Given my complete lack of interest in sport you might think I’d turn down the offer of a novel about a basketball star and a sportswriter but I’d enjoyed several of Benjamin Markovits’ previous novels and had fond memories of Chad Hardbach’s The Art of Fielding. The Sidekick explores the demands made on sports stars and the effects on their relationships with others through Brian Blum, the sportswriter who’s spent his career following Marcus Hayes, the basketball star he’s known since they were children.
Beating me at basketball was like a gesture of affection, it made him happy.
Brian is the fat boy no one picks for their team, taught by his basketball obsessed father to unerringly score. He’s no ambitions on the court for himself but wants to be a sportswriter, trying out for the school team where he meets the ruthlessly competitive Marcus who spots an opportunity to hone his shooting skills. A relationship forms between these two that others call friendship and when Marcus’ mother moves away, the team coach suggests Brian’s family take him in. While Marcus begins to attract the attention of recruiters, Brian writes about his exploits on the court, each at the beginning of what will become their careers – stellar for Marcus, respectable for Brian. Three years after Marcus retires, he’s keen to make a comeback. It’s a crossroads for both of them: Marcus is faced with the deterioration of a thirty-five-year-old’s athleticism while Brian needs access to this man, who barely registers their connection, for the authorised biography he’s signed up to write, moving back to their hometown where Marcus’ new team is based. Both men may be about to face the very public end of their careers as Brian’s research takes an increasingly personal turn.
We had an arrangement. You got what you needed from me. I got what I needed from you.
Markovits explores themes of ambition, friendship and race, narrating his novel in Brian’s engaging, self-deprecating, often funny voice. Despite his status as a respected writer, he’s never emerged from the shadow thrown by Marcus’ single-minded talent on which both have based their careers. These two men probably know each other better than anyone else yet theirs is more of a working relationship than the friendship other perceive, Marcus remaining largely an enigma. I’ve often thought far too much is asked of sports people who give everything for the short time they’re at the top of their game, leaving them with very little except, perhaps, money, when it’s all over. Inevitably there were far too many basketball set pieces for me, but Markovits’ sharp portrait of sporting ambition and its toxic fallout kept me gripped.
Faber: London 9780571371525 368 pages Hardback