Dragon Hoops Review: Superheroic Sports

By Christina Ladd on

About Christina Ladd

One of the Books & Comics editors at Geekly. She/her. Sailor Rainbow. Glitter and spite and everything bright.

 

Dragon Hoops, though it features no actual dragons, accomplished something more magical an inexplicable than most of the fantasy I’ve been reading. Something so inexplicable, so unbelievable, that I previously didn’t think it was possible.

It made me care about basketball.

Like Gene Luen Yang himself in the beginning of the book, I too was a nerd with more interest in comic book heroes than sports heroes. I didn’t—and to some extent, still don’t—see the point of putting a ball in a hoop. And doing it with a group of people? Ugh, even worse.

It’s not about the mechanics, of course, or even about the dynamics of play. I know that intellectually. But there’s still a visceral dislike left over from enforced Sports Time in high school that I hadn’t bothered to examine until I read Dragon Hoops, which I did solely on the strength of Yang’s skill as a writer/illustrator, and not because of the subject matter.

Yang didn’t set out to didactically convince anyone of the value of sports. In fact, his journey paralleled my own, of skepticism to reluctant interest to genuine enthusiasm. His success was of course due in part to his skill as an artist, and to his careful research and thoughtfulness, but it was his central thesis that truly moved me: Yang uses Dragon Hoops to remind us that all lives have mythic proportions.

Maybe this isn’t surprising. After all, high school kids actually get to be mythic all the time. From anime to the CW to 13th century ballads about King Arthur, young heroes are the norm. So Yang asks another question about them: what about American kids who aren’t white? Do they get to be epic, too?

The answer, which he so delightfully illustrates, is YES in all caps. Each story line feels dynamic and focused, not jostling for attention but flowing naturally. Ivan Raab and Paris Austin are the superstars, the Superman and Batman of the team not just because of their abilities but because of their friendship (74). There’s Jeevin Sandhu, whose compassion shines as bright as his athletic talent. Arinze and Oderah are a brother-sister duo in constant competition with one another, but who also support each other unconditionally. And there Austin Walker, whose basketball dreams have a cutoff date.

These young heroes—the Young Justice League, if you will—have their stories told in parallel with established greats of the field—the Justice League, in other words. Alex (Qianjun)’s story is told with contrasts to the story of Yao Ming, who also faced racism, discrimination, and hardship while trying to make it in American basketball. George Mikan and Ivan Raab are directly paralleled in the way they approach free throws (250-251).

The Dragons—as in, the team itself—is almost a separate entity, as is the school. It’s not a sense of place so much a sense of personality that we get, a collection of attitudes and history. The school is high-performing, venerable. The team is likewise steeped in history, but scrappier, an underdog looking for the big win. The Dragons, an ultra-modern team, are contrasted with teams throughout history, giving us the short but still-complicated history of basketball. Sexism, racism, and xenophobia compete with the principles of fairness, equality, and sportsmanship as Yang takes us on a brief but powerful tour of the way the sport has been used and misused on the American and world stage.

But even with the team as a semi-separate character, Yang never loses sight of the people who currently and previously made up that team. His in-depth features of various players are jewels on the narrative threads, sparkling ever brighter as he examines them from many angles. Any one of these kids could have been the sole focus of the story. Instead, they’re the sole focus of their stories, sections devoted just to letting them shine, but still part of a larger whole.

Even late in the book, Yang is still “introducing” characters. Although Austin appears before chapter 12 (of 14), his chapter is technically the penultimate one (chapter 14 is an epilogue). But he’s no afterthought; he’s very much integral to the plot. His story just illuminates something about the endgame rather than the beginning. I was surprised by how much I liked this approach. It gives us time to get to know the team as well as the players at an ongoing pace, rather than getting an infodump at the beginning. That would have necessarily allowed us to neglect certain characters, whomever we found less interesting. Yang doesn’t let that happen. Everyone in his story is interesting; everyone is a hero.

I was so tense during the last game that I paced while I read. An entire team of heroes going up against tough odds with no second chances? I’m all about that. It didn’t matter that they didn’t have capes; they had backstories, super powers, and larger-than-life personalities. Yang was right: this is definitely on the same level as superheroes.

