"God is a concept by which we measure our pain." -- John Lennon (1970)
"Once I discovered he was [a forward] on the Harding High team, questions
jumped into my mind. Did Harding have a point guard? Could the guy shoot?
Could he pass? Could he run a fast break? Did I have a chance to beat
him out for the starting spot? I didn't ask Levi any of them. I didn't know
him well enough, not then. Besides, I was afraid of what the answers
"There was a long moment of silence. 'You must also play football,' I
said, scrambling for another topic, 'Tight end? Linebacker? Quarterback?'
"Levi's mouth turned down, and he shook his head. 'I won't play football.
It's a sin to hurt another human being on purpose.'
"'A sin?' I asked, not sure I'd heard correctly.
"'Yes. A sin.'
"Was he joking? What kid ever talked about sin? I nearly laughed, but I
caught myself. I'm glad I did, because if Levi thought I was laughing at
religion -- at God -- he'd have gone back into that squashed house of his,
and I'd have never known him. I'd have played on the Harding High team with
him; but I wouldn't have known him. At the end, everything went wrong.
But knowing Levi -- being his best friend -- that had been right."
A junior in a high school just outside San Francisco, Jonas Dolan has
developed into a solid point guard on the varsity basketball team. Not being
big enough or fast enough to ever dream of playing professionally, Jonas
figures he'll likely join his dad in working at the local sand and gravel
plant after graduating. But with Jonas's game getting better and better, his
coach introduces him to the notion of seeking out an athletic scholarship
from some Division II college. Coach Russell arranges for Jonas to be filmed
in action and helps Jonas send out DVD copies to dozens of Division II
institutions. In response, interest is expressed by a coach across the country
at Monitor College, but he makes it clear to Jonas -- who has never been
much of a student -- that he will have to get his academic game on, too, if
he wants to be considered by Monitor.
Just as Jonas is beginning to get it all together, his father suffers a
series of bad breaks at work and his parents end up selling the house and
moving up to Seattle where, after the summer, Jonah will begin his senior year
at Harding High. Six-six Levi lives down the street from Jonas's new
home, and the two begin building a solid friendship. They spend the latter
portion of the summer playing together in informal pick-up games against
rival high school crews at a nearby community center. And it is at the center
that they meet twenty-something Ryan Hartwell, who is clearly a former
player of some sort and who has the teaching ability to really help them polish
their skills on the court. But it is also clear from his behavior that
Hartwell is a bit of a sketchy character. Which makes it especially
surprising when, on the first day of school, he appears at Harding High as a new
teacher and the new assistant basketball coach.
"'What would Jesus do?' Levi finally said. 'That's what I ask myself when
things like this happen. The answer always comes, and then I do what
Jesus would do.'
"I wondered: Was it really that simple? Who knows? Maybe when Jesus was
seventeen, he'd have had a beer and watched the babes. I smiled at the
thought but I didn't say anything to Levi. I knew better than to make that
kind of joke with him."
Levi is an incredibly fascinating character: The obedient son of a preacher
who doesn't see value in sports and has never once seen Levi play. A
tall, solid kid, who has been accepting of all the guys calling him Dumb Dumb.
A barely-passing student (despite trying really hard) and an
exceptionally kind human being to everyone who crosses his path. A kid who knows
everything about everything out in nature, and can produce amazing sketches of
leaves and woodland creatures -- from memory and drawn from multiple
perspectives -- but a kid who can barely pass relatively easy tests at school.
(He'd had to sit out the last month of the previous year's season because of
his grades.) All this, and his friendship with Jonah, make for such a
SWAGGER is filled with plenty of on-the-court action -- which will please
readers who are looking for that -- but it is the off-court issues we
encounter that really make this one a notable book.
Among the important issues in SWAGGER is that of sexual predators and
teens. Here are some facts I found on the website of the California Attorney
"Of sexual assaults against people age 12 and up, approximately 80% of the
victims know the offender."
"In the majority of cases, abusers gain access to their victims through
deception and enticement, seldom using force."
"Most child sexual abusers offend against children whom they know and with
whom they have established a relationship."
This is really important to understand. According to the Attorney
General, the odds are against a perpetrator being a random stranger. It's far
most likely to be someone a teen already knows well.
And, yes, this is unquestionably a heavy issue to be laying on
adolescents. But are we better off leaving adolescents vulnerable and in the dark for
the sake of not wanting to talk about bad things that they and their
friends may fall victim to, or do we provide them knowledge that might save a
It is with this question in mind that I'm strongly advocating the purchase
and promotion of this powerful high school sports story.
Ages 13 and up