Holding up a mirror
Talking to YA author Paul Volponi is exactly like you would expect: He’s a perpetual teacher, endlessly encouraging, but the edge in his New York accent suggests he’s ready to throw down on the court at any moment.
After teaching high school English for six years at Rikers Island, the biggest jail in the world, and teaching for another six years at a drug treatment center for adolescents, Volponi has acquired a unique ability to speak to and write about urban teens in tough situations. “It’s a real interesting dynamic, to hear me yell and scream at them [on the basketball court] . . . and then to go teach in jail,” says Volponi via Skype from New York. His grin is so large, it’s easy to imagine him driving a layup past a bunch of kids and swapping a little smack-talk on the side.
His experiences from the streets of New York and his lifelong love of basketball (often playing against his own students) come together in his new book, The Final Four, which takes place during the triple overtime of a NCAA Final Four game between the favored Michigan State Spartans and the underdog Troy University Trojans. It highlights the lives and emotions of four players: Malcolm McBride, the Spartan star from the Detroit projects; Michael Jordan, a struggling Spartan who is constantly compared to his namesake; Roko, a Trojan all the way from Croatia; and Crispin, the Trojan sharpshooter who has lost his edge after a rocky relationship. Interspersed between scenes of the game are flashbacks, faux articles and transcripts of characters’ Final Four interviews, all combining to give each of these four boys a powerful and individual voice. As overtime suspense rises, Volponi reveals each boy’s will to win—and the reader feels it as well.
In Volponi’s novels, teens face the hardcore moral complexities of urban life: hate crimes, drive-bys, gang violence, grand theft auto and stabbings. The result? Reluctant readers are picking up his books. “I hear constantly kids and teachers saying, ‘So-and-so doesn’t read. He picked up your book. He read it from cover to cover. Now he’s reading your other books and he’s thinking about writing something himself that he’s seeing,’” says Volponi. “And that’s really terrific. That works for me.”
“I don’t try to preach to you. I try to show you the mirror of what’s there.”
Volponi now visits hundreds of schools every year, either in person or on Skype, to talk to students about his books and to encourage them to write their own stories. However, he shrugs off the phrase “reluctant reader,” saying, “Oh, I’ve heard that,” perhaps because it rings a little patronizing toward disinterested teens. The last thing Volponi would do is preach. He earned A’s and B’s in school by playing what he called “the student game”: listening in class, participating in discussion but never reading the book. The only time he couldn’t fudge it was with The Catcher in the Rye. “For the first week or so, I thought it was about baseball. It was not,” he jokes.
Eventually he found the love of reading, and now he spends his time transferring that love to kids. When he taught at Rikers Island, he fashioned a way to keep his incarcerated students’ attentions on literature. “I began to teach classic books by simply teaching scenes. I can’t give a kid Huck Finn and think he’s going to get from the beginning to something meaningful in the middle.” His favorite scene is when Huck gets separated from Jim and the raft. Huck angers Jim by tricking him into believing that it was all a dream, and Huck says, “It was fifteen minutes before I could work myself up to go and humble myself to a nigger.” Volponi considers this scene the greatest in American literature: “To me, that’s the most incredible mirror I’ve ever seen. Twain took the 10-year-old kid, held the mirror up and said that’s where society was. I don’t need to read the whole book with kids who aren’t good readers, or who are struggling, to get that scene across. All I need to do is describe the time, describe who’s on the raft and play it from there.”
Volponi has taken Twain’s lesson to heart, writing books that also serve as mirrors to society. Like all of his books, The Final Four goes much further than just a high-intensity basketball story, as each boy’s life poses a different struggle. The story of Michael Jordan, who is compared to the basketball legend, encourages readers to define their role models by more than just their athletic talent. Roko’s home country is a war zone not unlike Malcolm McBride’s projects. Perhaps most importantly, Volponi dedicated the book to “the lifeblood of college basketball: the players, who are all too often viewed as the product instead of the source.”
The price of amateurism is the core issue here, and hotshot McBride is its voice. After one year of college ball, McBride plans to enter the NBA draft and “escape being an NCAA basketball slave.” According to one of the articles in the book, the NCAA earns more than $700 million during the tournament, winning coaches can earn a bonus of up to $500,000 and the winning school receives $15 million. This game of “money ball” skips the students altogether, barring them from receiving any money from sponsors or even a share of the profit from the sale of replicas of their own jerseys. Furthermore, students’ families must pay their own way to see the Final Four, while coaches’ wives, children and babysitters are flown to the game and often receive a sizable per diem.
The author is not interested in swaying anyone on this issue, however. Despite his star character’s angry commentary, Volponi is simply interested in the reality of it. “I try to show you an accurate reflection. I try not to tell you what to think. You know, obviously, sometimes when I write it, it’s slanted the way I feel for it, but I don’t try to pull you with me,” he says. “I don’t try to preach to you. I try to show you the mirror of what’s there.”
In this regard, Volponi considers The Final Four a success. The finished copy of the book will include blurbs from several coaches commenting on the book’s validity: UConn’s Jim Calhoun, University of Pittsburgh’s Jamie Dixon and Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski. The quote from Krzyzewski might be Volponi’s greatest compliment: “The Final Four does a terrific job of capturing the emotion of March Madness. It also serves as a reminder to readers that the college game is played by young people, each with their own unique story.” For Volponi, that’s what it’s all about.
Each of Volponi’s 10 books reflects either his own life or a news headline that touched him. Rikers High brings to life the relationships between teachers and student in a high school jail. For Rooftop, he tapped into the dreams and fears of kids in a treatment center. In Black and White, he sought to answer the question on the minds of all his Rikers students: Where are all the white kids? “Once you walk through the gates of the jail and into a high school classroom on Rikers, every student in front of you was either black or Hispanic,” Volponi says. “You could talk about all the socio-economic reasons you want . . . but all that kind of smart stuff kind of fades away when kids are looking at each other and they’re stuck in a room and it’s five degrees out and they’re all wearing t-shirts and they just walked across the yard, and they look at each other and they’re all black and Hispanic. And you can tell them all the reasons it happens, but I really feel they begin to look at each other and go, ‘What’s wrong with us? Why are we here?’”
The author originally planned a sequel to Black and White, but he is currently looking forward to other projects. In the works are a possible kung-fu book (Volponi studies with “one of the great kung-fu minds”) and a football novel. “I really think my next story is going to be a story about a young man—it’s happened here in the past—a 13-year-old who gets a football scholarship,” he says. Classic Volponi material, this comes straight from the headlines and is inspired by USC Coach Lane Kiffin, who has a habit of handing out scholarships to promising players in their very early teens (Evan Berry in 2009, David Sills in 2010). “So now the scholarship’s hanging over his head,” explains Volponi. “People treat him differently. People make a fuss over him. People expect him to play well. What’s the pressure hanging over that kid?”
One thing we can all hope for is that Volponi keeps writing about basketball. “I think it’s such a cool game,” he says. “Reflecting in all my basketball books is that tactile sense of being there, because I’m writing from my own memory of what it’s like to push and shove with people. I do that twice a week now, still.”
But when you get down to it, it’s still about the students he talks to and plays with every day. “I hope a lot of kids get to read it,” Volponi says, “I hope it makes them read other things.” There’s no question that any kid who picks up The Final Four will find a reason to finish it. This book is real life, no matter how tough it gets.