Monday, August 24, 2009

The Assist by Neil Swidey

I know I just reviewed a book set in Boston, but this non-fiction book recommended by a friend is too compelling not to mention here. The Assist, subtitled Hoops, Hope, and the Game of Their Lives, is the story of a high school basketball coach and his players. It is more than the typical feel good sports story of coach pushes players, players go on to win a championship.

Jack O’Brian is a tough coach and he does want to win championships. However, his ultimate goal is to get his players into college. And, what I find really impressive is he is not trying to just get his star player on a Division I team, but he is trying to place every senior somewhere. I think people forget that you can play basketball (or most other sports) at small, private liberal arts colleges. An athletic scholarship may not be available, but often, if you are a good enough player, that school will meet your financial need. For inner city kids without financial resources (or poor, rural kids) that could mean a full ride at a great school.

The author has incredible access to the lives of the coach, his players, and their families and friends. He also includes some historical perspective. Two of the main players he follows, Ridley Johnson and Jason “Hood” White, have serious bus commutes to get to their high school in Charlestown, a traditionally white area. Swidey spends time on the attempts at desegregation that lead to this current system.

“So black kids like Hood and Ridley – as well as kids all the way down to the elementary level – still spent a big chunk of every day commuting across the city, navigating through gang turf wars, to get to white neighborhoods where the schools were just as dominated by black and Hispanic students as the schools down the street from their apartments. That couldn’t possibly be what the social engineers of the 1970s had in mind.”

O’Brian is very good at placing his players in colleges. Not every player is successful once he gets to college though. The story of Hood is especially compelling. He receives a great scholarship offer to college, but doesn’t seem to appreciate it. He seems to purposely sabotage himself with pregnant girlfriends, as well as by hanging out with a cousin with a record. I’d really like to see a follow up on where he is now.

There is a website for the book that includes a link to an interview with the author, Coach Jack O’Brian and Ridley Johnson.

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