It's no secret Andrew Maraniss is one of my favorite sports authors, and one that I have a great respect for(not just because we both live and die by the Green Bay Packers). The New York Times bestselling author released his eagerly anticipated new book in November 2019 called Games of Deception: The True Story of the First U.S. Olympic Basketball Team at the 1936 Olympics in Hitler's Germany Since I've been on a small hiatus(has anyone even noticed?!), I'm going 'Beast Mode" and returning to the game in style by writing about a guy I consider one of the best at his craft.
Games of Deception, while centered on the historic 1936 Olympic basketball team, is so much more than that. The book provides context into James Naismith and the genesis of basketball itself, background of the buildup going into these Hitler Olympics in both America and abroad, and the social, political, and competitive backdrop in Germany and America surrounding the 1936 Olympic Games.
Games of Deception, much like the first Maraniss title Strong Inside, weaves sports, history, and culture together with seamless effort in his trademark descriptive journalistic style. It is the second book that Maraniss has done in a YA format, and one that I feel earns him a spot as one of the top voices in young adult nonfiction sports literature today, along with authors like Steve Sheinken, Phil Hoose, Howard Bryant.
It's hard to underestimate the impact a book like Games of Deception can have on a generation of youth who have grown rather complacent to the catastrophic political events of the past, and rather apathetic to the current dangerous political climate. While some like to argue that sports and politics should hold their own courts, books like Games show that sports and society are indeed closely connected, and when used properly, sports can be a great tool to raise awareness to current social and political issues.
In Games of Deception and Strong Inside, Maraniss has purposely chosen to take his message to a group most in need--our youth. And what better way than to speak to teens than through sports. I've worked with young adults as a teacher, librarian, and coach for the past 30 years; it takes a special type to pull this off. It takes a special kind of author to understand how to write for a teen. I can tell you for sure that Games of Deception is great book. But I'd rather talk use this space to highlight what Maraniss does in Games (and Strong Inside) that makes him a key voice for the younger generation .
So you need to get Games of Deception in your library now. Show it to your social studies and English teachers, it would be a great curriculum addition. Now more than ever, we need to have authors that focus on connecting with the younger generation and raising awareness to what's going on in the world today. These are scary and uncertain times in more than one way, Maraniss and his works have become the perfect model to cut through all the deception.
Recently, I caught an interview on a Milwaukee TV station with former Milwaukee Buck and current Utah Jazz player Ekpe Udoh. What grabbed my attention was not a focus on blocking shots, scoring, or Giannis, but it was on reading!
Aside from being a solid big man in the professional basketball ranks both here and overseas, Ekpe has admirably chosen to be more than just a basketball player. While some pros may talk a good game about reading, Ekpe is one of the few (along with Andrew Luck) who have chosen to become active in creating a true community of readers. He's on a mission to create a culture that doesn't simply read a book, but interacts with the text and reflects on how words can influence and impact society. Ekpe has even begun to include author interactions along with his books to create a truly powerful reading experience.
Look, I've always thought Ekpe was a cool guy. He seemed to have a quiet and chill demeanor in his stint with the Bucks in 2014, and when I heard he began a book club, I was sold. In fact, I remember going to a game with my son (then 10) and pointing out Udoh saying, "That guy loves to read books!" (I'd bet an Ekpe's book club tshirt that I was the ONLY person in the arena who said that to anyone!!) When Udoh departed after the 2014 season for LA, I kind of lost track of him and the book club. But after some time in Europe, Udoh is in Utah with the Jazz, and back running a book club. Udoh may not be a household name, but I admire him as much as LeBron or Giannis for what he is attempting to accomplish in the realm of reading and social awareness.
In a nutshell, Ekpe chooses a book (in many cases he may tweet out a call for requests) and announces it on Twitter. People can then sign up, grab a book, and then let Ekpe lead the discussion via Twitter. He will announce the time, open up the discussion, throw out some questions, and weigh in personally. It's actually quite remarkable to see such honesty and willingness from a professional athlete. It is far above anything regarding book clubs that I have ever seen. The genuine nature of Ekpe makes him a perfect host for this event, and it has the feel of an intimate kitchen table discussion where real thoughts and reflections are examined. Often, after the book has been completed, Ekpe has been hosting fantastic discussions with the author for people to participate in. As for the heaviness of the topics, yes, the chosen books often pick at the sores of racism and other cultural/societal issues. But if the real wonder of literature is being able to expose problems, find common ground, and hash out solutions, then Ekpe's done everyone a real favor.
