play until he was treated “like a human being.”
Sometimes you have to sit down to stand up. And that’s what Elgin did.
The NBA commissioner took notice of Elgin’s quietly powerful protest and instituted a new rule that no NBA teams were to stay in any hotel or eat in any restaurant that “practiced discrimination.” (You listening, NFL?)
Elgin continued playing for the Lakers—in 1959 he was voted NBA Rookie of the Year—and he continued challenging the rules on and off the court. And yet, his contributions to the sport are often underrepresented, given the racial bias in the media coverage of the 50s and 60s, and he sits today in the shadow of greats like Michael Jordan and LeBron James, who certainly owe much to this formidable pioneer.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it ‘till the cows come home: picture books aren’t just for little kids! Many of them, like Above the Rim, are written with older children in mind. And the best part? You’ll probably learn just as much as your kids.
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Review copy from Abrams Books for Young Readers. All opinions are my own. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases through the links above, although I prefer we also shop local and support our communities when we can.