Book Review: Lance Allred’s Longshot: the adventures of a deaf fundamentalist Mormon kid and his journey to the NBA (HarperCollins, 2009): A pilgrim’s progress
I have in the past devoted significant wordiage to the subtle intersections between the religiocultural paradoxes of the Wasatch Front, the deeper ideologies of the Mormon mind, and pro basketball. These arguments, one hopes, have made the world such a place that the reasons why Lance Allred’s new book should be immediately embraced by all students of such things are always already self-evident. But in case they are not, I here offer a few lines of explication.
This is an autobiography, as the title implies, and that means that Allred is both himself interested in sussing these things out while at the same time being a walking embodiment of them. Now, as anyone who pays attention to HarperCollins’s somewhat predictable marketing strategies (and who doesn’t?) has learned, Allred’s story is Unlikely, and about Overcoming Odds. This is a (ironically) well-trodden path that inevitably morphs into a large and by now (due to overstimulation, since Allred’s book unfortunately has appeared after, oh, The Pride of the Yankees) bland plate of Inspirational. Thus acknowledged, we can set the broad strokes of this ur-narrative aside and instead pay attention to the particular details in which Allred’s own assumptions (sometimes examined, sometimes not) emerge. This is when the thing becomes altogether more interesting and informative than a work one might think to be merely another entry in the horrible and garish canon of B-list celebrity autobiography should be.
The book is an interesting mixture of stories about fundamentalist sociology and power dynamics, a weirdly compelling portrait of the evil genius of former University of Utah coach Rick Majerus (Allred’s perhaps justifiable bitterness toward the man appears in ways both conscious and unconscious; Majerus’s wildly foul mouth is amply reproduced, but he also not infrequently enters stage right with various pastries and breakfast foods smeared on his mouth), and a sometimes amusing account of the woeful plight of pro basketball in southern Europe.
But it is also, in ways reminiscent of The Confessions or The Autobiography of Malcolm X, a spiritual autobiography, a conversion narrative, a journey from dislocation to place, from darkness to light, achieved through the discovery of a theology which adequately explains why Lance Allred is where and who he is in the world.
Like Malcolm X or Tenskwa-Tawa or any number of other Americans, Allred was born into the absence of God, into a faith and community in which his hungers were not fed. His father, the son of polygamist prophet Rulon Allred, was by Lance’s infancy a monogamist. This meant that despite his last name and economic dedication to the Apostolic United Brethren, the family rarely escaped the shadow of suspicion and was poorly equipped ideologically to outmaneuver the treacherous and powergrubbing Jessops. Lance himself, legally deaf, tall and gangly, scion of the infamous Rulon, found little peace. His youth was a flurry of moves from house to house, from Utah to Montana, from relative to relative. All this culminates in a courtroom scene in which a beloved uncle is reduced to tears in front of the horrified teenager.
And such was the pilgrim freed from his moorings. This is the first step; it is generally a painful process, though it is also marked with a certain degree of ignorance. The pilgrim is hungry, but does not know for what. Malcolm X spent his youth hustling prostitutes and collecting for card sharks, unaware of his sinfulness but not of the vague dissatisfaction it caused him; Lance Allred was by his own admission a passive youth, spending most of his time avoiding awkward encounters with relatives and being quiet in school. This dislocation moves the pilgrim into a liminal state, separating them from the collective, preparing them for the great trial of conversion.
It is true that Allred followed his father from from the AUB into the LDS church, though the conversion seems somewhat perfunctory; we hear virtually nothing about his church life, and it does not seem to occur to him to engage in the ritual agon with Sunday play that Steve Young modeled for all future Mormon athletes. Further, his new affiliation does not stop Allred from including several footnotes mocking BYU for being no less institutional and authoritarian than his grandfather’s sect. He decided not to serve a mission after his brother Court returned from his own suffering from bipolar disorder; in somewhat overheated prose, Allred calls Court “a tortured soul whose mind was battling the conflict of organized religion;” this is not the language of a devout Latter-day Saint. (120)  Lance Allred still lacked a home.
Now, this is not to say that Allred has not found a religion; indeed, quite the contrary. But joining the LDS church was not his true conversion, for he had not yet crossed his valley of the shadow of death. He had not yet played for Rick Majerus.
