It was a thrill for me whenever the Michael Lenehan byline appeared above a story — usually a very lengthy story — in The Atlantic from the early 1980s to early 1990s. Occasionally he would write for his home publication, the Chicago Reader, where he served as chief editorial executive, but those Atlantic pieces were special.
These many years later I still remember some of the subjects he covered — articles about baseball ("The Last of the Pure Baseball Men," a profile of Minnesota Twins' owner Calvin Griffith, from 1981), music ("The Quality of the Instrument," about the making of a Steinway grand piano in 1982), and animals ("Four Ways to Walk a Dog" in 1986).
This piece first ran in Printers Row Journal, delivered to Printers Row members with the Sunday Chicago Tribune and by digital edition via email. Click here to learn about joining Printers Row.
Each displayed artful writing, in-depth reporting and an admirable ability for avoiding the superfluous.
I have known Lenehan casually through the decades and have always wondered but never asked until recently why he never devoted his time and talent to writing a book.
"After those Atlantic pieces, I wrote very little until leaving the Reader when we sold it in 2007," he told me via e-mail. "In between I was being the (Reader) editor and later masterminding our online efforts, such as they were — and I use the term masterminding very loosely."
The reason I asked him about books a couple of weeks ago was that his first book has finally arrived. It is the new paperback, "Ramblers: Loyola Chicago 1963 — The Team That Changed the Color of College Basketball," a story about sports and race and Chicago and much more.
For those of us who were around and old enough to dribble a basketball, the Loyola Ramblers team of 1963 is embedded solidly in one part of our memory — the sports part. It recalls how the private Jesuit college, hugging the lake on the North Side and a "small player in the world of intercollegiate athletics," played in a thrilling national championship against the heavily favored two-time champs at the University of Cincinnati.
Many of you know the outcome and will understand why I don't want to spoil it. The Ramblers, in their fast-paced style, made basketball cool from that day forward.
That familiar story is retold here with enthusiasm and the benefit of historical perspective from those involved.
But the great value and importance of this book is in what we missed at the time. We missed the fact that Loyola was among the first major college teams to have four black starting players and was the very first to have five black players on the floor at the same time.
We missed the racial backdrop and cultural and sociological implications of this team.
We may have relished the moment and the players, so familiar then that any playground players would be shamed if he couldn't rattle off the starters' names: Jerry Harkness, Vic Rouse, Les Hunter and Ron Miller and, last but not least, Johnny Egan, who is white. The coach? George Ireland.
We missed, most of all, the story of a third school: Mississippi State University and its Bulldogs, the 1963 SEC champion. In order for the white MSU team to play against Loyola's integrated team in that year's tournament, the team had to defy the sitting governor, Ross Barnett, avoid a court injunction and sneak out of the state to play.
The details of that tale make me believe with certainty that the Loyola-Mississippi State game was the most significant game in NCAA tournament history. Everything else was icing. And everything changed.
Lenehan sums it up neatly: "Fifty years ago basketball was played mostly on the floor, black players' opportunities were severely limited, and our country was reeling with racial conflict. Today basketball is played largely in the air, black players dominate, and our country is … well, still conflicted, but at least a little steadier on its feet."
Getting to know the stories behind the scores and the personalities off the court is what makes "Ramblers" much more than a conventional sports book. It makes it a classic.
The thrill is back.
"Make It, Take It" is a novel by Rus Bradburd, one blissfully light on the dramatic-finish game details that so often derail sports novels. Set against a backdrop of college basketball, it is a compelling story of people and the ways in which they can rise and sink to various levels.
Bradburd is a child of Chicago and spent many years coaching college basketball. He quit to devote himself to teaching and writing.
His first novel tells of a coach named Steve Pytel who is trying to keep the many aspects of personal and professional lives in some sort of balance. Bradburd successfully devotes two chapters to the voices of two of his players, in the form of essays assigned for class. One is written by Leonard Redmond, a child of Chicago's Lawndale neighborhood ("I was arrested for selling a controlled substance, meaning weed, after my freshman year here at State"). The other comes from Jamal Davis ("Reverend Oliver warned me against Coach Pytel from the start ... ").
Those are two real people in a novel filled with them.
Rick Kogan is a Tribune senior writer and columnist.
By Michael Lenehan, Agate Midway, 299 pages, $16
"Make It, Take It"
By Rus Bradburd, Cinco Puntos Press, 160 pages, $14.95Copyright © 2015, CT Now