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!"