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Originally published Saturday, January 1, 2011 at 8:01 PM

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Danny Westneat

A courtside seat to an experiment in the elusive goal of integration

Doug Merlino's "The Hustle: One Team and Ten Lives in Black and White," tracing his former teammates on a basketball team made up of white students from Lakeside private school and black kids from the Central Area, reveals much about race, money and opportunity in the seemingly unbridgeable sub-worlds that make up modern-day Seattle.

Seattle Times staff columnist

Hear Doug Merlino talk about 'The Hustle'

To hear more about race and class in Seattle and Merlino's book — including the perspectives of some of Merlino's former teammates, black and white — Seattle's Town Hall is hosting a panel discussion at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday. The discussion is moderated by The Seattle Times' Jerry Large. Tickets are $5 at www.brownpapertickets.com or 800-838-3006, or at the door beginning at 6:30 p.m. Town Hall members receive priority seating.

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Nineteen years ago, Doug Merlino was mostly trying to escape Seattle. He had no idea of the long trip he was about to take into the city's soul when he picked up the newspaper lying on his parents' stoop.

"WHAT WENT WRONG?" read a front-page headline in The Seattle Times. The question would gnaw at Merlino for nearly two decades.

The sub-headline read: "Tyrell Johnson was young, black, male — and murdered."

A photo showed a black kid wearing a yellow basketball jersey, number 24. It had been cropped from a team shot. Had the photo not been cropped, it would have shown that number 25 on the same team was a chubby-cheeked white kid named Doug Merlino.

"As soon as I saw that, I knew I had to go back," says Merlino, now 39. "Not just to Tyrell, but to everybody."

The result is "The Hustle: One Team and Ten Lives in Black and White," Merlino's new book about race, money and opportunity in the seemingly unbridgeable sub-worlds that make up modern-day Seattle.

It turns out Merlino, who went to the elite prep school Lakeside, and Tyrell Johnson, from Seattle's Central Area, were on the same basketball team in 1986 only because of an integration experiment dreamed up by two fathers:

What would happen if they mixed a team of the city's privileged white kids with black kids from the inner city?

One of the fathers was black, and he hoped the black kids, once exposed to the white world of wealth and achievement, would get a shot at private school. The other father was white. He hoped the white kids would have their eyes opened to how they lived in a bubble of entitlement.

It worked, or so it seemed. The team van crisscrossed Seattle's unofficial race and class boundaries before every practice and game. Inside became a sanctuary. The boys, in eighth grade, bonded as sports teammates often do. They won a regional AAU championship.

Some of the black kids did get entry into private high schools, due to playing on this team.

Yet five years later, one of the team's black stars, Johnson, was found murdered in a Rainier Valley ditch. It gets Merlino to wondering: Did the experiment work after all?

When he goes back to find his teammates as adults — reporting he does over a seven-year period between 2002 and 2009 — the disparities he finds are galling.

His four North End white Lakeside teammates all went on to college. Today, they are a King County prosecutor, a hedge-fund manager, a winemaker and an employee-benefits broker.

Of the six black players from south of the Ship Canal, five got swept up in the crack epidemic of the late 1980s, to varying degrees. One is killed. Two go to prison for drug dealing. Only one manages to navigate a more or less straight-line path to prosperity — high-school graduation, college, job — like his white teammates.

Why? Is history really destiny? Is integration a chimera, more designed to make us feel good than to achieve real equality? Merlino, to his credit, spends much of his 290-page book opening and then reopening this Pandora's Box of questions.

"It struck me how ignorant I was in so many ways," Merlino says. "At Lakeside, we learned a lot more about ancient China than we ever did about race or class in America."

The black players in the book, now grown men, are painfully honest about it all.

"Sometimes you only get one chance in life," one tells Merlino. "That was mine, and I blew it."

One of the black players reminds Merlino of how Lakeside's student body used to do a cheer when they were losing at sports to another school: "It's all right, it's OK, you'll all work for us someday."

Merlino cringes in embarrassment. But his black teammate hears the cheer from another angle: "I hate to say it," he says, "but it was probably true."

There's almost no mention of overt racial discrimination, as there would have been if this story had played out in the '50s. The black men talk of subtler but still-potent forces. Such as how they're steeped in different cultural institutions than most white people — including the street — which can make the leap to a cloistered, moneyed place such as Lakeside more treacherous than white people may ever know.

The one who succeeded at it the best had to become so adroit at straddling mutually indecipherable worlds that his teammates dub him a "translator." His wife later calls him a "code switcher" — a person fluent in the language and culture of multiple groups.

By contrast, Merlino notes, "There were really no demands on the white side except to simply show up."

Merlino does not say integration is a failure, but that its results are elusive. For example, one of the black players, Damian Joseph, goes to, and struggles mightily at, the private school Seattle Prep. Later he falls into drug dealing but makes it off the street by transitioning to another institution, the church.

Maybe because of the experiment he learned how to jump worlds a little better than some? He's now a teacher — one of the book's success stories.

Merlino's conclusion is sure to be provocative. For integration to do more than "paper over" these chasms, he writes, "the group with the advantages — money, position, status, education — has to let down the armor of superiority, has to give up its edge."

That's a tall order, I say to him. People want to advance no matter what and won't readily yield an edge. Society is moving away from well-intentioned tries at that very thing, such as affirmative action.

"I meant that on a more personal level," Merlino says. "It takes work. I was there, living this, but I had assumptions built into me that I was oblivious to. So when I went back to try to see it through their eyes, it was like being hit in the head.

"I'm saying it's hard for white people to even see these issues," he says. "The background isn't there.

"It'd be like you and me trying to talk about how a Boeing jet engine really works. Without a lot more effort and work on our parts, in the end we just have no idea."

Danny Westneat's column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or dwestneat@seattletimes.com.

About Danny Westneat

Danny Westneat takes an opinionated look at the Puget Sound region's news, people and politics. Send tips or comments to dwestneat@seattletimes.com. His column runs Wednesday and Sunday.
dwestneat@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2086

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