I hope all teen librarians and parents can link their kids with Ekpe's club. I'm going to do one of the next ones with my son. These are all books I have in my high school library--they have merit and value for any teen. The topics have some meat on the bone, and it's just nice to have someone in the position of a professional athlete stand up and lead the discussion.
For years I have been trying to convice professional athletes that it would be wise for them to share their reading. Kids would really value what they have to offer on literature of past and present. How hard could it be for an athlete to tweet themselves with a picture of what they are reading? After all, as Ekpe says, "If I can play in the NBA and still find time to read — so can you!"
In basketball, it is often said that good players know how to "create their own shots." The great players create their own shot when the ball is in their hands as well as when the ball is across the floor. I bring this up because without a doubt, one of the takeaways of John Willkom's new book Walk-On Warrior is that in life, you are largely responsible for your own success.
Willkom is a small town kid from Marshfield, Wisconsin who was gifted not with a strapping 6'-10" frame, but with a work ethic, brain, great family, and solid mentors. Using these gifts, he fashioned himself into a solid basketball player and better person who would eventually earn a spot as a walk-on at Marquette University. The book covers Willkom's entire life, from grade school to post college, focusing on how he moved up the ladder of basketball and career. I was a little leery at first that this book might be a little too cute of an "overcoming the odds" story, but it ended up being much more.
From the start, Willkom established himself as a playmaker in life. His feat of starting a successful hoops camp as a high school kid and leading the charge on AAU opportunities for kids in the northern rural part of the state was amazing and showed drive well beyond his years.
Willkom's ability to recognize important people in his life and how the people you surround yourself with have a hand in shaping you was thoughtful. The gifts of wisdom that coaches, counselors, and parents subtly offer through words and example are not lost on Willkom. Throughout the book we are introduced to these characters and are left with a clear vision of just how influential these folks were to Willkom. It's a great message for teens to find mentors in those around you.
At every turn, Willkom has a knack for aggressively pursuing opportunities and contacts. Nothing is handed to him, which is another great lesson for kids. It's actually refreshing, in today's AAU "what can you do for me" culture, to see a guy who busted his ass at every turn, for every break, like it was a 50/50 ball on the court. Willkom makes it a point of the book to stress that lessons learned on the court are transferable to life. It's the mantra I harp on with all the sports books I look at on this blog. A sport does not exist is its own bubble, but rather creates a mind-set that is applicable to all phases of life.
Don't worry, there's plenty of baketball in this book! There are some great Tom Crean strories, fantastic basketball moments from his career in high school and college, some classic Rick Majerus ineractions, and anecdotes surrounding players and coaches you may recognize (especially as a Wisconsin kid). Most of all, the basketball content really illustrates how grueling and physically demanding playing higher level hoops can be. It's a great gut check for any aspiring teen hardwood warrior to see what Willkom endured and did to stay relevant on the court.
Overall, I liked Willkom's focus on life over basketball. His decision to walk away from Marquette basketball after a year caught me off guard, but it proved that his head was in the right place. For 99% of the kids out there, basketball will be nothing more than a game, and as much as Willkom loved the game, he knew that he needed that time to prepare for bigger challenges. It showed an immense amount of maturity to do this which I found admirable.
I know I've been on a little bender these days with walk-on books. First, it was Mark Titus and his rollicking look at walk-on life for the Ohio State basketball team. Now, in finishing Willkom's book, I find a very different voice. Both can have a spot in a high school library, but Willkom's book would probably leave you in better graces with the Principal! In truth, while each story has its merits, I would give the Titus book to my son for entertainment, but I would give him Willkom's book for life lessons. And that's a pretty solid recommendation!
