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    Monday, 24 March 2014 17:34

    Sasquatch In The Paint

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    “Sasquatch in the Paint” Hits a Grand Slam
     
    “Sasquatch in the Paint,” written by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Raymond Obstfeld, is the story of Theo Rollins and the tough moments he faces in turning thirteen and becoming a teenager, and while an element of the story is set against the backdrop of basketball, this book hits a Grand Slam. 
     
    And just as the title foretells, Theo must get into the paint of his life and establish his game there as well as on the basketball court, as he faces major conflicts at every turn. Early in the story, Theo is playing in a school basketball game and his opponent in the paint is majoring in confidence. Theo asks himself what is he confident about in his life, if anything, and knows the answer is zero. And we go from there into the mixed up and confused world of a young teen that climbs a seemingly endless staircase with no elevator to the top, but that is the heart of the journey we take with him.  
     
    Theo is a thirteen year-old African-American boy at Orangetree Middle School in Orange County, California,  a school where only a handful of black students attend, and is populated mostly by Asian students, with a dabbling of America’s melting pot mixed in. His father is Marcus Rollins, police officer and widower, thus Theo is without a mother, and his best friend is Brian “Brainiac” Horowitz, a husky boy quick with quips and sarcasm, who is Theo’s partner on the school academic team called Brain Train, and who happens to be Jewish.
     
    Theo grew six inches over the summer and his height bestowed some attention in the school halls never before given and he likes that, and when asked to join the school basketball team by Coach Mandrake he agrees, and that’s where the story begins – in the middle of a game that Theo blows because of his lack of playing skills, as up to that moment Theo had chosen academic achievement over sports. 
     
    Right then, in the first few pages of the book, the reader knows Jabbar and Obstfeld have crafted an adventure much more than an episodic coming of age tale, and that the story, rich with humor as well as the angst we all faced in our own coming of age, is something far broader, and bigger, and a challenge to stereotypes and prejudices. 
     
    Theo was called “Sasquatch” by fans in the stands at the first game because of his big feet and his clumsy behavior on the basketball court where we meet him, where he towered above all other players in height, but was the shortest on skills. And the ringleader of the name-calling is a girl called by Theo, “Crazy Girl,” aka Rain Kadinski.
     
    What story about becoming thirteen and all its issues wouldn’t include a girl? But Rain is all new to Theo as the first girl noticed as more than a glance in his life, and not because of any romantic thoughts, this relationship is born in conflict because of her boastful intelligence and right-to-the-heart observations of Theo’s behavior. Rain Kadinski inhabits her own world on her own terms and serves as a catalyst for Theo’s life adjustments because of her radical difference in life attitude, a confidence in her word and steps that challenge Theo’s insecurities from every angle.  
     
    And that is how the story develops – with everything we expect to happen being turned upside-down – from Theo on the Brain Trust, to having Brian as his best friend, to being unskilled at basketball to meeting the first girl in his life with any meaning who is that way because of her truthful boldness, to an enraged cousin from the ‘hood whose song he had written and shared with only Theo had been stolen from Theo’s backpack and was now a hit by a major band, to being challenged to a brain match to stay on the Brain Trust, to having his basketball coach pretty well tell him if he doesn’t improve he is off the team, to the mystery of Motorcycle Guy and why he hit Crazy Girl, to just who the heck is Crazy Girl, to his dad’s secret dating, to the question how does one young teenager even think about finding himself when his world is filled with a mine field of these issues exploding with every step? 
     
    The characters in the story are numerous and clever, with some given formal names, like Brooke, the self-absorbed diva of the Brain Trust, to others just named by a quality they possessed – Motorcycle Guy, Burrito Breath, Tunes, Fuzzy Mustache, names bestowed by young teens as identifiable enough for the characters they encounter. Nicknames are a very important part of the story, for the story is told through Theo, and his identification of others as no more or no less than the quality they possess is humorous and certainly an of age characteristic we carry with us into adulthood.
     
    But just as the title foretells, Theo must get into the paint of his life and establish his game there, as well as on the basketball court, and is forced to face the struggles it will take. Theo’s world is shaken when he sneaks a peak on his dad’s computer and finds out good old dad is secretly dating a woman he met at an online dating service. And then there’s this lack of confidence thing – both his basketball coach and his academic team coach put him on notice to ship up within the week or ship out. And that conflict is drawn so beautifully. We immediately love the academic team, except for Brooke, as they are characters drawn by illustration as likable, and here is where Theo has some gravitas – in knowledge. But the basketball team, outside of one player, Chris Richards, the respected best ball player who possesses Yoda qualities, is one-faceted, with talent with the ball as the only measure. Theo must choose which he wants more, which he can’t do, and chooses to succeed in both, which he can’t do.
     
    Again, the authors have written a story that is multi-leveled:
     
    Dialogue is a the diamond that drives the story, memorable and mostly humorous, as humor is the tool used by all age groups to face new ideas and challenges to the comfortable status quo. Humor moves the story forward, and forces us to look within our minds and decide how we are going to handle new conflicts, and a way is to poke fun at those newly discovered conflicts, followed by gradual acceptance. 
     
