Now is the winter of every sports fan's discontent. The sports page these days all too often reads like a rap sheet, if not a treatise on advanced pharmacology. With the football season over, the weeks drag on in eager anticipation of spring training and March Madness. Maybe that's why Neil Swidey's The Assist, about a remarkable inner-city basketball team, seems to have arrived at the perfect time.
Aptly subtitled Hoops, Hope, and the Game of Their Lives, the book introduces us to Jack O'Brien, the near-legendary coach at Charlestown High School in Boston, whose life "seemed to begin and end with basketball." His devotion to his players' well-being helped keep them off the streets and, in many cases, secured them college scholarships. His successes -- including four state championships in a row -- derived in great part from a "tough love" approach. "Off the court, the man was usually soft-spoken and helpful, if always relentless," Swidey writes. "But on the court, he was a monster, throwing balls, making the guys get on the line to run sprints for the slightest infraction."
Much of The Assist focuses on two of O'Brien's recent standouts, Ridley Johnson and Jason "Hood" White. During their senior year, they tried to help O'Brien bring home yet another state title, but their biggest challenges involved far more than punishing practices and endless drills. Early in his life, Swidey writes, Hood had "turned into the archetype of the angry young black male, a hardened kid with a quick temper, icy glare, and fists always at the ready. He became only more steely after two of his cousins, who had gotten caught up in the street life, were killed." Despite O'Brien's best intentions, Hood found himself beset by legal troubles that threatened to derail his college career before it could start.
Swidey, an award-winning journalist for the Boston Globe Magazine, quickly converts his readers into genuine fans of these young men. Like O'Brien, he shows a fanatical devotion to his subject. He follows the team off the court and into the projects, to pizza parties and prestigious tournaments.
The Assist will prove indispensable to anyone interested in the art of coaching at any level or in any sport. And by distracting us from the sordid, steroid-fueled headlines, Swidey reminds us why we enjoy watching sports in the first place.
" Andrew Ervin , THE WASHINGTON POST
"Neil Swidey might have started out trying to tell the tale of an
exceptionally successful high school basketball team and their coach,
but as he spent time with the subjects of his story, he realized that
they could help him explore a much larger story. His book is about
basketball, certainly, but it is also about education, race, the
hypocrisy with which our games are riddled, and a collection of young
men trying to figure out who they are and who they can be." BILL
LITTLEFIELD, HOST OF NPR'S ONLY A GAME
Read his review here
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY gives The Assist an A- 'There's triumph, tragedy, and salvation in this story. Not to mention a movie.'The Assist -
Neil Swidey -
Basketball may be the soul game, but, as Swidey deftly reveals, it’s often played and coached by wounded souls. Meet the Charlestown High Townies, kids from inner-city Boston who commute to a neighborhood known for racism to play for a white coach who cares as much about getting them into college as he does about winning—and Jack O’Brien wins a lot. Though the narrative slows a bit in Boston’s history of busing, Swidey quickly regains his traction, like the players who lick their hands to wet their shoe bottoms for better footing. There’s triumph, tragedy, and salvation in this story. Not to mention a movie. A– —Steve Wulf
NCAA Champion Magazine says "Swidey is there for it all"
The wins, losses, academic successes and failures, college trips, strained family relationships, teenage fatherhood, and courtroom trials. It all comes together in an interesting book known as The Assist.
"Team sports, like life, are never simple. Beneath the concrete final score, there are games within games, small plays leading to big plays, a melding of diverse talents and personalities into a cohesive (or disparate) unit. Rarely is that tapestry revealed as fully, and as convincingly, as in Neil Swidey's The Assist
....Swidey, the proverbial fly on the wall, sees everything, it seems, and delivers his cogent observations in crackling prose." -Brion O'Connor Full review here
"One does not have to be from Boston to appreciate Swidey's writing skills. His characters are real and have a story to tell. It's a tale that pulsates with the intensity of a full-court press." -Bob D'Angelo Full review here
SCHOOL LIBRARY JOURNAL
Jack O’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; O’Brien’s single-minded dedication alienates some
players, and working with boys from the city’s
projects is difficult. Swidey avoids the trap of so many others following in the
footsteps of H. G. Bissenger’s Friday
Night Lights (De Capo, 2000): he manages to avoid inserting himself into the story
of Charlestown’s season. He is both
complimentary and subtly critical of O’Brien’s methods. He recognizes the
boys’ basketball limitations, is critical of
Boston’s racial past and disastrous bussing policies, and admires the school’s
headmaster. The author doesn’t spend much
time on the actual games; the book is more an examination of the forces that drive
O’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.