. For as long I've been librarian here, the book Hoop Dreams has been the gold standard when it comes to basketball books for high school kids. It's a relatable time period for teens--tracing the lives of these Chicago basketball prodogies from elementaty school through college signing, following the volitile arc of youth and dreams. What 8th grade kid who plays basketball doesn't have hoop dreams?
Chicago city basketball powerhouse Marshall High School, one of the focal points of Arthur Agee's life in Hoop Dreams, is once again in the spotlight in Rus Bradburd's new book All the Dreams We've Dreamed.
In the book, former Agee era player Shawn Harrington returns years later to Marshall High School as an assistant basketball coach. Tragedy strikes, however, when the beloved "Coach Shaky" Harrington is shot at in a mistaken-identity shooting. Using his body to shield his teenage daughter whom he's driving to school, Harrington is struck and paralyzed. While the life struggles of Harrington, both before and after that fateful event, are traced throughout the book, Bradburd's story fleshes out a much larger issue of gun violence, poverty, and lack of opportunity for these teenagers in Chicago's rough west side. It also spells out a somewhat unflattering look a the world of basketball recruiting--something we already kind of saw in Hoop Dreams.
Over the course of the book, Bradburd traces the lives of a shocking number of Marshall players who were murdered, and the idea that basketball, once glorified as a "ticket out" for these kids, has now lost it's safety status. In a week when it has been reported that gun violence is at it's highest point in 40 years, Bradburd's book is an eerily timed exhibit on just how many lives one stray bullet can impact.
Author Bradburd begins the book as a college basketball recruiter who convinces Harrington to come to New Mexico State, only to see them pull his scholarship after a year. After discovering that Harrington, now home in Chicago, was shot and paralyzed years later, Bradburd takes a keen interest, and one might say responsibility, for his status, and does what he can to be a positive influence on Harrington's life. It's pretty amazing how tirelessly Bradburd works to make Harrington's life better, and in the end, you're left witnessing a strong friendship that yields hope for a world that struggles so much with racism, health care, education, gun violence, and poverty.
Bradburd is a very honest storyteller. He doesn't turn his book into a thesis on gun violence; his focus is square on the people and lives this violence impacts. He doesn't claim to be a savior, and claims as much responsibility as anyone for Harrington's situation. At times you wonder, "Why's this guy(Bradburd) doing all this stuff for him?" But it's the human condiditon; the desire to help and be part of the solution. Bradburd has a conscience. We all do. So do many of the many good people Bradburd introduces at Marshall that risk their lives to be part of the solution. The reality of how hard it is to make any progress is staggering. It's like putting out one bucket for a ceiling that's leaking in 100 different places.
There is an absolute cloud of sadness that hangs over this book, as one chapter after another strings together hopeful ballplayers who get caught up in this cycle of poverty and fall victim to gun violence. As a reader, you don't know whether to be angry, sad, depressed, dismissive, or shocked. In the end, as I read this at a comfortable suburban coffe shop surrounded by holiday joy, I just felt stupid. So much we take for granted, so much we don't know, and so much we just choose to ignore.
And our kids are no better. My freshman son and his hoops friends all sit around and watch YouTube highlight clips of these immensely talented kids, without ever understanding the context of what these kids face in life. It's such a crazy disconnect, and this book surely hammers that home.
With that in mind, perhaps Bradburd's book should be required reading for high school athletes. A little glimpse into someone else's reality is always great medicine for a teenager. It's powerful to pull back the curtain on the TV version of competitive high school and college hoops to see the flaws in the system. This book is a must add for youth and adult libraries--urban, suburban, and rural. Our young athletes will be better people knowing that for some, just getting to a practice can be a life or death endeavor.
I was a member of Club Trillion long before Mark Titus took his first shot on a Little Tykes basketball hoop--but I'll get to Club Trillion later.
My brother recently sent me an antique photo that forced me to dust off some memories. Jockbrarian, circa 1985, when I hated reading, Phil Collins was topping the charts with cheezy duets, The Breakfast Club was a new release, and I was the 15th man on a 15 member varsity high school basketball squad that won 5 games.
My Junior year in high school I tried out with 60 other guys (back when "try-outs" actually existed and "entitlement" was in it's infancy). I moreless got asked to stick around. Three guys got the proposal of a lifetime: "We'd love to have you on the team, but you will absolutely never play." Only one sucker took the offer! Let's face it, I was honored and moved to be considered "just good enough."
