By Andrew Buckner
Rating: ****1/2 out of *****.
Clocking in at a lean 158 pages, Fight or Play Basketball: every shot counts (2022) by filmmaker Mike Messier is a knockout novel. The 44-chapter project is a lot like the lead of the narrative, Jack Scratch. It’s authentic, scrappy, wide-eyed, ambitious, and filled with heart. Moreover, the exercise is elevated by the lively, clear, vivid, and to-the-point prose from Messier. Just as importantly, his paragraphs are never overwhelmed with unnecessary details or figures of speech. In short, his writing is perfect for a young adult audience. The pacing of the work is similarly brisk, efficient, and effective. There isn’t a single excessive or overlong sequence in the effort.
What also enhances the quality of both Messier’s auteurship and the piece overall are the sharply rendered central figures. For example, Scratch is a flawed yet likable and occasionally comedic high school senior that spectators of all ages should find relatable. Scratch’s energetic and defensive mother, Janet Trap, is a constant source of amusement in the fiction. The same can be said of the boxers which assist Scratch on his journey, Karl “Sweet Sugar” Brown and Paveli “Punch” Pangora. They offer elements of humor, inspiration, personality, and leadership to the material. There are even sparks of romance as the duo attempt to win over Trap. Scratch’s basketball coach, “Quick” Rick Steele, is comparatively more garden variety. Nonetheless, he is still a credible and wonderfully developed entity with a pivotal role in Scratch’s life. Such is the case with everyone in the undertaking. In so doing, Messier’s tapestry of realistic dialogue, situations, and characters, as well as their influence on one another, accentuates the richness of the design.
The plot revolves around Scratch: a player of immense skill on the North Providence Cougars basketball team. He has the potential to receive a scholarship from Providence College. There are even whispers that he may be chosen to become involved with the National Basketball Association. His daily muscle-building routines, such as riding his bike in the mornings through North Providence and shooting hoops in the nearby outdoors basketball court, have become a sturdy foundation for him. One morning, his single mother, Trap, is the victim of a failed robbery. The individuals who came to Trap’s rescue during this botched crime, Pangora and Brown, begin to assist Scratch with his boxing abilities at Sweet’s Sweat Box Gym, where they are prominent trainers. As Scratch fosters his abilities on the basketball court and in the boxing ring, he ponders if he should “fight or play basketball”.
Even if the article follows the familiar beats of related items, Messier does a brilliant job of reiterating Scratch’s title-referenced deliberation. Messier specifically addresses where this idea came from in the fascinating “About the Author” section at the end of the tome. Still, there is an intimacy to this inquiry, like all rulings that alter the course of our lives, that is universally relevant. What augments this thoughtful touch, which is so delicately composed throughout the entirety of the volume, is the organic manner with which Messier also taps into the inherent symbolism of this weighty choice.
Boosted by superb cover art design from Nadine G. Messier, which nicely evokes the classically gritty atmosphere of the arrangement, Fight or Play Basketball proudly wears its Rocky (1976) inspiration on its sleeve. This is spied in many of the explicit and indirect references to director John G. Avildsen’s academy-award-winning masterpiece, as well as connected fare, that pleasantly permeate Messier’s opus. Lovingly peppered into the proceedings, these welcome bits align beautifully with the events of Scratch’s story. They also deeply pleased the rampant cinephile in me.
Opening, continuing, and closing in equally strong ways, the latest literary achievement from Messier is excellent on all fronts. True to the spirit of the greatest sports chronicles, it is incessantly entertaining and genuinely motivational. It has a tough edge. However, it is a kind, joyous, and immersive read. Likewise, it doesn’t fully give into the tropes which are anticipated in its finale. The flirtatious relationship between Mindy Kim and Scratch, who bond over their shared interest in athletics, punctuates the emotional accessibility of the venture. It also makes the thematically time-tested yet sturdy construction even more layered. In turn, Messier has crafted a magnificent and passionate coming-of-age drama. It’s one of the best books of the year.