The Final Four by Paul Volponi
The hoop action between the Michigan State Spartans and the (underdog) Trojans of Troy University is nonstop, heart-pounding excitement. While the semifinal NCAA championship game is played, the novel focuses on four players: The Spartans’ superstar, ‘one-and-done’ Malcolm McBride–the trash-talking frosh who is so good that he plans to go to the NBA next year and has let everyone know that the system is using him by making him play college ball for a year; the Spartans’ Michael Jordan, who is a scrapper, a pretty good player with a lot of heart, and who happens to be saddled with same name as a basketball legend; Roko ‘Red Bull’ (for his curly red hair) Bacic, an underrated Trojan player from Croatia who never stops challenging McBride; and Crispin Rice, the Trojans’ only big man, who must help carry the team just days after finding out that his cheerleader fiancee, Hope, may be cheating on him.
While the game is in play, the reader feels the raw emotional stress of each of the four players and sees how their leadership styles, self-esteem, ego and sense of teamwork all affect the action on the court. The trash talk, the plays at the buzzer–the excitement of the game pulls the reader through chapters as s/he must find out who wins.
High school housekeeping: I added The Final Four to my summer reading list because I was looking for something that would appeal both to fans of sports books and to readers working on their skills. The Lexile level for this novel is 870–about 8th grade–so I think it’s a good choice for high school students who are working to achieve grade-level reading. However, many of the ideas lived and played in the novel are important life lessons. So, even if you are reading at grade level, if you are interested in the difference between teamwork and self-centered superstars, in what it is like to be underrated, to play ‘second fiddle’ to a team’s more talented star, to endure pressure in the public eye, and more, The Final Four is a really good book. In addition to the game play and the dialogue/backstory that makes the players come alive, there are quotes at the beginning of each chapter–words of wisdom from basketball stars and coaches–and many chapters that comment on the NCAA practice of financially rewarding coaches, star schools, and just about everyone except the players. These give you food for thought about what has become a multi-billion dollar business.