Like my mullet, this attitude would never fly today. If a coach said this to a kid's face now, they'd laugh and skip for Taco Bell. There's no glory in just being on a team, anymore. People used to play the game because they loved the game. You want to tell me another time in life when you can play basketball for 3 hours a day? People laughed at me, but I didn't give a crap. I embraced the joke. If that made me a fool, so be it. At least I was a happy idiot. At one point that year, I even had a fan newsletter circulating after each home game analyzing my warm up stats, layup style points, and shell-drill performance. I was a curiosity and a cult-scrub; it was brilliant.
I bring all of this up because one of my favorite recently read books was Don't Put Me In Coach by Mark Titus. Titus played for Ohio State from 2006-2010, with the book being released in 2012. I say "play" loosely, as Titus was a bench warmer for the entire 4 years. Through his lack of playing, though, he created a blog called Club Trillion, which spoke not only to the sacred brotherhood of benchwarmers over the world, but also gave people an insider's view of a NCAA Div 1 college hoops program. Club Trillion was named to pay homage to the perfect game for a scrub: 0 stats in any game category. Through this blog, Titus became a crowd hero across the Big Ten for his reports from the pine.
Like most self proclaimed basketball prodogies, Titus began his playing journey in AAU ball, where he had the fortune of being on a team with fellow future Buckeyes Greg Oden and Mike Conley. From there he rose to walk-on status through mostly good fortune. The majority of the book covers his 4 years at Ohio State playing for one of the best teams of the decade. His stories include many reference to to Oden, Conley, and especially The Villian.
This is no Rudy story, though. There's no game winning basket and no miraculous rise from the floor after being knocked out. Thank God. There are enough Rudy stories on our shelves to disillusion kids into believing everything turns up roses and they are owed this trope. Titus is loved not for his accomplishments, but for his lack of accomplishments., which is why I connect with him.
Titus writes with great candor. He comes off as funny, a complete smart-ass, and kind of a knob. But that's what makes his story great. Deep down, people struggle with the try-hard Rudys--hustling around around and brown nosing with such numbing sincerity. Titus is a hustler, but he's not going to be anyone's bitch. That's how true survival works as a benchwrmer on a real team.
Some of my favorite parts are when he talks about his games against my Wisconsin Badger teams. Titus thinks our cheeleaders are ugly, and affectionately refers to our players as "the buzzcuts." Those Bo Ryan teams always looked like something out of Hoosiers, and by the time you were done laughing about how the hell any top 20 team could lose to a bunch of guys that looked like that, you'd already lost.
For all his self deprication, the truth is that Titus clearly loves the game and he values the walk-on experience. His final game as a Buckeye is a pretty cool moment that showed exactly the passion behind the madness for Titus. For that, I often felt while reading the book that he would have been a great fit with the buzzcuts. Hell, he probably would have played! (And I've heard that in between taking charges, they actually joke around in Wisconsin)
Titus often touts his high baskeball IQ, correctly infering that all of the "true learning" comes from time on the bench. Basketball knowledge? Not really....but you do learn pretty fast who sucks out on the court and how much better the game would be if you were playing.
Don't let the fact that the book is 6 years old scare you. The only thing that has changed about bench warming is that it used to accurately be called "riding the pines" in that team benches used to be the actual first row of the wooden bleachers. Now, not only are bleachers plastic, but most teams are parked for games on candy-ass mega padded fluff chairs. A true luxury for the Titus generation of stiffs.
Is this book fit for a high school library? Sure it is! It's crude and vulgar at times--many times-but if you would spend any time around a high school baskeball team, you'd hear far worse. I think there's a good message in all of this for young athletes anyways: Sometimes you have to chill out, laugh a little, not take sports so damn seriously, and enjoy the ride! It's a lesson I learned in 1985.
Sadly, my final year of assistant coaching the West Bend West girls cross country team has closed. In addition to running coach, pop psychologist, and relationship guru, I sported a new bit part this season as comedian-in-residence. My girls demand one stupid joke a day, and they also found out I write a sports book blog, thinking that was pretty damn solid comedy as well.
