Reader’s Guide to The Hustle
These discussion questions are designed to enhance your group’s conversation about The Hustle, a personal history that tracks the lives of ten adolescent boys who formed a multiracial basketball team in 1980s Seattle.
About this book
Doug Merlino was fourteen years old when he joined a new basketball team in Seattle. Half the players came from Doug’s elite private school, Lakeside; the other half were black players from the inner city. The team was dreamed up by two local fathers – Randy Finley, a wealthy entrepreneur from the suburbs, and Willie McClain, a black basketball coach from the poor Central Area – who wanted to bridge the divide of race and class among Seattle’s youth.
Twenty years after the team won a league championship, Merlino returns to Seattle to track down his former teammates. Three of the ten players have died tragically, including Tyrell Johnson, who was brutally murdered as an innocent bystander to the drug wars that engulfed Seattle. As Merlino rekindles his friendships with the old team, he uncovers some discouraging social patterns. The prep school alumni have started successful careers and families, while many of his black teammates have struggled for the past two decades, negotiating such hardships as lackluster educations, drug addiction, and encroaching waves of gentrification. As Merlino reunites the men who played basketball together as boys, he traces the parallel histories of Seattle, which, like the players themselves, has weathered decades of boom and bust, class tension and racial struggles.
- Study the map of The Hustle’s Seattle at the beginning of the book. What does this map reveal about the geographic divisions in Seattle today?
- Merlino narrates that as a boy on the basketball team, “All I really want to do is keep my head down and fit in with the group.” (7) What kind of boy was Merlino, and what distinguished him from his teammates? How might his shy personality have led to his career as a writer?
- Consider Willie McClain’s regrets from his own youth in Seattle. How did he learn from his personal mistakes, and what loftier ambitions does he set for his children and the boys he coaches?
- Compare Randy Finley and Willie McClain’s motivations for forming an interracial basketball team. What goals does each man have in mind? Whose vision is closer to the reality of the team – Finley’s or McClain’s? How did each of their aspirations succeed, and how did they fail?
- In the chapter “Welfare Queens, the Huxtables, and Unlikely Champions,” Merlino provides an overview of American culture in 1986, the year his team won the league championship. What was the impact of black TV characters, rap music, and the crack epidemic on Merlino’s teammates?
- In the chapter “Moving On,” Merlino compares his team’s success at the Western Washington Championship to a sports movie like Hoosiers. How does the team’s story differ from the happy ending of a movie?
- Discuss the impact of class and race among Merlino’s former teammates, and in Seattle as a whole. Merlino quotes a common saying about the gentrification of Seattle’s Central Area: “It’s not race, it’s economics.” (153) Are race and wealth separate or entwined issues in Seattle today? Explain.
- Review how each player on Merlino’s team handled the transition from organized sports to disorganized young adulthood. How did the Lakeside students find other means of success after they stopped playing sports? Why did the inner-city boys have trouble transitioning out of the sports world?
- Discuss the murder of Tyrell Johnson. How does Merlino react when he hears about Tyrell’s violent death? How do Merlino and his former teammates honor and remember Tyrell in the years to come, especially at their reunion?
- Merlino writes, “In October 2002, while still in graduate school, I make my first trip back. I don’t expect to write a book. I really just want to know what became of these guys.” (105) How did Merlino’s curiosity lead him into a book project? When might he have realized that there was an important story to tell about his former teammates?
- Lakeside students had a cheer they chanted when their sports teams were losing to an inner-city team: “It’s all right, it’s OK, you’ll all work for us someday.” (107) How do Merlino and his former teammates feel about the cheer now? Discuss Damian’s reaction to the cheer: “I hate to say it… but it was probably true.” (107) What truths and misconceptions does the chant reveal?
- Discuss Myran’s troubles with drugs and crime. How does Myran handle his time in prison? How does the legal system deal with people in situations like Myran’s?
- Two families were instrumental in forming the 1986 team: the McClains and the Finleys. Compare the father-son relationships in each of these families. How does Willie Jr. get along with his father and follow in his footsteps? How does Maitland Finley rebel against his father’s love for organized sports?
- Discuss Zion Prep, the African-American private school where Damian Joseph has taught. How does Zion Prep differ from a traditional Seattle prep school like Lakeside? What challenges does Zion face?
- Many of Merlino’s former teammates are seeking a “healthy masculinity” in their adult years. (259) Discuss how each of these adults approaches the issues of manhood, mentoring, and fathering.
- Consider the reunion scene that closes the book. Among the teammates and coaches who come to the reunion, who seems the most and least changed over the past twenty years?
- Why do you think Merlino called his book The Hustle? What kinds of “hustling” do we encounter throughout the book?
George Dohrman, Play Their Hearts Out: A Coach, His Star Recruit, and the Youth Basketball Machine; Patrick B. Miller and David K. Wiggins, Sport and the Color Line: Black Athletes and Race Relations in Twentieth Century America; Darcy Frey, The Last Shot: City Streets, Basketball Dreams; Chris Herren, Basketball Junkie: A Memoir; Adrian Wojnarowski, The Miracle of St. Anthony: A Season with Coach Bob Hurley and Basketball’s Most Improbable Dynasty; Bill Reynolds, Fall River Dreams: A Team’s Quest for Glory, A Town’s Search for Its Soul; Pat Conroy, My Losing Season; John Feinstein, A Season on the Brink: A Year with Bob Knight and the Indiana Hoosiers; David Halberstam, The Breaks of the Game.