ROCKY MOUNTAIN NEWS REVIEW:
By Laurence Washington, Special to the Rocky
The Assist: Hoops, Hope and the Game of Their Lives
* Nonfiction. By Neil Swidey. PublicAffairs, $26. Grade: A
Plot in a nutshell: During his tenure coaching boys basketball at Boston's powerhouse Charlestown High School, Jack O'Brien won five state titles in six years, an amazing feat in itself. But what's more remarkable is the fact that this middle-aged white man coached an all-black team anchored in an all-white neighborhood and produced champions, using strict discipline and respect for his players.
Boston Globe reporter Swidey chronicles Charlestown's 2004-05 season, in which the team is on the hunt for another state championship. Meanwhile, two of O'Brien's star players, Jason "Hood" White and Ridley Johnson, are struggling to break free of the allure of dangerous urban life: gangs, drugs, turf wars.
O'Brien works hard to help. He makes his players take classes above college entrance requirements so top schools will look at his kids. A study hall that O'Brien personally supervises works to ensure that his players actually study and pass their classes.
Best tidbit: When Johnson signs with the University of Toledo, O'Brien arranges a signing ceremony in the high school cafe, giving Johnson a chance to enjoy the limelight and O'Brien's younger players a goal to strive for. But Johnson asks his mother not to tell his father, who abandoned them years ago.
"I won't," she assures him - instead simply bringing his father with her. "I wanted McClary to hurt a little bit," she says later. "To see what he missed."
Pros: Thankfully, The Assist isn't a formula sports story where everything leads up to "The Big Game" that's won in overtime. It's an absorbing examination of at-risk, inner-city youths who succeed against all odds.
Cons: Swidey pauses to introduce Boston's history and explain the background of each character at some length, a necessary evil that could have been seamlessly woven into the fabric of the story in more skilled hands.
Final word: 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.
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 win-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 (sports fans or not) will savor. Publishers Weekly, January 2008
FELLOW AUTHOR REVIEWS
"The Celtics may have reached 30 wins in fewer games than any team in NBA history, but the best story to come out of Boston this season is The Assist
by Neil Swidey. Read it. Learn something."
-Mark Kriegel, FoxSports.com columnist, and author of the bestselling Pistol: The Life of Pete Maravich and Namath: A Biography.
"With a powerful, moving narrative, Neil Swidey has delivered the rarest of transcendent sports books. Coach Jack O'Brien and his Charlestown players will bring you to your feet, and they'll bring you to tears. Most of all, they'll make you care about a game so much bigger than winning and losing. This is a brilliant book, one that will stay with you." - Adrian Wojnarowski, author of New York Times
bestseller The Miracle of St. Anthony
"Anyone who cares about Boston and race and hope and hoops will take heart from Neil Swidey's The Assist
, in which decent kids jockey for a lucky break in a world in which decency and luck are often in short supply. Set in compact, feisty, history-haunted Charlestown, this book is a powerhouse work of literary journalism about a powerhouse basketball program and the coach who wouldn't take no for an answer."
-Madeleine Blais, Pulitzer Prize winner and author of In These Girls, Hope Is a Muscle
"So much of Boston's history, good and bad, can be seen through Charlestown. So much of our basic humanity can be seen through the games we play. Neil Swidey brings all of that forward with a shrewd eye, a wide-ranging mind, and an uncommon gift for illuminating our common humanity." - Charles P. Pierce, author of Moving the Chains: Tom Brady and the Pursuit of Everything
"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, Booklist