Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Breakout Game: Swagger by Carl Deuker

I carried the envelope to the kitchen table and carefully opened it. Inside was a color brochure and a letter. The photos were similar to the ones I'd seen on their website: ivy creeping up the side of old brick buildings, white snow blanketing a winter landscape. I took a deep breath and then read the letter from Coach Richter. He liked what he saw of me on the DVD. He thought I could be his guy.

That was the good part. The not-so-good part took up the rest of the letter.

"I'm going to be straight with you, Jonas. Your academic record worries me.There is another high school point guard with whom I'm in contact. You have the edge on the basketball court; he has the edge in the classroom. You will need to complete your current junior-year classes with a minimum 3.0 point average: Chemistry, Algebra II, Language Arts, Social Studies, Spanish. You will need to score at least five hundred on each section of the SAT. I do not need to tell you that this is a much more difficult course of study than you have undertaken in the past. It is up to you."

Jonas Dolan's life has been a slam dunk up to the end of his sophomore year. He was starting point guard on Redwood High's basketball team, and academically he had easily skinned by with Cs and Ds, just making eligibility. But when his coach suggests that he could play scholarship Division 2 basketball, his mindset suddenly changes.

But to add to the challenge, Jonas's father has to take a job in Seattle and Jonas finds himself trying out with a team that plays a different sort of basketball, one in which his skills as a fast-break player are not valued. In his late sixties, Knecht coaches old school basketball, ball-control, run-out-the-clock, and defense-oriented, and uses Jonas only to provide his starter guard Brindle with a few minutes of breathing time. Jonas makes a good friend in a tall, religious forward, Levi, and he finds some support in the new assistant, Coach Hartwell, who prefers Jonas' style of ball and had mentored him in pickup games over the summer, but he knows that unless he gets more minutes and more impressive stats to send to the coach at Monitor College, he can kiss his hopes of playing Division B ball goodbye.

And then there's Mr. Butler's chemistry class. Jonas finds he can make Bs in his other courses if he works hard, but chemistry seems impossible. Confiding his fears to Hartwell, Jonas is astonished when his coach takes him to an old computer in a little used workroom.

The computer took forever to load but once it did, the screen filled with folder icons, each with a different teacher's name on it. Hartwell slid the mouse to me. "Double-click on Butler's." My heart raced. Everything was there. The lab assignments, the quizzes, the tests, the answer keys.

Hartwell said, "Jonas, I don't condone cheating, but a bad teacher like Butler--he's the real cheater. He's cheating you out of your chance for a college education."

At last Hartwell patted me on the shoulder. "I'm going to leave. If you want, you can e-mail these files to yourself."

With his worries about his chemistry grades taken care of, Jonas' only worry is getting the minutes and stats he needs to win the Monitor scholarship.  Then one day in practice, Coach Knecht, who usually remains seated off court during practice, steps out onto the court just as Coach Hartwell is running down the sideline following a fast break.  In the collision Coach Knecht suffers a broken hip  and Hartwell takes over the team, and playing his fast-break, free-wheeling game, Jonas becomes the starter and team finds themselves winning themselves into the state finals.

But then his friend Levi confides that Coach Hartwell has made sexual advances with him, and Jonas realizes that his coach has unethically manipulated him and everyone else in his plan to take over the team and win the state championship. And when the kind and gentle Levi takes his own life, Jonas sees that he has some hard decisions to make.

Much more than a fast-paced game-play novel (which it is), Carl Deuker's forthcoming Swagger, (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013) deals with the hard choices that come with taking short cuts to success. For young adult fans of sports fiction, this one offers a look at high school sports with a wider lens that the usual fare, in which a hard-driving, fast-break style on court turns out not to be the best path to a making good choices in life. When Jonas finally understands Hartwell's ruthless approach to achieving his desires, he begins to look outside the court at other goals.

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