The game has long been a sport engrained with history, ankle-breaking pioneers and moments that have endured the test of time. From Michael Jordan’s infamous last shot to the thrill of the 2016 NBA Finals and the iconic 3-1 comeback, these will forever be etched in basketball lore.

But there are also other stories that need to be told. From Perry Wallace, who was the first Black basketball player to compete in the SEC to the social justice work led by WNBA players and protests that took place across the W and the NBA in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, author Andrew Maraniss is here to tell them all.

Maraniss, a New York Times bestselling author and a Visiting Author at Vanderbilt University Athletics, is a pioneer in his own right. He’s just released four books, including a new 10th-anniversary edition of Strong Inside (for adults), the paperback edition of Inaugural Ballers (for teens/adults) and the first two books in a new series for first and third graders called Beyond the Game. Get your copy here.

SLAM recently caught up Maraniss to discuss the inspiration behind his work and writing books for the next generation of sports fans:

SLAM: Let’s start with the first book you published. What inspired you to write Strong Inside?

ANDREW MARANISS: Growing up like you I was really into sports writing. I always saw sports and reading and writing as connected. My parents said I learned how to read by reading the back of baseball cards when I was a little kid.

In my sophomore year, I was taking a Black history course I was a history major. And it just coincidentally happened to be the same year that Perry Wallace was invited back to Vanderbilt to be honored as the Jackie Robinson figure of the SEC.

[It was] just a coincidence that he comes back at the same time I’m taking this course and there’s an article in a student magazine about his experience as the first black player in the league. Not growing up [in Tennessee], I had never heard Perry’s story before. And so it immediately grabbed me as something that I was interested in…so I called Perry out of the blue. He was a professor in Baltimore at that time, and I wrote a paper about him when I was 19 years old…And 17 years later, I emailed him and said, Hey, do you remember me wrote a paper about you and time ago? I’d like to write a biography about you.

SLAM: Your two books from your new series Beyond the Game are written for first and third graders. In which ways was your approach to writing a book for younger audiences different?

AM:  One piece of advice that I’ve gotten from my editors working on these books, not only for these little kids, but also for teenagers is to respect the audience and not dumb things down. And so what I’m trying to do is just tell a story in a clearer way, which I would be trying to do whether I was writing for elementary school kids or high school kids or adults…The major difference is the length of the books…[And] on the back, they have a glossary of terms that they might be unfamiliar with. They have sort of a call to action, like what have you learned from reading the story that could guide the kids and their families as they read the book.

The reason why I wrote [Beyond the Game] is that these issues are things that matter to families that a lot of families are actually experiencing…Maya Moore and LeBron James are fighting for the same values that these families have, and that they would like their kids to read about, at a time when there’s a lot of pressure on libraries and school districts and teachers from others in the community…And so I understand that these books are coming out at a time when they could be seen as controversial by some people.

But for me, that’s all the more reason to write them.

SLAM: This is a lot like making you choose a favorite child, but which of your four books is your favorite and why?

AM: Yeah, that is exactly like asking for your favorite child is. And I’ve used that analogy before. With that caveat, I would say that Strong Inside being my first book, with it being the book that took me eight years of my life to write, and also because of the relationship that I was able to form with Perry Wallace himself while he was alive, will always be the most special book to me.

And even while I was working on it, he was becoming a real father figure, mentor, favorite professor, type of figure to me. And I feel so fortunate that I was able to spend so much time around him and to learn so much from him about life and racism and courage and toll of pioneering. I saw him on his deathbed, you know, and he asked if we could plan the memorial service for him here at Vanderbilt.

SLAM: Even compared to other major sports, basketball has been a big player in advocating social equality. What makes basketball special as a platform to discuss societal injustice and promote equality amongst different genders and races?

AM: That’s a really interesting question. I think the answer goes back to the very beginnings of basketball. In Inaugural Ballers, I write that [basketball] was an international game…The first players were students from around the world, we actually have a sketch of the very first basketball game ever played. That was done by a Japanese student at that school. So from the very beginning, it was international, right, which I think is unusual in sports…Because there are only five players on the court, they’re not wearing helmets, it’s a very personal game and the players are visible. In that way, it gives them a platform that’s a little bit different than football even in visual ways.

Basketball has been a place where women and African Americans and other groups that are marginalized often have found success. Today’s game has enormous platforms…so with that comes an opportunity to use that platform to speak out for civil rights or human rights, women’s rights. And it’s been really impressive, I would say, to see how these basketball players are using that platform to try to make the world a better place for all people, not just for themselves.

SLAM: Now that your four books will be coming out in a couple of days, what’s next for you?

AM: Oh, well, the Beyond the Game series continues beyond these first two books that will come out on March 5. So the third book will be on Pat Tillman. You know, the NFL player who enlisted after 9/11 was killed by his fellow troops from friendly fire. And then the army lied about the circumstances of his death. So again, you could call that a heavy topic for first, second and third graders, but it’s a really interesting story.

The fourth book, I’m just beginning now will be about a Native American distance runner named Jordan Marie Daniel, who raises awareness of murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls. That’s her advocacy through her sport. So yeah, that would be the other things for people to know.

You can purchase Andrew’s books here.

Illustrations by DeAndra Hodge for the James and Moore books.


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