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.