Anyways, they begged me to include them in a blog post, and I will do one better--I will write one for them(A serious one!! Gasp!)--and of course recommend some books!
Coaching high school girls has been an experience for sure. Moreso than guys, a coach of high school girls needs to provide a shoulder to cry on, a place to vent, infinite advice on the male psyche, and a really high tolerance for crappy music played loudly. There are moods galore; the highs after good races are boundless, and the lows after poor races are stiffling. Nobody gets down on themselves more than female runners. I can use a "get em next week" speech with any guy, but females usually burst into tears at the sound of a good pick-me-up. In a very serious way, their confidence is fragile to start, and can often spiral out of control until parents, friends, and coaches can no longer provide rationalization or support.
For that reason, my parting advice and suggestions to you, my beloved runners, follows the sentiment in the book Let Your Mind Run by Deena Kastor. Since you probably weren't paying much attention to the running world until recently, Kastor's background is summarized as such:
Deena Kastor was a star youth runner with tremendous promise, yet her career almost ended after college, when her competitive method—run as hard as possible, for fear of losing—fostered a frustration and negativity and brought her to the brink of burnout. On the verge of quitting, she took a chance and moved to the high altitudes of Alamosa, Colorado, where legendary coach Joe Vigil had started the first professional distance-running team. There she encountered the idea that would transform her running career: the notion that changing her thinking—shaping her mind to be more encouraging, kind, and resilient—could make her faster than she’d ever imagined possible. Building a mind so strong would take years of effort and discipline, but it would propel Kastor to the pinnacle of running—to American records in every distance from the 5K to the marathon—and to the accomplishment of earning America’s first Olympic medal in the marathon in twenty years.
In translation, this book takes a peek inside the mind of an elite female runner. You may say, "I'm not elite, so this wouldn't work for me." Wrong. Elite or not, the mind works the same way. While the achievements of Kastor are worth reading about, the idea of cultivating a positive attitude and self confidence is the true nugget of wisdom here. In all my years and wisdom (and yes, I had teenage daughters who ran) I have found the mind of a female runner to be perfectionist, highly reflective, and intelligent. While these are great qualities, when channeled incorrectly, they can turn that same brilliant mind against itself into a monsterous self critic.
I have dealt with many female runners who had trouble climbing out of pits of debilitating self doubt. When your belief in yourself has abandoned you, there is not much left to lean on. Such was the case this past year with a graduating runner(you probably know her). Luckily, Kastor's book had just dropped, and as a graduation gift, I wrapped up the book and wrote a little note hoping that there might be one thing gained from reading the book that would stem the tide of self doubt and alter her mind's course as she headed to college.
A month later, I was met with a gratefulness that was genuine, and introspection that showed maturity. Clearly this girl had not just read the book, but was able to relay how it had literally changed her life. There were revelations that perhaps poor performaces were not due to physical shortcomings, but rather mental wavering. There was a sadness that mental bumps may have derailed seasons of promise--that full potential was being stiffled by a mind that wouldn't let the body believe that the next level could be attatined. Through Kastor's book, this runner was armed with a new confidence heading into her new college running experience. There was a greater awareness of the power of positive thought and the fact the building a sharp mind to promote self confidence was as important as building miles on the road.
Another book in the same vein that just came out, but I have not seen yet, is Strong: A Runner's Guide to Boosting Confidence and Becoming the Best Version of You by 2 time Olympian runner Kara Goucher. This book looks to give the same type of confidence boosting advice to female runners.
Those of you who aren't freshmen remeber the great article Coach J pulls out every year during the championship phase of the season about "Talking Back to the Voice." In it, runners are coached to not let voices of negativity into their heads. And when those defeatist thoughts do creep in, you need to "talk back" to that voice with affirmations and positivity that override the bad sentiments. By training your mind to say no, you are blocking those rogue emotions that say "You can't do that!" and talking back with "I CAN!" and "I WILL!"
I would get you all copies of Kastor's book, but on a teachers salary, I'd be eating rice for the rest of the year. Do yourself a favor and read it. Mark it up; pull some inspiring quotes and stories out and set out to improve. Don't be so hard on yourself and believe in the best version of who you are--because it is a pretty great one. I should know--I've run alongside you for many miles.
