Book Review: Geno: In Pursuit of Perfection

Considering the phenomenal success of Geno Auriemma and his University of Connecticut women’s basketball program, it’s a little surprising it’s taken so long for Auriemma to add his contribution to the women’s basketball library. “Geno: In Pursuit of Perfection” has arrived, and it is as frustrating to a reader as, perhaps, the coach himself can be to fans.

In the interest of full disclosure, I’m a huge fan of UConn and have followed the team rather closely over the years. So, too, has the group of Connecticut reporters known – dismissively in some quarters – as “the horde.” For that reason, if you’d read their articles, there is not a lot in Auriemma’s book that will come as a surprise. It is worth the read, though. There are some wonderfully juicy tidbits that add depth and richness to stories and names associated with the Huskies since his arrival in 1985. He also shares some informative details to his complicated and, at times, prickly relationship with Pat Summitt, legendary Tennessee coach and unquestioned icon of women’s basketball.

For those uninitiated in Husky lore, there is a lot of background information on the rise of a program that went from a leaky gym with roll back bleachers to playing on national television in sold out arenas and winning five National Championships. Even those who think they know their UConn history may be surprised at the tales of the pre-1995 championship teams. Auriemma unpacks his personal history and the internal demons that drive him and is unapologetic about his coaching style, his love/hate relationship with the press, and his frustration with what he perceives as the unwillingness of the women’s basketball community to accept him into their inner sanctum.

But, at times, the book feels as if it’s written for an insider. A lot of that can be laid at the feet of the narrative choice – a first person voice that swings between the past and present in a winding manner that tends to skim over essential background or details. Auriemma is a great talker – anyone who’s laughed out loud or reacted in outrage to one of his acerbic comments knows that. To put it bluntly, he’s a self-acknowledged smart aleck and so is, to turn a phrase, a great quote. But that does not make him an effective writer. Too often he draws quick sketches when the reader wants more depth. There are plenty of anecdotes, but without a strong narrative framework a skilled writer might provide, they lack emotional resonance.

Consider, for example, two versions of the same story: teammates giving Svetlana Abrosimova money to help her bring her parents over for Senior Night, 2001. “In Pursuit” tells the tale as follows:

 

Her parents have never seen her play. She has been saving up for three years to fly them over here to see her play in her senior year. Everyone knows she comes from a poor, poor environment in Russia, so fans start sending money to our offices so Sveta’s parents can come. Of course we can’t keep any of the money. It is an NCAA violation.Our kids do something very sweet. They chip in and hand Sveta an envelope of their own money at Christmas. They want to make sure her parents get here. It is their secret. We coaches don’t know bout it until long after Sveta’s parents have come and gone.

In Sports Illustrated writer John Walters’ book, The Same River Twice: A Season with Geno Auriemma and the Connecticut Huskies, the story has a poignancy missing in Auriemma’s account:

 

They will come for the first time in late February, for Senior Night. For years, Sveta has scrimped and saved. As a scholarship athlete, she cannot work but she can hoard the meal money that she receives when the Huskies go on road trips. Fans have sent in hundreds of dollars to assist her, but that is an NCAA violation. What is not against the rules is for an athlete’s teammates to present her a gift.Thus, Keirsten [Walters] enters the room followed by the rest of the Huskies. Sveta looks up in surprise, wondering what is up. “Here, this is for you,” says Kristen, handing Sveta an envelope.”

Inside the envelope is a wad of cash. Tears well up in Sveta’s eyes. They have gotten to her. Svetlana is so incomparable on the court and so confident off it that many of her teammates, talented as they are, find her difficult to get to know well. She is the team’s DiMaggio. She is to them what they are to the rest of the state: an icon.

Sveta hugs her teammates. She cannot believe what they have done for her. Neither can her parents, whom she phones to share the good news.

“Eighty-five dollars?” Ludmilla asks in Russian. “Eighty-five?”

“No,” her daughter responds, also in her native tongue. “Eight hundred and fifty dollars.”

It’s not that I want Walters to write the “Geno Story” (well, maybe I do), because that would require a completely different book. Perhaps that’s not what Auriemma wanted – or had time for. I just wish that Jackie MacMullan, who is credited as working with Auriemma on the book, had done a better job of supporting his storytelling. I don’t envy anyone riding herd on Auriemma. But, having seen him talk with intelligence, humor and bite about the game he loves, the opponents he respects and the teams he’s molded, I can’t help but think readers have been short-changed on hearing a really good story.

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