Yang has a deft and delicate touch when it comes to telling personal stories. He makes it clear that he didn’t press the players or dig into their pasts unless they invited him in. He was there as an observer, not an investigator. And that approach worked well for his players, but less well for the most contentious part of Dragon Hoops, the inclusion and discussion of former head coach Mike Phelps.

Yang clearly feels ambivalent about Phelps and doesn’t try to hide that ambivalence. I admire the courage it took to include such a heavy and complex topic in a book already bursting with big issues. But he didn’t get it right. Part of it is because the book is so full: there’s just not enough space to devote to the questions and concerns Yang has. He’s also scrupulously eager to be fair and unbiased, but he’s not a journalist. He’s an observer. He’s depicting what he sees, while forgetting that what he doesn’t see might be just as important. After all, survivors of sexual assault don’t often have physical wounds to display, and they rarely want to bare their emotional wounds for fear of exactly what Yang has unwittingly perpetuated: a culture of skepticism and ambiguity rather than support.

Observers are not passive: they direct their gaze. Yang does choose whom he depicts. And he depicts the people who defend Phelps, or who are ambivalent. He doesn’t depict anyone who is decidedly against Phelps—or who is openly a survivor or works with survivors. 

Maybe there genuinely wasn’t anyone who thought Phelps was guilty. Or maybe the close-knit Dragons community made people feel like they couldn’t mention it, especially to Yang, who is somewhat of an outsider. Maybe the hypermasculine milieu made it hard for anyone to want to talk about it at all. I don’t know. Yang likely doesn’t know either. That’s fair. But here’s what I do know: statistically speaking, at least one of those players was a survivor (not of Phelps, but in general). And Yang chose not to say anything about that hypothetical survivor, while saying a lot about the alleged perpetrator.

I want to acknowledge the possibility of false testimony and the cruel unfairness of public conviction without trial while emphasizing that false accusation is very very rare. There are several instances of Yang protecting the school (360, 366); there are none mentioning the specific desire to protect the players, who are, lest we forget, minors. Is Yang some kind of apologist? No. Not at all. It’s clear he condemns sexual assault, but he’s not well-versed in the nuances of the larger conversations about rape culture. And that’s hugely disappointing.

I’m doing what Yang didn’t want: I’m making this about the accusation and not about the team. I’m making this about a white coach instead of the black coach who succeeded him and the extremely diverse team he coaches. And Yang is right: that’s not fair. It’s not fair for that shadow to fall on these kids and their story. But Yang isn’t just telling their story. He’s telling the story of a whole sport and a whole team, lots of people who, for better or worse, are intertwined.

There’s also a terrible, unacknowledged irony in the chapter about women and basketball: Yang talks quite a bit about how women’s games are chronically unattended despite the same level of athleticism and sports(wo)manship. Yet he himself is doing exactly what he thinks others shouldn’t: he’s choosing to follow the men’s team.

 Was it Yang’s job specifically to follow the women’s team? No. No specific book or author is going to fix gender disparity. Does it count that he acknowledged the gender divide and included a history of women’s basketball (and discrimination) in his book? Yes, and that’s great. Is it still ironic and disappointing? Yes, absolutely.  Both the men’s and women’s teams won the state championship, but only the boys get a book. Yang can write the story he wants, but let’s at least have an acknowledgement that there is choice here.

No book can be all things to all people. And trying and failing is better than not trying at all. Where this book fails, I can certainly see that Yang tried his damnedest to get it right. I would rather have this be a big book full of big risks, because its successes are so much more electrifying. There are moments of singular magnificence, there are moving, meaningful narratives all expertly interwoven, and there is delightful, expressive art. I was impressed over and over again with all the little details—the motif of the single step, the metaphor of the fist bump vs. handshake—as well as the big themes. These successes outweigh Dragon Hoops’ failures, most certainly. It is not a perfect book. But it is still a wonderful and truly special one.

I’ll still never be the person who follows basketball. But I’m more likely, after this book, to follow stories about basketball—and all sports, actually. And I’m certainly able to appreciate players and fans in a new light. Although I’ll never be a team sports kind of person, I can see better how teams can be places of support, understanding, diversity, and safety. I can better understand how they don’t just create divides and competition, but actually bring people together. Dragon Hoops managed that, all by telling a lot of smaller stories that added up to something great. Like the team, Dragon Hoops is much more than the sum of its parts.  

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