The Assist: Hoops, Hope, and the Game of Their Livesby Neil Swidey
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.
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
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
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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