Several times Allred states that Majerus was both the most brilliant coach he had ever had but also, quite possibly, unhinged. Playing for the man was a trial by fire. Allred was subjected to routine verbal abuse for being deaf, for (heaven forbid) making mistakes on the court, for suffering from the personality flaws he candidly acknowledges. Majerus stripped Allred to the bone, and his self-destructive tendencies – persistent self-criticism, fear of failure, obsessive compulsive disorder – flourished in the wound. And the worst of it, Allred tells us, was that Majerus robbed him of a home: “Basketball had been something that had allowed me to feel normal, to fit in, and yet Majerus, like so many before him, isolated me.” (148) As starting center for the University of Utah’s men’s basketball team, Lance Allred suffered ultimate despair for his salvation. Malcolm X was sent to prison; St Augustine to Milan; Lance Allred, to the U’s Huntsman Center.
And all three emerged into the sun on the other side. Malcolm famously left prison with a new watch and pair of glasses, with renewed focus and urgency; St Augustine, as he put it, found that God cried out and pierced his deafness, shone forth and dispelled his blindness. Lance Allred considered fleeing back to Montana – that is, to his beginnings – but instead transferred to Weber State. But first, and pivotally, he played for the United States at the World Deaf Olympics; and it was “a whole new experience to just stare down at my hearing aids in the morning and spitefully leave them behind.” (153) Like the other men, Allred’s conversion transcended his weaknesses; he mastered his OCD when Joe Cravens, coach at Weber, encouraged him to take medication. And, after experiencing the fellowship of the Weber State lockerroom, he became what he refers to himself as repeatedly – “I’m not a baller, I’m not a track star. I’m merely a basketball player – nothing more, nothing less.” (178)
What does it mean to just be a basketball player? Here I want to circle back to my previously developed theory of Mormon basketball – that it is not about achievement, or pleasure, or exhibition, but about the development of a particular communal character. Allred tells us several times that he disappoints in individual workouts, because he needs a team to demonstrate his greatest gifts; on the other hand, he has wonderful praise for the journeyman point guard Randy Livington, because he and Livingston play a devastating two man game, and his performance with Livingston in the minor leagues ultimately gains him his fondest desire – he is called up, summoned, and given a place on the Cleveland Cavaliers. He is wanted, claimed, given a home. Being a basketball player, for Allred, is about community, about the creation of those bonds. It is, indeed, about his salvation, and that in a particularly religious sense: Allred closes the book with a mantra.
I, Lance Allred, am a child of God, and I know that He loves me.
I will be an example of Him at all times.
I, Lance Allred, will live life to the fullest and never settle for less than my best.
I will be the best basketball player that I can be.
I, Lance Allred, will play in the NBA.
I will hand over my life to the Lord for his doing.
I, Lance Allred, will achieve all that I desire, for the Lord has promised me so.
Notice how carefully Allred here intertwines God with the sport. It is the place where he identifies the hand of God in his life. The point I’m making here is nothing so crass and silly as to claim that Lance Allred confuses basketball with religion . . . but, then again, maybe it is, but in a much more profound way than the concept might initially seem. Basketball is where Allred has discovered the community and belonging that the variants of Mormonism he drifted through always held out in tantalizing fashion, but never delivered, and indeed, betrayed. Allred, ultimately, perhaps understands his experience with basketball as a sacrament, a place where he can reach out and touch God’s extended hand. And thus, when he savors all the joy the sport has to offer – a perfect pick and roll, a completed fast break, that tangible and unique bond that teammates can have – he finds most purely the rest and peace of true faith.
 This should in no way minimize the very real – and alarmingly unique – trials Allred has successfully navigated; nor should it be read as dismissive of his honesty, perseverance, and dedication. It is, however, a furrowing of the brow at the weird way in which real life can be molded into cliche.
 Elsewhere in the book Allred claims “Religion divides us. Spirituality unites us.” (52) This is of course, by now, an empty and massive cliche; a particularly American (read: anti-institutional, individualistic, maybe even consumerist) way of thinking about God that used to be interesting but by now is tedious, and thus it’s slightly disappointing to read in such an interesting narrative as this. Though, I suppose, given his experiences, Allred’s more entitled than most to be suspicious of organized religion.