Book One of the Streetball Crew
By Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Raymond Obstfeld (click carefully - I'm getting a virus warning for his site)
Available now from Disney-Hyperion
I grew up in Houston, and even though I don't like sports, I have fond memories of the Rockets of my childhood. And while celebrities writing books - even with the help of a ghostwriter - often elicits groans, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar seems like a smart guy with an interest in pop culture, from the little I know of him. It's not like a story about a kid playing basketball is a massive stretch for the guy. (There's a height joke lurking somewhere in there, but I'll refrain from actually making it.)
So how does Abdul-Jabbar fare in the dog-dies-for-a-life-lesson world of kid lit? Pretty well. I think SASQUATCH IN THE PAINT tries to tackle a bit too much. It touches on bullying, racism, religious tolerance, that one cousin you can't stand. At the same time, it's not like kids aren't dealing with those issues, often all at once. And it reflects the conflict in protagonist Theo Rollins' personal life. He's on the basketball team, mostly due to his massive growth spurt, and on the school's academic quiz team. He's having trouble balancing practice for both activities. It's two teams that he might let down if he can't manage to get up to snuff.
One aspect of SASQUATCH IN THE PAINT that I really enjoyed was the range of basketball displayed. If it's going to be a big part of the book, why not truly feature the sport? There's the school basketball team, full of rules and following the coach's strategy. There's a game between friends, no stakes, just hanging out. There's a pick-up game with no rules, elbows flying, and one with lots of rules and impatience for people holding the game back.
Theo is an easy to empathize with kid. He's uncomfortable in his body, unsure of what he's actually good at, and afraid of looking like an idiot. His mom died recently and he and his dad are still carving out a new routine. In addition to his male best friend, male cousin, and male teammates, there are some interesting female characters to round out the mostly male cast. I liked minor character Brooke, from the Aca-lympics, who is rich, unfriendly, and competitive. She's a pretty standard mean girl, but there are hints of depths. Rain, the main female character, starts off with shades of Manic Pixie Dreamgirl syndrome. Fortunately, she isn't interested in fixing Theo.
I can see lots of parents who were teens at the height of Abdul-Jabbar's career buying this for their kids. It's not a bad move. This is a book with appeal for sports fans and geeks, with lots of good social messages. There are a few mini-mysteries, which keep the plot moving forward and keep it from becoming too predictable. I'm curious as to how the Streetball Crew will develop as a series, since SASQUATCH IN THE PAINT has a nice contained character arc, but this is certainly a good start.