Friday, June 27, 2008

When basketball is more than just a game

It's the championship game of the Rucker Park basketball tournament. Mackey and J.R. have dreamed of winning it since they were kids. But now Mackey is the only one with a shot at winning the legendary event, because a few weeks ago, J.R. was stabbed and killed on the Rucker Park basketball court. The very court the championship game is being played on.

The entire story of Rucker Park Setup is told during the championship game, with action scenes of the game alternating with flashbacks and recollections of earlier events. And with every flashback, we're left wondering. Does the game have anything to do with J.R.’s death? Will Mackey's team win the tournament? Why does Mackey feel guilty? And what is he hiding about the murder of his best friend?

Rucker Park Setup by Paul Volponi is short and fast-paced, yet still satisfying, with enough twists to keep you guessing and turning the pages. As soon as I finished the book, I immediately wanted to reread it, looking for clues I had overlooked or mistakenly fallen for the first time around. The basketball scenes are authentic enough to satisfy even the most demanding fans and exciting even if you're not much of a basketball fan.

Take me, for example. I like to watch sports, but I can't honestly claim to be a basketball fan. So I have to admit that I picked up Rucker Park Setup largely because I had enjoyed Volponi's first novel for teens, Black and White. As for why I picked up Black and White when it's also about two basketball players, I'm not exactly sure. Maybe it's the fact that it's about race and crime. Or perhaps because it's about two guys who are so close to achieving their dream, but who screw up. Really badly.

It's about Marcus Brown and Eddie Russo.

Everyone in Long Island City knew them as Black and White because of their skin color, but they got over the race thing a long time ago. Stars on their high school basketball team, they had college recruiters coming to their games to check them out.

But senior year wasn’t turning out the way they had hoped. $150 for dues for senior class activities? $150 their families couldn’t afford. They started saving their money, but then these new shoes came out, Nikes that all the other guys on the team were getting, and so the two best players on the team had to get them, too, right?

Now they have their shoes, but nothing for their class trip to amusements parks, and how can they miss out on that? That’s when Eddie remembers his grandfather’s gun. The plan is to hold people up, wave the gun around, and they’ll have their money. They don’t plan on shooting anyone, and it works the first couple of times, but one day Eddie accidentally shoots a man. Just a flesh wound, nothing fatal, but still. What are they going to do? Turn themselves in and they lose their chance at a college scholarship. Their last victim can’t remember what his shooter looked like, but he got a good look at Marcus, and now Marcus is arrested. The police know he had an accomplice, are pretty sure it was Eddie, but they have no evidence and can’t arrest Eddie unless Marcus gives him up, because there’s no way Eddie will turn himself in.

Two people committed the crime, but how many will pay?

Whether you're looking for a book about basketball or friendship, or a suspenseful story about the aftershocks of crime, look no further than these two novels by Paul Volponi.

Rucker Park Setup
by Paul Volponi
149 pages
published by Penguin (ISBN 9780670061303)

Black and White
by Paul Volponi
199 pages
published by Penguin (ISBN 9780142406922)

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