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12 February 2010

Is Reading No Longer an "American" Pastime?

In the same week that I participated in a webinar (now that's a newly created word, eh?) about the demographics of usage of electronic devices in which a poll question was posed: What device do you use most for your entertainment? and books or even electronic books like Kindle or Nook were not included as a choice of response, I am able to bring you the following Wall Street Journal article.

In case it goes away (WSJ having no permalink), I will attempt to see if I can reproduce it here: (On the other hand, it would be a shame (although reasonable and understandable for a for-profit company) if WSJ pulls it, because the comments are just as important.)

*The Wall Street Journal *FEBRUARY 10, 2010.
The NBA's Locker-Room Nerds
International Players Are Helping to Bring Back an Erstwhile League Pastime—Reading


Russian forward Andrei Kirilenko of the Utah Jazz and his Ukranian teammate, Kyrylo Fesenko, don't always get along. In fact, they can often be heard screaming at each other in the locker room.

But the nature of these arguments isn't what you'd expect from a pair of millionaire athletes: Their fights usually center around the boxloads of science-fiction books and classic Russian novels Mr. Kirilenko's family ships to him from Moscow. "It's always, 'who's got the new one?' and 'why did you start that one—I'm supposed to finish it,' " Mr. Kirilenko says.

As the NBA prepares for Sunday's All-Star Game, international players are becoming an increasingly prominent force on the court. The number of players born outside the U.S. who have cracked the top 40 in scoring and minutes played this season is more than double the number a decade ago. This season, foreign-born players have nabbed five of the top 15 spots on the NBA's highest-paid list.

As their numbers grow, these players are also bringing a different sensibility to the locker room. While many of their American-born counterparts fill their down time with laptops, phones, DVD players, videogame consoles and iPods, these NBA imports like to kick it old school. They don't just read books, they often read the sorts of weighty tomes you may not associate with professional athletes.

The Cleveland Cavaliers say Zydrunas Ilgauskas, a Lithuanian center who is obsessed with military history, often reads right up until tip-off. Orlando Magic center Adonal Foyle, who was raised on an island in the Grenadines with no electricity, says he's the only player he knows who stocks up on hardcovers before every road trip. Mr. Foyle started a book club recently with some nonbasketball friends and acquaintances and hosts discussions during the off-season at his home in Orinda, Calif.

New Orleans Hornets center Emeka Okafor, whose parents both hail from Nigeria, is one of the league's most accomplished fans of literature. He has finished six books this season, including "The Road" by Cormac McCarthy, "Interpreter of Maladies" by Jhumpa Lahiri and Junot Diaz's "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao." He says the reading binge is meant to make up for all the time he spent last year watching DVDs. "I had to get my book game back up," he says.

Many of the NBA's 83 foreign-born players say reading was always the main form of entertainment in their home countries. Cleveland's Mr. Ilgauskas says he grew up with no videogames and a TV that had only two channels. Nenad Krstic of the Oklahoma City Thunder says his basketball coaches in Serbia probably gave him as many books to read as his schoolteachers did when he was a child. "People are just brought up with more technology here," says Milwaukee Bucks center Andrew Bogut, who grew up in Australia. (Mr. Bogut says he's such a bookworm he can't bring himself to use a Kindle. "I get more of a thrill out of going through the actual book like you're supposed to," he says.)

Years ago, before the boom in personal electronics, books were standard equipment in the NBA. Some of the league's most famous bookworms include former New York Knicks star Bill Bradley, who attended Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship for two years before joining the league (he went on to become a three-term U.S. senator). Chris Dudley, another reader, spent 16 years in the league after graduating from Yale with degrees in political science and economics. Los Angeles Lakers coach Phil Jackson, who studied philosophy and psychology at the University of North Dakota before playing 13 years in the NBA, is an ardent reader, too. UCLA alum Kareem Abdul-Jabbar recalls plowing through the complete Sherlock Holmes collection on his first NBA road trip. He says he once received a big box of paperbacks in the locker room from the late crime writer Robert B. Parker, who had gotten wind that Mr. Abdul-Jabbar was a fan of his "Spenser" detective series.

Whether it was the rise of personal electronics or the growing number of players who came to the NBA straight out of high school, the ranks of readers seem to have dwindled in the 1990s. By the time Mr. Abdul-Jabbar started as an assistant coach with the Lakers in 2005, he says, most of the league's players had traded their books for "two phones and an Xbox."

Last year, the NBA players' union started circulating a quarterly reading list—this winter's suggestions include Donald Trump's "The Art of the Deal" and a book called "Talent is Overrated."

The Bucks gave players Kindles for Christmas last year, while for years Mr. Jackson of the Lakers has doled out carefully selected books to his players before their longest road trip, which range from works by Friedrich Nietzsche to "2666" by Chilean writer Roberto Bolano.

Nearly all of the Phoenix Suns players read on road trips these days (the Bible counts, says Suns center Channing Frye). Miami's Dwyane Wade isn't afraid to admit that one of his favorite books was Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice," which he first read as a student at Marquette.

Not everyone is clamoring to join the reading club. The Lakers say the majority of players don't read the books Mr. Jackson gives them. A spokesman for the Portland Trail Blazers says the handful of players on the team who cozy up with novels didn't feel comfortable revealing themselves.

Foreign-born players say they don't share books with their American teammates very often—some because they like to read in their native languages and others because they assume American players are more interested in motivational books on leadership, empowerment and business.

Pau Gasol, who says he's about 100 pages into "2666," the book Mr. Jackson gave him, says he doesn't share books because he doesn't want anyone messing them up or losing them (he likes to store everything he's read in his home library.)

Utah's Mr. Kirilenko, who reads everything from Tolstoy and Bulgakov, says that when he first arrived in the Salt Lake City in 2001, he noticed most of his teammates would don fancy headphones to kill time instead of discussing books. He wanted to blend in, so he gave it a shot, hoping the music would have an equally calming effect and would take his mind off basketball. "I was trying that but it doesn't help me that much," says Mr. Kirilenko, who tears through a different book before every game and sometimes shows up nearly an hour early to pre-game meetings to pick up where he left off. Sometimes teammates try to make fun of him, he says, but he doesn't respond. "You learn to ignore it."

Journal Communitydiscuss..“ I'd like to see an NFL follow up, and perhaps MLB, NHL, WNBA and any other sport where players are idolized and emulated by children. It's wonderful to hear athletes extol their libraries rather than their shoe collections. ”—Daniel Emery.
When Books on First first opened in October 1998, we thought about putting up a section called "Phil Recommends...," as Phil Jackson is a known NBA reader and was the coach of Chicago Bulls at the time, dispensing reading left and right for his players. It is sad to read that a ballclub unashamedly admits a "majority" of its players do not read what their coach physically gives them to read. Isn't that sanctioned insubordination? Another interesting point is the Bucks giving the players Kindles for Christmas. Perhaps something electronic will encourage them to want to read? They should have waited for the iPad.

Sigh! May these reading players be like adnascentia, spreading the love of reading to the world of sports and beyond.

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