A hit, a miss in looks at kids and sports

April 19, 1994|By Jerry Bembry | Jerry Bembry,Sun Staff Writer

In recent years, some writers of sports books have followed teams for entire seasons to get the up-close-and-personal stories of athletes. The lives of Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls; the "Fab Five" basketball players at the University of Michigan; and Bob Knight and his Indiana University program have been chronicled in such a manner.

Two recent books continue that trend, taking a detailed look at subjects at the elementary- and high-school level. "Hardball: A Season in the Projects" follows a season of a Little League team playing out of Chicago's Cabrini-Green housing development. "Skyline: One Season, One Team, One City" follows a season with the Skyline Titans, a high school team playing in the tough Oakland Athletic League.

By far the more enjoyable book is "Hardball," written by Daniel Coyle, a senior editor for Outside magazine. After volunteering to coach in the new Little League, established in 1991, Mr. Coyle took a leave of absence in the league's second season to chronicle the life of the Chicago Near North Kikuyus, a group of 9- to 12-year-olds that make up a team in the Near North Little League/African-American Youth League.

The dividing lines are drawn early for the members of the Kikuyus, who, like the other teams in the league, are named after an African people. There are the "home run hitters," the stars; and the "busters," the less athletic players. From beginning to end, the on-field antics of the team bring utter chaos. One kid screams at the coach on the first day of practice: "Don't touch me, or I'll sue you." Sit-down protests of one kind or another tend to disrupt just about every other game.

In between is a touching story of a group of youngsters -- and their families -- struggling to survive a sometimes depressing environment in which gangs rule the streets, and gunfire is sometimes directed at the league's playing field.

Mr. Coyle is effective in taking the reader into the lives of the players off the field. Louis is a talented organist who desperately attempts to keep his musical skills hidden from the other players. Demetrius, a sixth-grader, constantly picks fights with his teammates and gets a chance to explore his sexuality. Quiet Otis loses his father to AIDS, becoming the third player on the team to have a father die over the summer.

Baseball's a welcome distraction to the lure of the streets for many of these kids who, for the most part, are good at heart. Mr. Coyle paints a picture that gives an understanding of their world and demonstrates that they -- with the exception to their adaptability to their environment -- are just like other Little League players. Even if you're not a sports fan, this is enjoyable reading.

The approach is the same in "Skyline," in which San Francisco Chronicle sportswriter Tim Keown examines the 1992-1993 season of the Skyline High School Titans.

"Skyline" also takes a look at the dreams of the kids -- in this case the dreams and visions of making it as a basketball player at the college or pro level. Shawn Donlea is the Skyline coach. He is in his first year at the school and the only white coach in the Oakland Athletic League.

The path is similar: The dissension that hovers around the Titans from early in the season gives way to a powerful bond as the players realize their common goal of reaching respectability.

There are some outside distractions at Skyline as well, with gang activity and drugs among the lures for the students. There are family tragedies and family success stories.

But where the book needs to dig deeper into the private lives of the kids, it doesn't. What you're left with is 253 pages that deal mostly with basketball, which isn't bad if you're a sports fan. The text is often repetitive, leading this reader, at least, to skip over a lot of the canned responses that sportswriters hear most every day.

By book's end, you've gotten a taste of what the characters are like, but not the full flavor. Not having that full flavor is a problem when you're reading about characters that -- unlike, say, Michigan's Fab Five -- you've never heard of before.

Perhaps it's Mr. Keown's unfamiliarity with the culture of urban teen-agers that leaves that empty feeling. It's a good effort but, especially in comparison with "Hardball," it doesn't quite measure up.

Mr. Bembry is a sportswriter for The Sun.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "Hardball: A Season in the Projects"

Author: Daniel Coyle

Publisher: Putnam

Length, price: 316 pages, $22.95

Title: "Skyline: One Season, One Team, One City"

Author: Tim Keown

Publisher: Macmillan

Length, price: 253 pages, $20

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