Billy Reynolds, the longtime Providence Journal columnist who is one of the nation’s very best basketball writers, has written a remarkable new book entitled Hope: A School, A Team, A Dream.
It is a lyrical love letter to basketball and youth based a season spent with the basketball team at Hope High School, on Providence’s East Side. Reynolds went to the practices and games, hung out with the players and coaches, rode the buses through the chilly New England winter. He acknowledges that any journalistic objectivity dribbled away after about the third day with this team. By the middle of the book, the reader understands that Reynolds is pulling for these guys as enthusiastically as the audience at the Hoosiers movie.
Basketball has defined much of Reynolds life. A high school star at Barrington High School, hoops helped him get into Brown, then provided the grist for his journalistic career. There are few scribes in the country who have as much experience, knowledge and connections in the basketball world than Reynolds. He co-wrote a national bestseller with coach Rick Pitino, penned a well-regarded biography of Boston Celtic icon guard Bob Cousy and a history of the Big East hoop conference. And there are the two books on Chris Herren; one covers his high school days at Fall River’s Durfee High School, the other Herren’s descent into addiction and his recovery.
What is striking about `Hope' is that, while it is about basketball, this book is also one of the best chronicles of the reality of inner-city public schools. Reynolds most important, and most poignant, message is the way society has neglected the urban schools that are assimilating a new generation of immigrants. Sport meets sociology.
Hope was once a model school, built before World War II. It is located a nine iron from Moses Brown School, a jewel of a prep school in the Quaker tradition. It’s a long three wood from the Ivy League sports complex at Brown University. Those institutions today are light years from Hope.
``How did a school whose very name is the motto of Rhode Island become a symbol of everything wrong with American education in this new millennium – high drop-out rates, absenteeism, violence, the materials outdated and the structure in disrepair, overcrowded with kids the country seems to have few answers for? More importantly, who are these kids that society seems to walk to the other side of the street to avoid? All these nonwhite, poor kids, the ones with their hoodies and baggy pants, who often fear for their lives,’’ writes Reynolds.
Two of the kids on the team were raised in Liberian refugee camps. One, Jonathan Weah, came to Providence at age 10, bereft of any schooling save what his mother taught him about the abcs. He was assigned to the third grade, where he felt out of place, bigger and taller than classmates and unable to communicate with them. ``I had a problem reading, I didn’t mix in with other kids, I felt left out,’’ Weagh told Reynolds.
The central character of the book is a coach named Dave Nyblom, a prince of a man. A self-described `Swamp Yankee’ who lives with his family in South Kingstown, Nyblom has coached at Hope for 25 years. He has put up homeless players in his own home and often buys food with his own money for hungry players. Nyblom has the tough job of melding poor minority boys into a team. He deals with players no one else wants; the Roman Catholic schools, such as La Salle and Hendricken, take the good minority players with good grades and comportment.
Nyblom and his assistant coaches are often puzzled by this new generation. Rap music is the soundtrack of their lives and Nyblom and his assistants are often upset by the drumbeat of misogyny and various iterations of the n-word blasted to an incessant amplified bass.
We’re a long way from Clair Bee and Chip Hilton, but no matter how offensive the music and the attitudes of some of his players, Nyblom tends to them as if they were his own children. Nyblom knows better than anyone that basketball is all some of these kids have. The contrast with suburban schools couldn't be more stark.
One of the Hope assistant coaches tells Reynolds, ``The administration doesn’t appreciate Dave here. They either don’t know about all the things he does for these kids, or else they don’t care. It’s one or the other. And it’s unbelievable to me. I’ve never seen anything like it.’’
In an era when coaches try to win at all costs, Nyblom is a throwback. When one of his best players is smoking pot, Nyblom calls in the kid’s mother and the other coaches for an ultimatum – no more weed or you are off the team. The coach is aware that such a decision could cost him a shot at the playoffs and a state championship, but he is damned he is going to do the right thing. The next time some know-nothing from the suburbs prattles on about inner-city teachers in the profession only to collect their pensions, give them this book.
Before an important game, Nyblom gets Providence College coach Ed Cooley, who hails from a tough neighborhood on Providence’s South Side, to give an inspirational locker-room speech.
These are the kids from the projects, Chad Brown and Manton Heights. One of the players tells Reynolds why he didn’t go outside much when he lived in the projects. ``Because there were shootings and stuff. I probably heard 20 gunfights…I have a relative who was in and out of jail and one serving life for a murder. You learn that anything can happen at anytime, and you have to be prepared for anything.’’
Reynolds says that kid spoke as dispassionately about life in the projects, as though he was ``talking about the summer camps he’d been to and the people he met there.’’
High School basketball in the factory towns of New England was once played in sweaty gyms jammed to the rafters. It was the pride of the community on display, the passions played out every winter Friday night. These Hope kids generally play to sparse crowds. There are no parents picking them up at 10:30 p.m. after a bus ride home from Woonsocket.
Despite the roadblocks and challenges, Reynolds does well at depicting the timelessness of team, sport and youth. The rank locker room smells, the buzzer-beaters and the horsing around in practice are all here. At the end, after Hope loses a heart-breaking playoff game in overtime, Nyblom stands in a small locker room and tells the crestfallen players, ``We love you guys…we love you.’’