I’ve already written about how Gene Luen Yang’s Reading Without Walls Challenge made me love comics and graphic novels. Is it possible that he could make me love basketball as well?
I have to be honest, basketball is not my game. It all happens too fast, and I’m not really a sports person to begin with. In fact, this is my second semester with a kid on a basketball team, and I pretty much watch the games without really “watching” the games. Needless to say, I didn’t expect to be completely enthralled by a 400 page basketball story. Nonetheless, I planned to at least dip into Dragon Hoops because I love Gene Luen Yang’s books, and I wanted to be able to talk about this new one.
I read the whole thing in one straight shot. Full of fascinating characters whose individual stories build one on top of the other to form the rich backstory of a team with a chance—a team on the verge of doing something great together. Set at the Oakland Catholic high school school where Yang used to teach math, this is the story of an elite team chasing a championship that could change the futures of their star players and bring their dedicated coach long-awaited redemption. Hitting all those classic emotional notes of a great sports narrative and offering plenty of thrilling on-the-court action, this ambitious graphic novel interweaves the personal stories of the players with the history of the game itself and Yang’s own creative journey as an author, a teacher, and a parent along the way.
There’s actually a lot of cool (not at all dry) history in here too, from the original invention of the sport in my erstwhile hometown of Springfield, MA to the inclusion of women at my alma mater Smith College (as long as they weren’t too brash, too bold, or too athletic) to the tumultuous integration of African American players into the national league to the popularity of the game in China. One of the things I really love about Yang’s approach in this capacious deep dive of a graphic novel, is the way he uses stories of individuals to build a larger sense of the Bishop O’Dowd High School team or the larger narrative of basketball itself. By opening these windows into basketball’s past, we get to see its story through some of the players—some insiders, some outsiders—who’ve fought their way onto the court and made the sport their own. It’s not just specific basketball history that comes into play either. Whether it’s the Black Lives Matter protests in Ferguson the night before a game or a Sikh player’s reaction to a class assignment on Gandhi, Yang illuminates the ways that off-the-court tensions and the players’ own histories inform their on-the-court game and build the real story of their team.
The suspenseful sports montages are exciting, sure (Yang knows how to uses page turns to dramatic effect in the final seconds of a game). But it’s the characters that really make this a fantastic read. Profiling players and coaches in turn, we get a fascinating, human look at the boys who carry the weight of this team on their shoulders. Since this is drawn from life, we don’t always see further into their souls than want us to, which feels authentic to what getting to know teenage boys is like, but the anxieties and hopes and rivalries and idiosyncrasies of the kids we meet make the team’s quest irresistibly human. One of my favorite moments involves a player objecting to how his hair was being drawn in some of Yang’s early posts on Tumblr—and seeing his look evolve accordingly. It’s a moment that reminds you these kids are real.
But as much as I grew to love all the players, it’s actually the character of Gene Luen Yang, as a comic book loving author reluctantly pulled into the orbit of this team in spite of himself that ultimately grounds and shapes the narrative.
As any comic book (or sports) fan knows, in a great superhero story, we should know who the heroes are—and those heroes should always win, right? But things happen in life that don’t always fit that mold. Watching the character of Gene Luen Yang wrestle with how complicated to allow his story arc to become adds nuance and perspective to pieces of the story that aren’t as easy to pin down. And as the author himself tries to balance family responsibilities with teaching, writing opportunities, and his commitment to the team, he ends up reckoning in unexpected ways with the nature of heroism and courage, laying the groundwork for a triumphant sports story arc that feels less about winning and more about people figuring out what it means to play the game.
Without the added layer of the author’s journey, the book might read as simply a remarkably interesting, very well-crafted sports story. But, with it, the narrative becomes about finding the guts to take risks when you need to be all-in and how to step back from things that aren’t a part of your endgame—whether you’re a teacher looking to take the plunge as a full-time comic book artist or a pretty good player getting the most out of one last season before refocusing on a future off the court. At the end of the day, Dragon Hoops is about a lot of things at once, but at the core it’s about figuring out what you want the most and finding a way to take that oh-so-scary first step. Plus, it might even convert you into a basketball fan (at least for the duration)…