    An exchange between Theo and Brian after Theo has lost that first game and blames himself is foretelling of the great juxtaposition of the Brain Train team and the basketball team, and the rich, depth of intelligence not afraid to be displayed by Theo or his friends, but worn as truth, is inspiring to young people to seek the same. This story doesn’t stop at one specialty group for an audience, such as athletes, but challenges young people to go beyond barriers and stereotypes”
     
    “I let those punks from Danbury Heights get to me. That skin-color comment shook me.”
    Brian snorted. “Yeah, that’s the reason you sucked.”
    Theo frowned at his friend’s sarcasm. “You wouldn’t understand.”
    “Right, because I’m white. There’s no way a chubby white Jew with thick glasses, a wild Jew-fro, and perpetual acne could understand the emotional effects of name-calling. Thank goodness my life has been so full of unicorns and rainbows.”
    Theo grinned. “Then you agree.”
    Brian punched Theo in the arm. “As McLandburgh Wilson said, “The optimist sees the donut, the pessimist sees the hole.”
     
    And in his first conversation with Crazy Girl that theme is developed in a magnificent exchange of the two on a playground that also foretells some coming conflicts in addition to this one:
     
    She saw Theo looking at her jersey. “Dr. J’s number,” she said proudly.
    Theo shrugged. He’d heard of Dr. J, but he had no idea exactly who he was or why he was called “doctor.” He’d never followed sports of any kind. That was his dad’s thing.
    …She shook her head in disgust. “No wonder you stink at basketball. You’ve got no appreciation for the game or its history.”
    Theo leaned down so his face was close to hers and glared. “Yeah? Do you know who Magnus Carlsen, Levon Aronian, and Vladimir Kramnick are?”
    She seemed to lift up on her toes to return his glare. When she didn’t answer, Theo straightened up and grinned. “See? The world doesn’t revolve around basketball. There are other things. More important things.”
    She put the basketball on her finger and spun it like a globe. “Those are the three top-ranked chess players in the world. Carlsen from Norway, Aronian from Armenia, and Kramnik from Russia.”
    Theo’s jaw dropped open like a cartoon animal’s. He was surprised it didn’t clunk against the ground.
    She laughed. “Lookin’ smart there, Sasquatch.  Hey, maybe because of me, your nickname will be ‘Sasquatch.’ When you’re famous they’ll mention me in the Wikipedia entry about you. ‘Cute, awesome girl he knew who used to beat his butt at basketball.’ How’s that sound?”
     
    For young adults it is a coming of age tale most can relate to as there are visible characters involved in the story who are the thoughts and fears and worries of young adulthood, such as Motorcycle Guy, who is a big, mean dude who hits Rain and of course, rides a motorcycle. And early in the story, though Theo doesn’t know Rain yet except as Crazy Girl, he goes to her defense though he is no help. At that moment we see Theo as having courage to face his fear of a fight, along with some stupidity, so we choose to side with him and go along for his ride.
     
    For adults, the story is so well written, with twists beyond twists, second guesses, mysteries, and the most subtle foreshadowing of amazing happenings in a style that enlists us in the quest, while remembering our own walk through these issues, and checking to see if we have fully handled them, we become Theo’s teammates.
     
    There are many great and colorful characters in the story, and each one has a major validity, the same as in our lives, where we have people around us we can use for support or use to hone our rough edges, just as iron sharpens iron. Also in Theo’s life is Gavin, his tough, in-your-face cousin from the ‘hood who makes him feel uncomfortable because they have such different attitudes and values. But whose own journey is juxtaposed next to Theo’s. 
     
    Theo grows one small, painful step at a time; he doesn’t sprint to self-adjustment, which is just another colorful contrast in a story filled with symbolic contrasts that are a backdrop canvas and never an intrusion into the story. 
     
    Further, and most importantly, it is a great story, and I don’t think anyone can put it down because from the first page we are in a world so brilliantly crafted by Jabbar and Obstfeld. This is no Hardy Boys crime drama; this is a real life story that is captivating and appealing, with all elements of story possessing a charisma that fascinates us and gives us what we want most from a book – enjoyment.   
     
    How can someone you don’t know guarantee you will enjoy this story? It is impossible, but I will do it nonetheless, it is more than an amazing journey, it is a pure delight, a rich novel as big as “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” with some similar themes and poignant moments, this is one story so grand and so big, it seems inadequate to write a brief review, it is a great story that will not only touch young lives, but change them. All that a book can be is fulfilled within the pages of “Sasquatch in the Paint.” And yet, it is also a humble story that welcomes us along with Theo and we savor each page until we realize there are no more to enjoy.
     
    My hope is there will be many books about Theo, and I will stick with him through the rest of his life, if Jabbar and Obstfeld are so generous as to give us that gift. Theo and company have become to me, the reader, a part of the family.  And I would like them there on holidays, rainy days, sharing the adventure of our lives together. 
     
    Lorenzo Porricelli
    Read 1494 times Last modified on Wednesday, 05 August 2015 16:17

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