Best hopes, dreams, and wishes to all of you and thanks for the memories! Coach S
In celebration of the magical run of 2018, any decent library in Wiscosnin should have these books readily available for public consumption between games! Any library that took down Brewer books and changed to Packer displays--you need to immediately reverse course. (A library that actually has a display of ANY sports books up should be immediately commended, however) #gocrewbooks
To a young athlete, sports experiences are often at the center of family bonding. Kids may cherish the fact that their grandparents attend their sporting events and are in the stands to cheer. They may also have fond memories of sitting around the TV on a Sunday afternoon watching a Packer game with their loved one, or attending a ball game and reminiscing about great teams of the past.
But what happens when that loved one no longer can remember who is playing, or even that YOU are playing?
Such is often the case when living with a loved one that has Alzheimer’s disease. Martin J. Schreiber, my uncle, wrote My Two Elaines which provides insight as to how family and friends of those with Alzheimer’s cope and adapt when their loved ones are afflicted with this disease. A recent athletic event made me think deeply about this book, how it deals with sports, and why it should be in a school library.
This spring, the local high school hosted a major high school track meet. After a few events, on the award stand at the 50 yard line of the infield, was an athlete waiting to collect his award on the podium. Near the podium the meet manager stood waiting to hand out the award. In the stands there were hundreds of people, including the parents and grandparents of the athlete. On the track itself, competition continued.
As the athlete was about the receive his award, his anxious grandfather began making his way to an opening in the fence at the 50 yard line. The gentleman wandered out onto the track as the 100 meter dash was set to begin. The meet manager, sensing disaster, waved off the race and made his way to the grandparent.
At that very moment, everything could have become unglued.
Instead, what transpired was something that will resonate for a long time.
The meet manager, instead of becoming frustrated, gently went up to that man,
“Sir, we are in the middle of a race.”
“I am leaving and need to say goodbye to my grandson, Jim” he insisted.
The athlete's father, trailing powerlessly behind, could do little to stop the grandfather from accomplishing what his mind was set to do. The father looked anxiously at the meet manager as he followed behind.
“My dad has dementia”, he whispered apologetically. “He won’t leave until he talks to his grandson, Mike,” he pointed towards the podium.
The athlete, who was witnessing his grandfather crossing the track, leapt off the podium and met his grandfather on the track.
“I wanted to say goodbye, Jim,” the grandfather said
The athlete put his hand on his grandfather’s shoulder.
In front of the entire crowd, Mike hugged his grandfather.
“I’m happy that you came to see me today,” he said, “and I'll see you soon.”
With that, the meet manager and the father led the grandfather off the track, Mike returned to the podium, and the races resumed.
I tell you this story because there were so many things that went right in a situation where everything could have gone wrong.
The challenges Alzheimer’s presents can impact life events in unpredictable ways. But still, when reacting to the unexpected world of this disease.........
The impact of Alzheimer's extends far beyond the individual who suffers from the disease. In athletics, does this mean that a parent or grandparent should not attend an athletic event for a loved one? Should a young athlete be embarrassed by having his/her loved one with Alzheimer's show up to watch a competition? It can be very confusing to a youth who is used to seeing a loved one in a healthy state of mind, now function as a different person. How do they cope?
I think that it is important that we have our young athletes understand that with some maturity and understanding, a recently diagnosed loved one can still be part of their lives. For this reason I wanted to recommend adding My Two Elaines to your library.
Schreiber, whose wife suffers from Alzheimer’s, wrote the book from personal experience to help those who care for a person with Alzheimer’s. The book speaks to the reality of Alzheimer’s--not in scientific terms, but in terms of everyday life. Marty speaks to the reality that the person who suffers from Alzheimer’s is no longer the person they once were. Instead, there is a new reality--a new person so to speak, that requires a new understanding. There is, in a sense, a person before the disease, and the person after the disease. In addition to talking about the how the person with Alzheimer’s has changed, Marty focuses on how caregivers and family around that person can cope and exist with their loved one who is now functioning within the disease.
