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Pick of the Day: NBA players read literature!

I felt a bit queasy reading Hannah Karp's story in the Wall Street Journal about how some NBA players, especially the rising number of foreign-born players, do something seemingly totally unconventional: They read books.

The Utah Jazz's Andrei Kirilenko, a Russian forward, reads science fiction and classic Russian novels. Zydrunas Ilgauskas, a Lithuanian center on the Cleveland Cavaliers, reads military history in the last minutes before the tip. And then there's New Orleans Hornets center Emeka Okafor, whose parents are Nigerian, and who apparently is something of a literary high-flier, his reading list being dominated by Pulitzer Prize-winning authors such as Cormac McCarthy, Jhumpa Lahiri and Junot Diaz.

I found Karp's story totally engrossing but I admit to feeling a bit uneasy. The story is built on the premise that the Journal's high-end business readership wouldn't think NBA athletes read books. Is there a legitimate basis for that assumption? Still, I read on because Karp's story is so unusual and illustrates an aspect of NBA life you just never ever read about. (I only wish Karp had gotten access to the locker room to show us, firsthand, some of the literary debates that go on between players.)

Karp suggests that book reading used to be more popular before technology gave us all so many gadgets. She ticks off the reading habits of former players we'd expect to be obvious bookworms: stars like Bill Bradley, a Rhodes Scholar and Princeton graduate who became a three-term U.S. senator; and Chris Dudley, a political science and economics major from Yale. There was also Kareem Abdul Jabbar, a UCLA alum, who had a thing for Sherlock Holmes novels.

Later, in the 2000s, a confluence of forces altered NBA downtime, Karp says. "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 2005, most players were busy with phones or video game players.

Toward the end of the piece, Karp finally arrives at the main theme of her story: the touchiness surrounding who in the NBA reads and who doesn't, and what they read.

Karp reveals some intriguing and subtle tensions: the majority of the Lakers don't read the books given to them by coach Phil Jackson. Amazingly, readers on the Portland Trail Blazers were too afraid to reveal their identities to Karp, for fear of what, we don't know. And, my favorite part: foreign-born players don't like lending their books to their American teammates, because, among other reasons, they "assume American players are more interested in motivational books on leadership, empowerment and business."

Apparently, the ultimate consequence of all this NBA book reading: the trash talk is getting nerdy.

By Ian Shapira  | February 12, 2010; 11:04 AM ET
Categories:  Story Picks  
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