Alumnus Earns Rave Reviews for Second Book
Rus Bradburd C’80 started out at North Park as a history major, “and I had wonderful professors, including Charles Wiberg and Zenos Hawkinson,” he recalls. “But I couldn’t sit still for them. I was too immature to absorb what they were teaching.”
He eventually switched his major to physical education and barely made the basketball team, “but I was the worst player in school history,” he says with a laugh. “I had tested out of English and fine arts. I was always a big reader. Every writer is.”
Today, Bradburd has found his niche in writing about two of his great loves—history and sports. In February, just in time for Black History Month, Bradburd’s second sports book was published, and once again, the critics love it. (Of his first book, the Chicago Tribune reviewer wrote, “Paddy on the Hardwood was the best book I read in 2006.”)
Forty Minutes of Hell is the controversial and racially charged story of basketball coach Nolan Richardson, an American basketball head coach who took the University of Arkansas to the Final Four three times, won the NCAA title in 1994, and was elected to the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame.
“I wrote this book because I’m very interested in the subject of sports as an agent for social change,” Bradburd says. “We have a long history in this country of sports breaking down racial barriers. Richardson grew up in segregated El Paso, Texas, and had an inadvertent hand in ending Jim Crow. He was a great and socially significant coach.”
The title of the book reflects the relentless style of defensive play that Richardson developed to make the lives of the players on the opposing team hell—reflecting the same intensity with which he challenged the discriminatory practices of institutions and individuals in the American South.
Bradburd points out that it was Jackie Robinson who first broke the lines of segregation in baseball when he debuted with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, but it wasn’t until 1948 that President Truman issued an order ending racial segregation within the U.S. military forces. He continues, “The book examines the struggles of black coaches seen through the prism of Richardson’s life.”
Bradburd was working as assistant coach to Don Haskins—the first college basketball coach to start five African American players against an all-white team in an NCAA championship, which the team won—for whom Richardson played in the early 1960s. When Bradburd met Richardson, he and former UTEP guard Steve Yellen were running a program teaching basketball skills to youth in a South El Paso barrio, one of the poorest communities in the US, for the cost of $1 per participant. As Bradburd got acquainted with Richardson, he became more and more inspired with ideas for his next book.
“As a writer, I liked the fact that his story comes full circle and that he used his Spanish to coach the Mexican National Team,” Bradburd says. “I wrote the book more like fiction than biography, with dramatic tension and a story arc. Only about four pages of the book describe what’s happening on the court.”
Sports writer Dave Zirin called the book “operatic, heartbreaking, and inspiring.” Sports Illustrated commended the “energetic biography” for its “humanizing detail.” And former President Clinton described it as “an incredible journey.”
Today, Bradburd is assistant professor of English and teaches MFA writing classes at New Mexico State University. He is currently working on a short story collection and ruminating on ideas for his next book.