Gene Yuen Lang’s 2020 graphic novel chronicles not only the journey of the 2014-15 O’Dowd Dragons varsity boys basketball team’s run at a state championship, but also his journey as an author documenting their season. This structure provides the reader with not only an intriguing sports story, but also allows Yang to delve into the conscience and process of a writer. Through its 430+ pages, Dragon Hoops weaves its way through various relatable and prescient themes, from the author’s own bias against basketball, through the assumptions and prejudice that bubble under the surface of many North American communities, to the unifying power of sport and bonding through a shared experience, no matter one’s role in the journey.
The O’Dowd Dragons have demons to hunt down and conquer at the beginning of the 2014 season. Alumnus, and current teacher/coach, Lou Richie is chasing an elusive state title. Having not only lost as a coach the previous year, but also fueled by experiencing a heartbreaking and controversial loss in the final as a Dragon himself 26 years earlier, Richie is hopeful that this is O’Dowd’s year. Yang (a teacher at O’Dowd High School himself during the 2014-15 season) uses Coach Lou’s personal story as the springboard into the lives of those invested in the team and their dream of hoisting the state championship trophy. Along the way, we get to ride shotgun with Yang as he learns the stories behind the team, its players, and its coaching staff. Slowly, but surely, we begin to get pulled in, just Yang did, to the Dragons’ team, understanding why this is more than a sport, and why it means so much to those involved.
Dragon Hoops is not a difficult read but demands the attention of its reader – it’s not a straightforward season documentary of wins and losses. Readers need to hold the pieces of the puzzle Yang is laying for a little while as he builds his narrative one section at a time. The finished piece is worth the work – like any story, fact or fiction, you must get to know the characters in order to truly care for their journey. Yang is as much a character here as those of the team. His journey, however, is just a little different, leaving the reader to root for him in a slightly different way.
Yang, as an author, pulls few punches in addressing issues he and his subjects grapple with. Themes can be mature, but not graphic, and language can be explicit, but is written in typical comic grawlixes leaving the reader aware of the intended word, without the full impact of seeing it written out on the page. Yes, this is a sports book. But it so much more. A reader may be turned off by the athletic side, but once they meet Yang – both author and character – those doubters that give it a chance will see that Dragon Hoops, like sports, is really about the people involved in the game, and the lives they live with, through and for each other.
Will Milner is an English & Outdoor Education teacher at Fredericton High School. Taking advantage of a break in coaching forced upon him by the pandemic, he is presently working on finishing his MEd thesis on Outdoor Education. Whenever possible he likes to spend time reading and playing outside with his young daughter Olivia, who is looking forward to their new puppy arriving later this spring.