Posted on February 2, 2013 | Back to Literature
REVIEWED: Summer Ball by Mike Lupica
Here be spoilers.
There's a difference between sports stories and stories about sports. If you're a young sports enthusiast, maybe the difference doesn't matter or isn't even apparent in books like Summer Ball (2008) by Mike Lupica. But if you're like me, you need more to cling to than just endless descriptions about games, favorite athletes and awesome plays.
Summer Ball is not the type of book I would ordinarily read or review. I wasn't one of those boys who grew up preoccupied with a particular sport, although I raised a son who was once as obsessed with basketball as any character in this book. It was for reasons of nostalgia, and to challenge my own reading tastes, that I decided to give Summer Ball a try.
Summer Ball's a sequel-of-sorts to Travel Team (2005) which introduces us to Danny Walker, a short but talented basketball player. The novel picks up some time after the events in the previous book, with Danny and his teammates still reveling in their victories on the court and anticipating a summer together at the prestigious Right Way Basketball Camp in Maine. Although Danny has talent, his short stature is fast becoming a major handicap and when he arrives at the camp, he finds himself a small fish in a very big pond. When he's put on a team coached by a man who has an old ax to grind with his father, Danny begins to entertain thoughts about faking an injury so he can leave the camp without losing face.
Of course he doesn't... because sports novels are all about "walking it off" and "bringing it on." Certainly this is what's expected from most young people reading a sports novel, and in this most basic sense Summer Ball delivers.
There's plenty here for the basketball enthusiast to like — lots of shop talk and references to teams, games and players which had me constantly consulting wikipedia.com. Where it misses, however, is when it comes to all those other things you need to have a great piece of young adult fiction. Lupica's a competent writer and in many ways he gives his audience just what they expect... but nothing more. His plot's predictable, straying toward the cliché as it approaches the inevitable "big game" at the story's end. The novel's voice often sounds like a sportscaster calling out plays — which is Lupica's other vocation as an ESPN announcer. And the characters are largely two-dimensional sports story "types," as familiar as many of the plot points.
By the end of the book, we know little about Danny other than he loves basketball and likes a girl named Tess — but we're not sure why since she's a minor character at best. The Right Way Camp is also peopled by characters we've seen a thousand times before, mostly in Disney Channel sports movies... There's the former opponent, once vanquished and now spoiling for a rematch. The star athlete who's parlayed his success on the court into bullying others off of it. The shy, insecure boy who finds inner strength through basketball in a wax-on-wax-off sort of way. The tyrannical, unimaginative coach who can't see athletic brilliance through the glare of his own ego...
In most respects, Summer Ball may be like eating fast food... You know what to expect, there aren't any surprises, and in the end you're full without really feeling satisfied.