Opinion

Andrew Maraniss book about basketball player Perry Wallace resonates

A pioneer dies but his story lives

Andrew Maraniss was eating lunch at a barbecue restaurant in Nashville in 2015 when his cell phone rang. The Florida number wasn’t familiar, so Maraniss didn’t pick up. Later, he checked his voicemail.

“It was Ethel Kennedy,” Maraniss says.

The widow of Robert F. Kennedy was calling to tell Maraniss his book, “Strong Inside: Perry Wallace and the Collision of Race and Sports in the South,” had won the RFK Book Award Special Recognition Prize.

With the death this month of Wallace—the first African American basketball player in the Southeastern Conference, and later a distinguished trial attorney and law professor—Maraniss’s book has renewed resonance.

One might argue it has been resonating since its 2014 publication. Maraniss has since adapted “Strong Inside” for a young readers edition, and the original book’s success led the author to leave the public relations firm where he’d worked for 18 years to pursue writing fulltime.

I’m guessing  his last name resonates, too. Maraniss was born in Madison, and his city roots run deep. His grandfather Elliott Maraniss was editor of The Capital Times. Andrew’s mom, Linda, and father, David, were West High graduates, and David, of course, is himself an acclaimed journalist and author.

Andrew didn’t grow up in Madison. David’s journalism career took the family to Washington and Austin. But with all the family connections to Madison, Andrew considers it home and returns often.

In October 2016, at the invitation of University of Wisconsin–Madison men’s basketball coach Greg Gard, Maraniss spoke about Perry Wallace to the team in the locker room after a practice. Andrew was in Madison to interview Nigel Hayes for an article in The Undefeated, an ESPN website that focuses on race and sports.

Maraniss first became interested in Wallace while a student at Vanderbilt in the late 1980s. He interviewed Wallace—who attended Vanderbilt and played basketball in the 1960s—for a black history class.

Some 17 years later, in 2006, Maraniss was working in public relations in Nashville when his future father-in-law said he thought Wallace’s story would make a good biography.

Maraniss didn’t quit his job, but—after securing Wallace’s cooperation—he spent many nights and weekends of the ensuing eight years researching and writing “Strong Inside.”

It’s a compelling tale and tough to read in spots. The overt racism is stunning to revisit. Fans jeered the first African American player in the conference. At the University of Mississippi, Wallace—a sophomore during the 1968 season—was taunted and threatened by fans. When he was left bleeding by an elbow to the eye, no foul was called. Even on his own campus and in his own locker room, Wallace felt isolated.

Wallace went on to a successful law career, and was gracious when, with time, Vanderbilt realized just what he had meant to the university and what he had endured.

Nashville had a “Perry Wallace Day” in 2004, and his jersey was retired at Vanderbilt.

Still, the publication of Maraniss’s book a decade later was, for many, especially young people, a revelation. Wallace was invited back to campus to speak, and students stood in line to shake his hand. “Strong Inside” was the “all school read” for freshmen at Vanderbilt in 2016, and again this year.

Maraniss’s next project is a young readers book on the first U. S. Olympic basketball team. It’s a story with many components, including the fact that James Naismith, who invented the game of basketball, was in attendance in Berlin in 1936.

Maraniss last saw Perry Wallace, who was ill with cancer, in mid-November. While traveling to Maryland from Nashville, where Andrew is a visiting author at Vanderbilt, Andrew visited Wallace to say goodbye. Maraniss wrote about the visit in The Athletic.

Maraniss told me he feels lucky to have had the privilege of telling Wallace’s story. What Andrew wouldn’t say himself was how fortunate it was for Wallace that the first-time author he trusted with that story turned out to be a scrupulous journalist and excellent writer.

How fortunate, too, that it was published while Wallace was still alive, and he could again hear the voices of the crowd—cheers, this time.

Doug Moe is a Madison writer. Read his monthly column, Person of Interest, in Madison Magazine.


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