MILTON — Growing up in this diverse suburb, bordered to the north by the Boston neighborhoods of Mattapan and Dorchester, Marcus Burke was known primarily for his basketball skills.
So when he came back to the area from his current home in Iowa City, it might have come as a surprise to many who knew him as a high school and college player that he wasn’t back to coach or play but to promote.
Burke, 26, was here to make appearances connected with the publication of his debut novel (the first of two under contract to Doubleday), “Team Seven,” the semi-autobiographical tale of Andre Battel, a teen basketball star growing up in Milton who inadvertently runs afoul of a drug dealer and has to fight to save his life and avoid the pitfalls that snare so many urban boys.
“I have writing in my blood. I don’t know how it got there, but it’s there,” Burke said with a laugh, during a stroll through his old neighborhood. “And between my family’s story and growing up in the Boston area — an area so rich with culture and ‘real’ life — I guess it was easy to write this book because it would have been wrong not to.”
The actual writing may have been easy but the decision to do so was not and the creation and publication of “Team Seven” was a project seven years in the making.
. . .
In 2006, as a freshman at Susquehanna University in central Pennsylvania, when many of his peers were clinging to dreams of basketball stardom, Burke was already deciding that he would not pursue that dream. He would be a writer.
It was a somewhat surprising choice. Burke, who is around 6 feet tall, was a highly-regarded point guard and chose small, private Susquehanna because he lacked the grades and standardized test scores necessary for the half-dozen Division I schools that had expressed interest.
“I think that was probably the most difficult time of my life and the most enlightening too,” Burke says of the days he spent struggling with his decision. “I loved basketball, but it just didn’t feel right for me as a long-term plan.’’
Indeed, Jean Burke, Marcus’s mom, says she recalls the night he called her in tears to tell her of his decision. “It was late, very late,” Jean Burke says. “First he told me he wanted to come home, and I knew something was wrong. Then he explained that basketball couldn’t be the end for him, that he wanted to do something different. I asked him what, and he said ‘write.’ That may have surprised me, but probably a year earlier, before he’d left for college, he showed me his writing, and I was blown away. I didn’t know he had it in him.”
Jean Burke would later learn that Marcus and his older sister Xandria used to sit up late and write poetry and fiction together through much of their teen years, critiquing each other’s work.
“A lot of times we wouldn’t even go to sleep,” said Xandria, a chef, who also lives in Iowa City now. “We were so into writing that we’d go all night till we saw the sun coming up. And mom would never know why we were dragging when she ‘woke us up’ for school.”
Nancy Drourr, a former director of development for Brimmer and May, the Chestnut Hill private school that Burke attended his last two years in high school, remembers getting to know “two Marcus Burkes.”
“There was the star basketball player Marcus, who cared little for his studies when he got here and was convinced he could cruise through life on the back of his athletic skills,” said Drourr, who became his academic adviser. “And there was the other, calculating Marcus, who was a terrific, thoughtful writer and even then was able to paint a picture of life in a way that you often only see in older people.”
There was a period when Drourr was concerned about whether sports star Marcus might overwhelm and smother thoughtful Marcus, because shortly after coming to Brimmer and May, he led the basketball team to a state title and was named a regional league MVP.
“Who could have blamed him for thinking then that basketball was his way out,” Drourr said. “I’m grateful though that on his own several years later he recognized that his life, if shared the right way, would resonate with people.”
When he got to Susquehanna, Burke impressed coaches with his drive. “He came in here and was one of the best players we had inch for inch, pound for pound. He gave us everything he had,’’ said Frank Marcinek, the college’s head basketball coach and assistant athletic director. “He was just tremendous.’'
In his junior year at Susquehanna, his basketball playing time was diminishing because of knee problems, but his confidence in his writing was growing.
That he became a writer was not a shock to Marcinek. Burke “was maybe in his junior year, and he would sit behind me on the bus going to games,’’ the coach recalled. “And he was composing a story, which I think became his novel. And he would actually speak it out as he wrote. So while I haven’t had a chance to read the book yet I heard most of it and don’t expect to be surprised.’’
By his senior year, Burke had learned about the famed Iowa Writer’s Workshop at the University of Iowa and decided he would take a shot at it. He applied in his senior year, was accepted, and moved to Iowa City in 2010, eventually earning a master’s of fine arts degree and completing “Team Seven.”
“Undergraduate school was a whirlwind,” Burke said. “And in a way, I had started to treat my writing like I had my basketball at one point — like I was invincible. So it was good for me to get to Iowa and have to learn from people who knew the craft better than me. It was humbling but good for me.”
. . .
Back in his old Milton neighborhood, Burke strolled slowly, pointing to different homes and saying things like “that’s where Reggie lived,” and “this is the corner I reference in the book about where Team Seven, the ‘real’ Team Seven hung out.”
His manner of speech seems familiar because he adopts the same conversational tone in his book. Burke stopped in front of one two-story olive-green house, pointed upstairs, and said, “and that’s where Andre — me, really — lived. That was my bedroom, our bedroom right there.”
The “real Team Seven,” Burke explained was more a collection of teen boys with more hopes than realistic ambitions.
“We’d hang here at the corner and talk about our other interests — playing basketball and girls,’’ he said. “We got into stuff, but certainly no battles with neighborhood drug dealers. That part of the book isn’t autobiographical! But it still paints a picture of how in urban areas you can be surrounded by that kind of thing even in a neighborhood that appears to be safe and dull till the sun goes down.”
. . .
One of Burke’s last stops before heading back to Iowa City, where he teaches an introduction to fiction writing class at the university, was South Middle School in Brockton, where his family had lived briefly during his childhood before moving to Milton.
Before a packed auditorium of more than 200 students, he read an excerpt from “Team Seven,” describing how Andre and his mother had gotten a call from his estranged, deadbeat father asking them to meet him outside Berklee College of Music so that he could give mother and son a bag of groceries.
While Burke read, the students silently leaned in or sucked in their breath or giggled quietly at the vivid details of Andre’s defiant conversation with his mother upon being stood up by the wayward father — one in which the mother eventually goes “upside his head” for disrespectimg her.
Later, as they filed out of the auditorium, student after student stopped Burke to tell him they related to Andre.
One group of boys hung back and waited for their classmates to get out of earshot before they sidled up and asked Burke about his secret for success.
He grinned at the question. “You mean why did I decide to start taking my education seriously,” he asked. “Because with it, I can go a lot more places than I can on the court. And I decided that I just needed to stop worrying about what other people thought of me and what they thought I should do.”
The crowd of boys grew until it spilled into a stairwell. And as Burke bade them farewell, one boy asked if they could “break” before they left — put their hands together like a sports team and shout a team slogan.
“Let’s do ‘South Middle School’ on three,” the boy suggested. His classmates frowned and shook their heads.“Let’s do ‘work hard’ on three,” Burke countered, and most of the boys nodded and grinned, before joining hands and shouting in unison, “One, two, three, work hard!”
Burke walked away smiling. “That’s what I’ve learned as I’ve learned to write,” he said, looking over his shoulder. “Way back when I started writing ‘Team Seven’ this was the audience I was writing to. These kids.”James H. Burnett III can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @JamesBurnett.