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The Assist: Hoops, Hope, and the Game of Their Lives

The Assist: Hoops, Hope, and the Game of Their Lives

by Neil Swidey

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Jack O'Brien is a high school basketball coach extreme in both his demands and his devotion. With monastic discipline, he has built a powerhouse program that wins state championships year after year while helping propel players to college. He does this as a white suburban guy working exclusively with black city boys who make the daily trek across Boston to attend


Jack O'Brien is a high school basketball coach extreme in both his demands and his devotion. With monastic discipline, he has built a powerhouse program that wins state championships year after year while helping propel players to college. He does this as a white suburban guy working exclusively with black city boys who make the daily trek across Boston to attend Charlestown High School, where the last battles of the city's school desegregation wars were fought a generation ago.

The Assist is a gripping, surprising story about fathers, sons, and surrogates, all confronting the narrow margins of urban life. The book follows the players on their hunt for a state title. But it also stays with them, to see how young men who seldom get second chances survive without their coach hovering over them—and how he survives without them.

Editorial Reviews

Entertainment Weekly
There's triumph, tragedy, and salvation in this story. Not to mention a movie.
This account of Boston boys' basketball powerhouse Charlestown High School inevitably recalls the seminal book and movie Hoop Dreams, since all three follow the challenges of at-risk, inner-city black players to succeed in high-school basketball and beyond. But if Boston Globe reporter Swidey references the general theme of Hoop Dreams, his focus is less on players and more on the school's longtime coach, Jack O'Brien, whose teams have been perennial state champs and whose players, many from highly dysfunctional homes, customarily move on to college. Swidey follows O'Brien's 2004-05 Charlestown season in detail, seamlessly working in key players, parents, school officials, even opposing coaches and their teams. Interestingly, he doesn't end with the team's season ending championship but rather records the prosaic aftermath. As heroic as O'Brien is in transforming his young men into champions, Swidey shows him to be all too human in his failings. Like Hoop Dreams, this captivating account transcends its time and place.
—Alan Moores
Adrian Wojnarowki's Yahoo! Sports Column
This isn't a great basketball book, this is great literature.
New York Post
There are elements of "The Assist," that are irresistible to Hollywood. If you can't read the book, wait for the movie.
Rocky Mountain News
This is a surprising and fascinating story of how inner-city basketball players outdistance the daily influences trying to pull them down. Only one word can describe such a feat: remarkable.
Publishers Weekly

In this engaging book about Boston's Charlestown High School basketball team, Swidey, a staff writer for the Boston Globe Magazine, explains that "[b]eing part of the Charlestown program was no guarantee that a kid would become a success.... But dropping out of the program dramatically increased the odds that he wouldn't." Head coach Jack O'Brien benefited from the team aside from its gaudy won-loss record. Unmarried and with a shattered family history, O'Brien found that the "rigid team structure... offer[ed] the trappings of home." Like a concerned parent, O'Brien worked year-round to keep his kids away from the overwhelming daily wave of crime and bad influences and into the security of a college-educated future. Swidey masterfully shows over the course of two seasons the struggle O'Brien and his players face in maintaining success on and off the court. The coach observes the lives of his two star players, Ridley Johnson and Jason "Hood" White, go in very different directions after they land out-of-state college scholarships. Swidey expertly examines the slippery slope of Charlestown's success, tying it into Boston's disastrous busing scandal and an underwhelming legal system that perpetuates crime, while he builds narrative momentum and details his subjects with the touch of a skilled novelist. This is a prodigiously reported, compulsively readable book that readers (sport fans or not) will savor. (Jan.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
School Library Journal

Adult/High School -Jack Oa€™Brien expects success in his players, on the basketball court and off. His program at Charlestown High School, Boston, has achieved that goal, winning four state championships and, more impressively, sending a large percentage of players on to colleges-Division I, II, and III. The program is not without its problems and controversies, however; Oa€™Briena€™s single-minded dedication alienates some players, and working with boys from the citya€™s projects is difficult. Swidey avoids the trap of so many others following in the footsteps of H. G. Bissengera€™s Friday Night Lights (De Capo, 2000): he manages to avoid inserting himself into the story of Charlestowna€™s season. He is both complimentary and subtly critical of Oa€™Briena€™s methods. He recognizes the boysa€™ basketball limitations, is critical of Bostona€™s racial past and disastrous bussing policies, and admires the schoola€™s headmaster. The author doesna€™t spend much time on the actual games; the book is more an examination of the forces that drive Oa€™Brien and his players, the sociology of public education in Boston, and the forces of life on the streets. This is a fine piece of journalistic literature; do not make the mistake of thinking it is for sports fans only.-Mary Ann Harlan, Arcata High School, CA

Kirkus Reviews
Friday Night Lights meets Boyz n the Hood on the mean streets of Boston. Obsessive basketball coach Jack O'Brien was a beloved mainstay at Charlestown High School, leading its team to multiple championships. What made his accomplishments so impressive was the fact that his team was comprised of young men from the projects who were bussed into school. During the 2004-05 season documented here, Charlestown was led by Jason "Hood" White, a cornrowed guard who, when he was three, was run over and almost killed by a crackhead on her way to get a fix. As important as it was for O'Brien to take another title, it was just as vital that his players get into college or, at the very least, survive the streets. If that meant helping Hood navigate his way through the Massachusetts court system, so be it. Award-winning Boston Globe Magazine staff writer Swidey comes from a hard-news background, which proves a double-edged sword in executing this hoops-in-the-hood book. His straight journalistic chops infuse the legal proceedings and the player profiles with a higher-than-expected level of gravitas, but his depictions of the games are less than gripping. Since basketball was the primary raison d'etre for O'Brien and his brood, the lack of fire in the sports reporting diminishes its significance. (Swidey could take some lessons in suspense from Jack McCallum's Seven Seconds or Less, 2006.) Perhaps the author seeks to emphasize that basketball should enhance people's lives, not overwhelm them-a fair sentiment, but it doesn't make for the kind of book that will resonate beyond a niche audience. A noble debut with its heart in the right place, but lacking the substance of its spiritual cousin, Hoop Dreams.Agent: Sarah Chalfant/Wylie Agency
From the Publisher

A Washington Post Best Book of 2008 Selection

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Meet the Author

Neil Swidey is a staff writer for The Boston Globe Magazine. His writing has won the National Headliner Award and been featured in The Best American Science Writing, The Best American Crime Reporting and The Best American Political Writing. He lives outside Boston with his wife and three daughters.

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