This Was Never About Basketball
Green Buffalo Press, 2017
Craig Leener’s YA novel This Was Never About Basketball starts off at a pace very similar to the sport mentioned in the title. Though not a breakneck reading pace, Leener’s prose is swift and seemingly effortless as it quickly moves us (plot-wise and emotionally) through the story. Zeke Archer is trying to get his future back on track after losing a basketball scholarship to University of Kansas, and in the midst of doing so he rebuilds a friendship, develops a relationship, and susses out a speculative science fiction mystery.
We are most familiar with sport stories that focus on an inspiring coach and his (nearly always ‘his’) contentious relationship with one or more star players on the team. Often, what this means is that we get stories about full grown men yelling at teenagers. What distinguishes Leener’s novel from the rest is his re-centering the sport narrative on the player rather than the coach, on the young adult rather than the late middle-aged coach. Leener is able to capture the tenuousness of control many teens and young adults face. Nearly every adult in This Was Never About Basketball reacts to the youths of the story in a crowd-control manner willfully ignoring the desires and needs the young adults before them struggling to become who they are.
A brilliant aspect of This Was Never About Basketball is how the teen characters each are acutely aware of how they are treated by the adult community, even using it for their own benefit. For example, when Zeke’s teammate steps up to get the crew passed a security guard holding them up from completing a job that has to get done before they can enter the story’s major 3-on-3 tournament:
Stretch leaned forward in his seat and cleared his throat. ‘Excuse me, young man.’ Stretch was at least twenty years younger than the guard. ‘I don’t think you understand. We’ve got a contract to paint that warehouse. We’re here early because we’ve got a busy schedule. If you don’t let us in there tonight, that warehouse will not get painted.’ Stretch paused before delivering the dagger: ‘And that’s going to be on you, son.’
Once through, the crew does their job but are just barely able to get to the tournament in time. It is the tournament where Leener’s prose really shines showing Zeke and the other characters’ determination, strategy, and interpersonal chemistry not just in a believable manner but in a compelling one for readers. This augmented with Zeke’s budding relationship with his classmate Rebecca, his strained relationship with his father, and his military brother’s trauma give us a story with multiple stressors provoking, encouraging, and leading Zeke into manhood.
More than a significant part of this is Zeke’s relationship with Lawrence, “the rail-thin, gum-chewing, pencil-toting, high-functioning autistic math genius-astronaut-in-training-wunderkind,” taking us beyond a sport story, beyond basketball. Zeke and Lawrence’s buddy story, their roadtrip from LA to Kansas, moves us outside of your standard fair and into something emotionally complex.
Here is where Leener’s novel really stands out, his story isn’t about sport or some cliche pretense about character building. Rather, Leener’s book is that quality kind of young adult fiction (perhaps even better suited for middle grade readers) about the main character finding their place in the world and embracing how they have, must, and will change as a person.
Craig Leener earned an associate degree in liberal arts from Los Angeles Valley College and a bachelor’s degree in radio, TV, and film from California State University, Northridge. He is a passionate, lifelong opponent of the instant replay in sports. This Was Never About Basketball is his debut novel.
♦◊◊◊◊–1 Star: Poorly conceived and written, not worth anyone’s time
♦♦◊◊◊–2 Stars: Limited audience, mediocre writing
♦♦♦◊◊–3 Stars: Solid writing, decent ideas and execution, genre appropriate
♦♦♦♦◊–4 Stars: Good writing, engaging ideas and execution
♦♦♦♦♦–5 Stars: Superb writing, excellent ideas and execution, appealing to all audiences