Saturday, March 24, 2012

The Final Four

3.5/5 stars

This year The Final Four is my March Madness book.  It's a tradition that I started last year (shush that's long enough to be a tradition) because I couldn't get enough basketball during March and decided to read Ball Don't Lie by Matt de la Pena.  I loved the book and it pushed me to read more sports-centric YA.

The Final Four is an enjoyable fast-pace quick read.  It's not as brilliant as Ball Don't Lie (which for the record is on my favorite list) but it was a fun read.  It's a book about a basketball game, but not just about the game but all the stories leading up to the game.

With friends (okay mainly one friend and my dad...) I talk a lot about the narrative of sports.  I truly love sports, not because I'm particularly athletic but I love the stories.  For every game played on television, every player has a story of how they arrived at that place.  Competitive sports can be tough and cut throat, but their also empowering and unifying.  The Final Four explored the narrative of one game, a team from a traditional powerhouse basketball school (Michigan State University) and the little school that could (think Butler or VCU last year.  If you don't watch basketball think small college down the street) facing off in the final four.

Something I liked about this story is that nobody was the bad guy.  Malcolm, Mr. One-And-Done (meaning one year of college then the NBA draft), was not particularly likable.  But the book delved into his story, exploring why he was a bad teammate and selfish player.  This book was not a Big Bad School versus Tiny Good Guy School.  It was two teams, both with their own backstory, playing a basketball game.

As someone who roots for one of the big basketball programs (University of Kentucky, Go Big Blue!!) I've often seen fans, writers and random observers make the big school the "bad guy".  But that's not really an accurate portrayal.  Sometimes One-And-Done players have a very heartbreaking story and basketball is their only way out of poverty (supposedly Eric Bledsoe's family lived in a car) and sometimes big schools have the surprise player come out of mediocrity at just the right time (read about Josh Harrellson).

The point is most every basketball team has a story.  It's fun to root for the underdog, just don't make the big school the bad guy.  (Unless it's Duke, but only because they made me cry when I was six).

I like the fact this book explored both teams and various stories, everything from future NBA stars to seniors planning to do something else after basketball.  Because basketball is the combination of all these stories, and this one moment where 10,000 things are happening on court, plus a ball occasionally flying at your head.

Where this story lost points with me was the believability.  If you didn't pick up from my ramble above, I watch a lot of basketball.  Mainly I watch the SEC, but sometimes I find myself watching a game that I don't even care about just because it's basketball.  March is pretty much all basketball all the time.  So I know how games are shown on TV and I know what announcers say (unfortunately).

This story was told in different POVs--the color commentators, the players experiences leading up to the game, the radio announcers and some one-on-one interviews that they showed during the game.  If you've ever watched basketball you'll probably be like "one-on-one interviews???!?!" because that's something that's just not done, at least not during the game (pre or post game).  During the game, especially a final four game, time equals money.  Every spare second is sold to the highest buyer for advertising purposes.  They would never break away from the action or heaven forbid advertising to show pre-taped interviews with the players.  They do stuff like that during the Olympics, or during slower sports, but not during basketball.

Yes I know I sound picky.  But I read this book because I am a basketball fan.  I can't be the only sports fan reading this book!  I understand what they were using the interview portions to explore. However I just cannot suspend my disbelief that the NCAA (who the book happily criticizes for greed) would squander valuable advertising time on heart-tugging one-on-ones.

I also felt the story was a little clunky and obvious with the Trojans versus Spartans metaphor, especially the Hope of Troy sections.  But the book was fun and fast-paced.  It's a good March Madness read.  Non-sport fan readers probably won't mind the interviews and won't get caught up on believability issues.

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