What does this have to do with sports and kids? Everything. More and more middle school, high school, and college athletes are dealing with parents or grandparents suffering from Alzheimer’s. Many are confused on how to deal with the fact that someone like a parent or grandparent, who has been so supportive of their athletic careers in the past, now doesn’t function as they used to or remember what they used to.
My Two Elaines will help these kids better understand the disease and give them strategies for keeping their loved ones in the game. It will help them realize that important relationships don’t have to end, but they will need to adapt and change. It’s not an easy topic for a young athlete, but an essential one to tackle.
It's only appropriate that I finish a book on my birthday and write about it. Though this blog is about nonfiction sports, I am going to admit that the book I finished was sports fiction. But it's my blog, I make the rules, and most likely I'm the only one that reads it!! If a tree falls in the forest, does nobody hears it,does it make a sound? Correct, so I will tell you about the book I finished.
Beartown by Frederik Backman called to me like the mysterious, lonely forest that the novel is set in. I'm a sucker for small town stories, and I'm a sucker for small town stories that center around sports. Every small town sports team is interwoven more intricately into the fabric of the community than any other place. You'd have to live in one to get it. I spent some time in small towns coaching, and I can promise you that every ounce of the drama is genuinely true.
Beartown has a youth hockey program. The players are spawned out of the womb of the town itself. The town lives and breathes with every match. Players are local heroes. Teammates are brothers. Legends lurk around every corner. Coaches are fathers by proxy. Dreams that have died in parents are rekindled in their sons. The good of the club comes before anything else. This arc is traced in any book about a youth sports team.
But what happens when adversity hits. Not the winning or losing kind--those wounds heal with time. There's always next year. No, these are wounds caused by crimes of human nature. Sometimes teenagers act like adults and commit adult crimes. Sometimes adults act like children. This book has some of both. At it's heart, the book is about a youth hockey club that is not only beloved by it's community, but as in many small town sports stories, the survival of the community itself is pinned on the success of the club. These two things cannot be separated. Since the club is the heart of Beartown, then all of it's arteries connect the people, families, and businesses of the community. Lack of blood flow will kill the entire body. So in that way, Backman's book is a cautionary tale for all of us, adults to children.
Why should a teen library get this book? Sometimes the egos of small town teen heroes can outgrow the immature bodies they are housed in. Sometimes they do bad things- like, say, push sexual advances too far. They do this because they feel that they are not only above the law of their parents, but emboldened by those that worship them(the town) to claim what they feel is rightfully theirs. Most often it is boys. Sadly. In this way, the book is a somber tale for those small town athletes to highlight what can happen when you get too big for your britches. Lives can literally change in an instant and some decisions, no matter how small they may seem, can have dire consequences and hurt the most unintended people.
I would have my teenage son read this book--I really would. It would be a great discussion starter for some pretty hard and important life talks with him. Beartown: A tale every young man should heed.
I think it is fair to say that the Milwaukee Bucks are undergoing a renaissance of sorts. Sure, I'm talking about the basketball, but I'm also talking books! Something about spending time in Milwaukee must turn hoopsters into renaissance men. Are we teaching the printing press instead of the press break here? We've now got a hand in more titles at Barnes and Noble this year than we do in the rafters.
Yes, in the past year or so, there has been a wave of books from former NBA players/coaches who have spent some fairly significant time with the Bucks.
In no particular order, here are the titles:
Ray Allen. From the Outside: My Journey Through Life and the Game I Love.
