January 19, 2006


Open Ice. By Pat Hughes. Wendy Lamb Books. $15.95.

Ball Don’t Lie. By Matt de la Peňa. Delacorte Press. $16.95.

     There is something vaguely unpleasant about making sports the be-all and end-all of teenage life.  Kids ages 14 and up – the intended audience for both these books – often dream of untold riches obtained easily (they think) by simply playing games they would play for free.  In truth, similar dreams are not unusual for anyone who feels deeply connected to something done for pleasure – art, music, writing.  But the inherent competitiveness of sports, to the point of violence, lends a deeply disturbing element to sports-focused get-rich-quick schemes and dreams.  Nevertheless, those are dreams many teens, especially teenage boys, seem to share. And many of them will therefore gravitate to these two books, at least until they encounter the intense physical and emotional pain that the authors make an integral part of the stories.

     Hockey players expect the physical sort of pain.  Pat Hughes’ Open Ice is the story of Nick Taglio, a high-school sophomore and top hockey player for whom occasional concussions are simply part of the game.  He has one at the start of the book, but feels so good that he starts making out with his girlfriend while in his hospital bed – until the nurse puts a stop to that sort of playing.  Then it turns out that the repeated concussions are going to put a stop to the other sort of playing – the hockey that means more to Nick than sex, more than life itself.  That, of course, is exactly the point: responsible adults see that Nick would truly be taking his life in his hands if he resumed playing his particularly rough brand of hockey.  Nick sees only that he must play: it’s what he does; it defines who and what he is.  Yet Nick has been diagnosed with “mild traumatic brain injury with postconcussion syndrome,” and he has to find out what there is to his personality and his life beyond hockey.  A “diversity project,” a deeply troubling discovery involving his girlfriend, and a variety of medical and school-related events leave him wiser and perhaps on the road to greater maturity – but still with hockey always in his dreams.

     Similar sports-related missteps on the road to adulthood characterize Ball Don’t Lie, the first novel by Matt de la Peňa.  Here the protagonist is a bitter foster child named Sticky Richard, who connects with people only by playing basketball (the author went to college on a basketball scholarship).  A girl figures in Sticky’s life, of course, but the intensity here is reserved for Sticky’s relationship with his past more than his feelings for others.  Gradually, through a series of scenes in gritty urban settings, Sticky gains street smarts he never knew he still had to learn.  And he endures some serious violence – which unlocks in him the ability to look within and reveal some of the worst events of his past to himself.  He eventually even finds himself able to cry, and realizes, “This feels more than good, it feels like life.”  And life contains basketball but is not contained by it – a good lesson for sports-obsessed teens everywhere, if they will only learn it.

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