Q&A with Jeff Karzen, author of PLAYGROUNDS TO THE PROS

Jeff Karzen, author of Playgrounds to the Pros: Legends of Peoria Basketball, answers questions on why he wrote his new book and the myths he hopes to dispel with it.

Q: Why did you decide to write this book? 

I knew about some of the big names prior to researching this book, but once I got started I couldn’t believe the gold mine of stories and narratives that were uncovered. With the passage of time, players and coaches spoke freely, and the result was a treasure trove of behind-the-scenes stories that, largely, had not been publicly told before. 

Q: What is the most interesting discovery you made while researching and writing your book? 

I have to list two things here, one basketball related and one non-sports. With basketball, it was a revelation to me how interconnected the entire town was. It didn’t matter which high school a player attended or a coach worked at, everybody knew everybody. The best players competed against each other all summer and basketball people in town had their pulse on the entire scene. In terms of a non-basketball revelation, learning about redlining was so interesting (and troubling). The fact that the seeds of race-based poverty were planted in Peoria, and so many other places, as far back as the early 1940s, is terrible. Not entirely surprising, but alarming all the same. 

Q: What myths do you hope your book will dispel or what do you hope your book will help readers unlearn?

I think people in general, and sports fans in particular, can jump to conclusions when talented players don’t achieve success or reach their potential. Without knowing the full story, fans often think Player X “was lazy” or “didn’t care” or other uniformed opinions. I hope this book will show people that the reasons can often be much more nuanced and, frankly, understandable. The chapter on Oscar Mack, titled “Finding Oscar Mack,” shows the type of negative impact an unstable family life can have on a young person’s dreams and how small the margin of error can be for a talented athlete who grew up in difficult circumstances.  

Jeff Karzen is a sportswriter who has covered basketball recruiting for twenty years. He is the author of Homer: The Small-Town Baseball Odyssey.

Q: What is the most important idea you hope readers will take away from your book? 

This has some similarities to my last answer, but I hope this book helps people understand the importance of looking at others through a lens of understanding rather than judging. People are so layered and nuanced, and you’ll often be surprised by what you learn if you take the time to know someone. Life is not as simple as black and white, and neither are people. 

Q: What do you like to read/watch/or listen to for fun?

I mostly read non-fiction—two recent favorites are Jeff Pearlman’s biography of Bo Jackson and Wright Thompson’s Pappyland. If I’m watching live TV, it’s probably sports, and definitely college basketball this time of year. As for streaming shows, right now I’m doing Only Murders in the Building and re-watching Treme (so good!). Musically, of late, is rock, Motown, and New Orleans-influenced rock/funk.

About Kristina Stonehill