Vin Baker. God and Starbucks: An NBA Superstar's Journey Through Addiction and Recovery
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Coach Wooden and Me: Our 50 Year Relationship On and Off the Court
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Becoming Kareem
See previous blog post on books
Craig Hodges. Long Shot: The Triumphs and Struggles of an NBA Freedom Fighter
See previous blog post on book
George Karl. Furious George: My Forty Years Surviving NBA Divas, Clueless GMs, and Poor Shot Selection
The kids in Milwaukee today are being raised in the "Fear the Deer" culture. They love Giannis and they eurostep their way through every trip to the rim (it's called traveling in youth leagues). But as in any rebuilding, it is important to study the past to appreciate the future. The Bucks franchise may not have the shine of the Celtics, Lakers, 76ers, or Bulls, but there were prior days when the basketball was pretty damn good, and they went toe to toe with those storied franchises regularly under the bright lights of National TV. McGlocklin, Alcindor, Moncrief, Robertson, Winters, Cummings, Johnson (Marques, not Mickey!) Sikma, Pierce, Bridgeman--I could go on. They were the play by play of my childhood. We were the driveway imitators of their unique styles! (Please see the Brian Winters jumpshot)
Milwaukee was/is considered an NBA small town. It was/is also one of the most segregated cities in the US. As you know from many sports titles I review here, the environment of a city, the era, and the athletes are all intertwined in a mix that makes sports a cultural study as much as a tally of wins an losses. In each one of these books, you not only get basketball stories, you get a little piece of how Milwaukee treated these transplant athletes and the impression it left.
To be honest, I left some of these books with a fairly sad revelation of how my city treated some players, and a little more respect for how they persevered. As a ticket holder, we have a limited lens during those 3 hours at the stadium, but it's amazing how little we really know when the lights are down. These books are essential to filling in the gaps. Perhaps it's only fair to the players/coaches to give their version of events.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was known here as a recluse around 1970 (I was told so by dad). Since I was 1 and didn't know better, I never really lost the chip on my shoulder for his perceived attitude and the idea he never wanted to be here. His book, however paints a very different story of religious passion and a man isolated by a closed minded city. The book dramatically opened my eyes to Kareem and his powerful activist side that we see so frequently now. It is truly amazing what a voice he has become, and his books will take you on a stunning journey through his life. It's sobering to reflect and think, if it wasn't him, could the problem really have been us?
Craig Hodges had one of the sweetest shots of anyone in Bucks history. Turns out people didn't like the way he shot his mouth about being black in the NBA. In his book, Hodges discusses that he was basically traded away by the Bucks in the 80's because the management did not like his outspoken ways in regards to his activism. Hodges went on to be shunned by many others within the NBA for his outspoken ways, but still fought for his rights and never let go of his beliefs. Hodges was probably more than our city could handle at the time, which in itself made me sad.
George Karl was a major coup for the Bucks and legitimized the franchise and city in the late 90s. As a big name controversial coach in a timid city, his hiring was a welcome dive into the Bucks getting serious again. He was bold and outspoken and unafraid to take anyone on, including his own players. Karl did some great work in Milwaukee, until he sort of wore out his welcome--something not coincidentally precipitated by the trading of owner Herb Kohl's beloved Ray Allen.
This, of course, leads me to Ray Allen. Drafted out of UConn, he became perhaps one of the most loved Bucks. As part of Karl's Big 3 that included Sam Cassell and Glenn Robinson, the Bucks nearly made it to the top in 2001. Aside from being a brilliant shooter at the time, Ray was also known as a nice guy with a big smile. But nice guys are often an easy mark, and when the Bucks began the process of underachieving in the following years of high expectations, Allen was dealt by Karl for a little more attitude in Gary Payton. When that all went to hell, Karl was fired, and the Bucks were left without one of the most promising players the franchise had seen. It's a trade that still gets debated today.
Vin Baker's story is a stark reminder of the dark days a franchise can have. Vin was drafted onto a terrible team. The Bucks were young, miserable, and according the Baker's book, some(him included) were pretty much high all the time. Then Big Dog Robinson came on board, and he was supposedly high all the time too, but at least they started winning, so that must've made it better. Baker gives us a backstage pass to NBA downtime and the dangerous lifestyle it can breed. He also discusses the debilitating pressures he faced as a high draft choice and franchise face. Vin makes no excuses, and offers his tale of going from star to losing it all in a very heartfelt, honest way. His story is a cautionary tale, and does prove that good things can happen to those who wish to change. It makes me happy to see him on the bench as a new Bucks assistant coach.
Every athlete has a story. It might pay if you are a librarian to look into the local franchises and see if there are any books on or by former local players. Aside from learning about individual lives, the kids may just gain a greater understanding of what was happening culturally in their city during those times, and the struggles these stars faced trying to fit it and live up to their lofty expectations.