The basketball story that journalist Keith O’Brien found in Scott County, Ky., takes place in a high school “where all too often students didn’t want to learn and teachers didn’t want to teach,’’ a place where “reading a book seemed like an especially difficult thing to ask of’’ students.
Perhaps that wouldn’t matter so much if all the players were good enough to secure lucrative pro basketball contracts, but they aren’t. A few are good enough to win the opportunity to play in college, but in the epilogue to “Outside Shot,’’ we learn that most of those boys left campus shortly after arriving, either because they were unprepared for the academic challenge, or because they didn’t turn out to be as good as recruiters hoped, or because they got homesick.
In “Outside Shot,’’ O’Brien relates a saga of misplaced priorities and broken dreams in a rural community buffeted by the recession whose main source of community pride is perennially its high school team, the Cardinals. The former Globe reporter follows longtime coach Billy Hicks and a handful of high school seniors through the 2009-10 season, introducing readers to Dakotah Euton and Chad Jackson, two of the team’s star players and both transfers, Ge’Lawn Guyn, one of the best high schoolers in basketball-crazed Kentucky, and Will Schu, who ends up frustrated and sidelined.
“Outside Shot’' is being compared to the spectacularly successful “Friday Night Lights,’’ the account of a high school football team in Texas that author Buzz Bissinger rode to riches and glory. The comparison is legitimate in that both books are about young athletes celebrated in their communities who see sports as a path to a new life, and both communities are made up of the quietly desperate who get more excited about high school sports than they do about anything else.
But there’s more basketball in “Outside Shot’’ than there is football in “Friday Night Lights,’’ and readers inclined to get caught up in the progress of the Scott County team will relish the play-by-play accounts.
This is not to suggest that O’Brien slights the off-court dramas, many of which are tinged with issues of race and class. One major subplot involves the tension ignited by the presence of the athletically gifted and accomplished transfer students who essentially shoulder aside boys who would have made the team or gotten more playing time if the transfers hadn’t materialized.
This development gives O’Brien the opportunity to examine the impact on the community of “a team full of teenaged mercenaries.” It’s a phenomenon that alarms some of the adults in the stands until they begin to see how well the transfers can shoot, rebound, and play defense on their best nights.
There is real joy in “Outside Shot,’’ but it is the fragile and temporary kind that comes with winning high school games. In Scott County, a lot of the contests carry the baggage of territorial grudges that need to be settled; coaches desperate for the redemption that winning a big game can bring; and angry fathers sure that their sons would play at a Division 1 school and in the NBA if only the stubborn fool running the team would give them the opportunity to showcase their skills.
Beyond that O’Brien depicts the area as a kind of teenage wasteland, the sort of place where young people, desperate for any entertainment, stage “Fight Nights,” tournaments in a “desolate business park the perfect place for kids to gather in large numbers and throw punches in the dark.”
Perhaps it’s no wonder that in such a place, basketball becomes supremely important and “[t]he folk heroes here have to be boys.”
Bill Littlefield, host of NPR’s “Only a Game,” teaches creative writing and is writer-in-residence at Curry College in Milton. He can be reached at blittlef