A superb memoir that is also a passionate, engaging meditation on race in America
Andre Iguodala is one of the most admired players in the NBA. And fresh off the Warriors’ fifth Finals appearance in five years, his game has never been stronger.
Off the court, Iguodala has earned respect, too — for his successful tech investments, his philanthropy, and increasingly for his contributions to the conversation about race in America. It is no surprise, then, that in his first book, Andre, with his cowriter Carvell Wallace, has pushed himself to go further than he ever has before about his life, not only as an athlete but about what makes him who he is at his core.
The Sixth Man traces Andre’s journey from childhood in his Illinois hometown to his Bay Area home court today. Basketball has always been there. But this is the story, too, of his experience of the conflict and racial tension always at hand in a professional league made up largely of African American men; of whether and why the athlete owes the total sacrifice of his body; of the relationship between competition and brotherhood among the players of one of history’s most glorious championship teams. And of what motivates an athlete to keep striving for more once they’ve already achieved the highest level of play they could have dreamed.
On drive, on leadership, on pain, on accomplishment, on the shame of being given a role, and the glory of taking a role on: This is a powerful memoir of life and basketball that reveals new depths to the superstar athlete, and offers tremendous insight into most urgent stories being told in American society today.
I’ve been on a bit of a basketball kick, recently. The NBA’s restart in Orlando has been playing in the background since it began (except for Raptors games, which I give the games my full attention). I decided that it was time to read The Sixth Man, Andre Iguodala’s acclaimed memoir. Co-authored by journalist Carvell Wallace, I had pretty high expectations. The book completely blew these expectations out of the water, and I blitzed through it. A superb book about basketball, life and race in America.
Far more than a sports memoir, The Sixth Man is an engaging, passionate and important examination of race in America, the way business intersects with entertainment, and certain exploitative aspects of each. It’s a highly quotable book, but I’ve tried to restrain myself in this review. I could have written so much more about this book, and what Iguodala covers. It’s a fantastic book.
Iguodala covers in engaging detail his evolving understanding of the game and business of college basketball and sports, and also the NBA: how it is not quite the dream factory many are led to believe, and how there’s far more going on under the surface, and away from the cameras than fans understand. For example, the exploitative nature of NCAA sports, the multi-billion dollar business built of under-paid teenage athletes: “NCAA basketball is a racket. And the players are the only ones losing.” Many of the issues he writes about have gained far greater attention in recent years, and his perspective is a valuable and illuminating addition.
“I would learn that the higher up you go in this game, the more replaceable you become. I would learn that being the best was not a guarantee of a career, that a career was made of myriad things, of small, boring things. Of good agents and early morning workouts. Of medical procedures and yoga and nutritionists. Of sleep hygiene and the ability to tamp your emotions down so hard that they first become stones and then diamonds that you only reveal when there are three seconds on the clock and you are down by two points and you have to see, understand, and predict the movements of ten men on a basketball court at one time, while 45,000 people are screaming at you.”
His experiences in the league and before seem to have given Iguodala a cautious relationship with coaches, a group for whom he often expresses distrust — after all, players are just cogs in a machine, replaceable if they no longer contribute to the smooth running of championship strategies. His experiences — in Philly and later while on the Warriors — would also breed a distrust in the media, which is entirely understandable and justifiable, all things considered.
Well-read and an autodidact, Iguodala’s passion for learning — especially history, politics, business — shines through in The Sixth Man, as he frames his life and professional experiences in the context of race in America. It’s a wide-ranging discussion, spread across the memoir and story of his life. Each time, it’s perfectly interwoven with his story or the experience he’s relating at the time. For example, he describes what he thinks of as his earliest encounter with race as an issue: being asked for proof that he belonged in an AP class at school, effectively asked for his papers by a teacher of an otherwise all-white class. He also writes about
“… the occasional referee who reminds you a little too much of the police officers that stalked your neighborhood when you were a kid, glowering at you and your friends as though you were dangerous animals escaped from captivity rather than children—a look that gives you a cold chill, a fight-or-flight response that will lie dormant and coiled and always ready to spring at the base of your spine for the rest of your life.”
Iguodala also writes about how often he’s reminded of his blackness, playing in regions that are less diverse. For example, how “Salt Lake City has always had a certain effect on me as a player. I always feel—I don’t know how else to say it—blacker when I’m in Utah.” How the thoughts going through his head in that arena, as “a black person on a floor in shorts and a tank top being screamed at simultaneously by eighteen thousand white people, who are flipping you off and spitting and foaming at the mouth, and not feel some deep, primordial, almost-cellular sense of threat,” and how “everything felt much more ominous because this was two weeks after Trump had been elected.” The spectre of Trump hangs over much of the authors’ discussion of race and the American experience today, and it’s very well done.
Iguodala also has this to say about Oklahoma, which I thought was a perfect encapsulation of how many outside of the country see America:
“Oklahoma City was the only arena in the nation where they prayed before the national anthem. And still we spent the entire game being told, ‘Fuck you,’ while armed guards made sure no one rushed the court.”
The book is also filled with interesting, generous and often endearing portraits of his teammates and friends, while also not shying away from more honest criticism when necessary. He writes about the elation and strain of being a champion, maintaining that status, and chasing records. (The Warriors seem to have basically exhausted themselves over their championship runs and afterwards.) In addition to writing about the aforementioned exploitative and physically gruelling nature of professional sports, Iguodala also writes about his medical journey — the injuries, training regimens to maintain peak physical abilities to compete at the highest levels, and also the “bizarre and a little bit ghoulish” blood treatments he’s been undergoing later in his career.
Beautifully written, quietly passionate, thoughtful and thought-provoking. One of my favourite reads of the year, one of the best memoirs I’ve read, and easily the best book connected to basketball that I’ve read.
Very highly recommended.