The Final Four by Paul Volponi
Posted by: Cindy Dobrez and Lynn Rutan
Lynn: It isn’t basketball season as I write this but basketball fans won’t care AND it has taken me all this time to finally get my hands on The Final Four (Penguin/Viking 2012). It was worth the wait though and this is a book that will never stay long on your shelves once the sports fans find it.
It is the semi-finals of the NCAA Tournament and Michigan State faces underdog Troy University. It’s a match up that mirrors what is happening in college ball these days. MSU’s team is built around a trash-talking freshman phenom who says outright that he is “one and done,” playing one season in college ball and moving on to the pros. Arrogant and supremely talented, Malcolm McBride has nothing but scorn for the system that makes huge amounts of money on college players and contempt for his team-mates. The Troy Trojans are a stark contrast; they are an under-rated team that believes foremost in team work, whose players have little hope of pro contracts and who play mostly for the sheer love of the game. David vs. Goliath, the Cinderella team vs. the Top Ranked Favorite. Of course it is far more complex than that. Volponi spins out the stories of the teams and their players as the minutes of this pivotal game tick down. The play by play is so vivid it feels like it is happening right now. Overtime, double overtime, triple overtime! Quadruple overtime!
Volponi intersperses the back stories of the teams and their players between the action of the game in journal entries, newspaper articles, and flash backs, exploring the personalities and characters of the players, turning what could have been a black and white drama into something far more subtle. Big themes and a big game come together in a terrific blend that no fan will be able to resist.
Cindy: Oh how I loved this book and I regret that Lynn has been waiting since July for me to get to it. But, I’m just in time for next week’s start to the official college basketball season with midnight madness taking place as teams take to the practice floor. The book opens with 6.9 seconds left in regulation at the first of the two Final Four games with these words:
Just because the game clock has stopped, don’t believe for a single second that the hearts of the ten basketball players on the court have quit pounding.
That’s not quite true. Each chapter is prefaced by a quote from a famous basketball personality, starting with the inventor of the game, James Naismith and ending with the game’s legendary coach, John Wooden of UCLA. In fact, my only negative criticism of this book is in the credit for the quote by my own alumni university’s famous and infamous Bobby Knight. Volponi misnames Indiana University as “The University of Indiana.” Come on, Paul. This is IU we are talking about. The General. How could you get this wrong? I won’t throw a chair, but, really, in the reprints and paperback editions that this book will surely need, let’s get this important detail right!
Sorry, I see that my Purdue graduate partner let that egregious error slip, but I could not, in good conscience, do so.
Back to the strengths. The basketball action is palpable. The plays, the tension on the big stage, the mistakes and big plays, it’s all there along with the four overtimes. It is only in the final pages that we learn who wins the game and what happens to them in the championship game against the victor between Duke and North Carolina who are waiting in the wings for this game to end to play their own Final Four game. Volponi tones down the trash talk to make this more appropriate for secondary schools than it would be if he made the voice more authentic to what is on the court, and yet, the taunts, the psychology, and venom of the real thing comes through loudly.
Malcolm from the projects of Detroit is dealing with the grief over losing his sister to a drive by shooter and Roko from war-torn Croatia is grieving the loss of a beloved uncle. Their stories reinforce the blurb on the book’s jacket from Coach K of Duke who says this book “serves as a reminder that the college game is played by young people, each with their own unique story.” There are dramas on and off the court as the action flashes back to the final years of high school for several players and veers to television interviews and current cable coverage of the event. I laughed out loud during a number of the color commentator’s inane metaphors that sound oh so like what I hear during the season’s television coverage.
This was the perfect time for me to read this as basketball season ratchett’s up (we at Indiana don’t talk about college football season!) If you live in basketball mania areas you will need multiple copies of this book! And since I serve two schools full of Michigan State fans it is a bad time for my budget to have been slashed. I may have to hold a car wash or bake sale to be able to purchase the number of copies I’m going to need to meet demand!