Book Review: The Assist: Hoops, Hope, and the Game of Their Lives

The Assist the story of Charleston High School coach Jack O'Brien and his quest to save kids from street life through basketball.   Charleston resides in Boston, a school filled primarily with ghetto kids struggling with the typical problems you'd expect, violence, drugs, street life, etc..  The first half of the book is magnificent as it details Charleston's run for their 5th title in six years.  You get a great feeling for the players on the team, their attitudes and find yourself rooting for them to win and make it out of life.

O'Brien's the larger than life coach who intercedes in these kids lives at every level.  Driving them to college campuses forcing them to do their schoolwork, forcing them to stay polite, and doing everything his power to keep them off the streets even during summer school.

I wouldn't question his dedication to his kids. 

I have mixed feelings about the second half of the book.  It follows several more seasons of Charleston basketball where O'Brien eventually quits, only to change his mind, then quit again, then change his mind again all over the course of one summer.   The O'Brien storyline is left hanging at an awkward sport where you don't really know what's going to happen with him.

The plus side is that you get to see, to some extent what happens to some of the Charleston boys after they graduate with one of the the two lead characters going on to success and one heading towards failure.   The following up on the kids was great to read, as I missed not having such a follow up on similar books.

Still, the end of the 5th championship makes for a great stopping point in a book with an epilogue to come afterwards rather than half another book without a cohesive storyline or end point.

The author also seems a bit too close to O'Brien for me.   There are many sections written about how unfair the school board is with various rules.  How trying to get the kids to learn math and english isn't preparing them for college while having them take soft electives to inflate their grades would give them more opportunities. 

I'm not sure how O'Brien juxtaposes his opinion that he really cares about the kids education, but feels that education is best enhanced by getting As in filler work rather than taking real high school level class work.   The implication is that the kids simply can't do math or english and don't enjoy it.   That may be a failure of the schools feeding into the high schools, but I don't think that problem is resolved by avoiding it until they get to college and hoping they figure it out there.

There's also several chapters written about the great injustice of Hugh, an assistant coach, not being able to get a full time job at the school despite being a strong black father figure who graduated college after attending Charleston.  The idea is that Hugh is such a positive example for these kids that he deserves the job.   I have no problem with this except that Hugh can't pass the teacher certification test which is the only hold up on his job being guaranteed.  

The school got special waivers for him many times over to teach without the certification though and implies the teachers certification test is culturally biased.  I've never seen the test.  I have no idea.  However, I'm kind of insulted by the idea that the school administration is hung out to dry over not hiring a teacher who can't pass the mandatory certification test.

The book is a tale of two stories.  One great, one flawed.   The great story is the one about Charleston basketball.   The flawed one are the misguided solutions to the education problems in an area overwhelmed with poverty. 

It's a good book, but it has little balance to it and reads as intellectually dishonest in it's views of the school system to me.

Final Rating: 6/10

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