I write novels based in sports for young-adult readers, and have been since I wrote Travel Team, published in October of 2004. That story came out of something that happened in my own life, with one of my three sons, a year when I took all the kids who got cut trying to make a seventh-grade travel basketball team in our town, and started a team of my own. It was the first time I had seen sports break my son's heart.
This team of so-called castoffs started out losing to everybody. I thought I was producing a dream, a heartwarming Disney movie, but in the early part of the season it was a total nightmare. I'd look up and the Rebels, which is what we called our team, would be losing by 20 points. Again.
But these kids never lost their love of the game. And eventually, they got good. They started beating teams that had beaten them early. I'd tell them the same thing before every game: "We're not in any league here. There isn't going to be any March Madness. But every time you go out, you're playing for the championship of every kid who ever got told by an adult he wasn't good enough."
They won their last game by one point, on a free throw by a great kid named Brendan Fitzpatrick, with three seconds left. They ran around the gym afterward like they had won a championship. It was as good a season as I ever had in sports and a few months later, I wrote a novel about it. (By the way, one of the kids who'd gotten cut -- for being too small -- was a young man named Conor Donovan. He went on to play the young Matt Damon character in The Departed. So he found out in lots of ways that getting cut in sports wasn't really the end of the world.)
What I've been finding out ever since, with all the books that came after Travel Team, is that kids never grow tired of reading these types of stories. Much as I never did.
For me as a kid, the whole ballgame was a character named Chip Hilton, the series of wonderful novels written about him by the old basketball coach Clair Bee. Of course, these weren't the only books that pulled me into being a reader. But Chip Hilton's world was the one I liked the best, him and his buddies Soapy Smith and Speed Morris and Jimmy Lu Chung, and their high school coach, Coach Henry Rockwell.
I've still got four of them from Grosset & Dunlap: Touchdown Pass, Championship Ball, Hardcourt Upset, Back-Court Ace. I pick up any of them and start reading them, the way I used to read them aloud to my sons, and 40 years of my life disappears.
The books became part of my DNA. I just didn't know how much until I started writing Travel Team, all the way until the one that just came out, Million Dollar Throw, about a boy who gets to make one of those million-dollar throws at halftime of a New England Patriots game, at a time when his family's finances are falling apart.
When I go around the country and speak to schools, I always start out the same way, telling them how sad things were for kids when I was growing up. They can tell right away I'm just having fun with them, but they play along.
I look up at the crowd and into the crowd and say, "When Mr. Lupica was growing up ... well ... there was ... no ... ESPN."
Groans and screams.
"And no laptops."
More screaming and thrashing about, because now they're all the way in on the joke.
Then I go through the rest of the laundry list, in an assembly hall in San Francisco or a gym in Ohio: No iPods. No instant messaging."
Finally the money quote:
"No video games!"
When they calm down, having imagined a world that unspeakably horrible, I say this:
"But with all the stuff I just talked about, with all the distractions that you have and I didn't, we're exactly the same: We still love a good story. We still love books."
And they do. They do.
I tell them that I'm not writing about wizards, that I haven't yet figured out a way to get a dragon to play second base, or put a vampire in the outfield. I'm writing about kids like them trying to do something great in sports, and maybe find out about their own heart and character and talent in the process.
I'm writing the kind of stories that I wanted to read. It's not Chip Hilton for me, who was a star at everything, who got hurt one year and even became the greatest team manager in the history of Valley Falls. Sometime it's little Danny Walker in Travel Team, or Michael Arroyo, a Cuban-American boy in Heat who's got a magical arm, but can't produce the birth certificate that proves that he really is 12.
Or Nate Brodie, called "Brady" in Million Dollar Throw because Tom Brady is his hero, finding out that the chance of a lifetime comes with the kind of pressure he thinks no 13-year old should ever have to face.
I love writing these stories. I love meeting parents, mothers especially, who start out the conversation by saying, "I could never get him to read before..." Having some kind of rep as the king of the reluctant readers.
And it's not such a terrible thing for 250 pages to have sports come out the way you want them to, like they did in Valley Falls, Chip Hilton's hometown, about a thousand years ago.