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"The Assist"

Lots of writers have followed a team for a season, then written about the experience.

In "The Assist: Hoops, Hope, and the Game of Their Lives," Neil Swidey undertakes a more ambitious project. He becomes close to the players on the Charlestown High School boys' basketball team and he entertainingly chronicles their play during the 2004-'05 season. He spends a good deal of time with their extraordinarily successful coach, Jack O'Brien during that time. But he also writes about O'Brien's past, about the players who've played for him over the years in Charlestown and elsewhere, about the politics and pressures that eventually make O'Brien's position hopelessly uncomfortable, and about the history of the once nearly all-white high school where the basketball team is now nearly all-black.

Certainly The Assist is a basketball book. The most important people in the story are the coach, who has devoted his life to working with high school players, and the players themselves, for whom basketball is not only a passion, but the means by which some of them get to college and stay there. But Swidey is more curious and more energetic than most writers who've visited gyms like the one at Charlestown High. He got up at five in the morning to ride the bus with players who lived in housing projects miles away from the school, and he listened while they patiently explained that they couldn't take more direct routes to Charlestown because they would have passed through parts of the city where they might have been shot or stabbed. Swidey also sat through several court appearances with the family of the player who was eventually sentenced to eight months in jail for breaking a windshield. As a result, "The Assist" demonstrates the limitations of basketball as a route out of poverty. Swidey applauds Jack O'Brien's success at getting his players to college, but he's candid when he writes about the young men who have no idea how to handle the academic and social challenges they find on campus because Charlestown High, where they have been rewarded for consistent attendance and positive attitudes, has not prepared them for college work.

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.

This program aired on January 10, 2008. The audio for this program is not available.

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