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Review: Ball Don’t Lie by Matt de la Peña

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Young adult novelist Matt de la Peña dribbled his way out of a Southern California barrio into private college by way of a basketball scholarship. But long before he enrolled at University of the Pacific in Stockton, California, de la Peña honed his skills playing street ball at one of San Diego’s inner-city recreation centers known for being serious about hoops.

In Ball Don’t Lie, de la Peña revisits the dreams, fears and obsessions of those who are kings on tarmac courts. He does it through Sticky Reichard, a lanky 6’3” high school senior and longtime foster kid who is so at home on the court that he even sleeps there one night.

De la Peña writes that some players show up at the court to show off, some to score drugs, others to make up for glory days that never occurred in high school and college. But “Sticky shows up cause the game’s his life and the guys are like family.”

Sticky is the only white boy who dares play at Lincoln Rec. No one knows his real name; no one can force him to join in the rec-fraternity ritual of changing his name to a court-side moniker.

Sticky’s name is a closely held secret and the only possession about which he cares except for a beat-up basketball. It is his history and his inheritance in six letters.

Ball Don’t Lie is a raw, gritty story about the deep grief of growing up without home and family as well as the redemption of love and dedication to sport. It also casts a spotlight on the difficulties of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

Sticky can never tell when he’s going to have an OCD attack. It happens at breakfast as he tries to put his spoon in his empty cereal bowl numerous times until it makes just the right “dull tap of metal on plastic.”

It happens at a high school game when he is trying to take off his warm-up jacket as he gets ready to relieve another player. He throws down his jacket, picks it up, throws it down and keeps repeating the motion until he gets the “perfect toss” and can get on the court where the problem always disappears.

OCD episodes emerge at nervous moments such as when Sticky first talks with beautiful, compassionate An Thu, who works as a clerk at one of his favorite clothing stores. He can’t stop himself from taking a shirt off the rack and replacing it numerous times. An Thu does the same to make him feel more comfortable, and love blossoms.

It is this paralyzing obsession with putting life in order by doing things just so that leads Sticky into danger and choices — both good and bad — that change the course of his life.

Although Ball Don’t Lie contains rough language, sex, drinking, and sorrows that will make some readers uncomfortable, none of it is gratuitous.

De la Peña has a great ear for natural language and loves dialogue. He builds dramatic tension and the history of his characters through flashbacks. Another part of his signature is pushing characters to the brink of destruction and rescuing them in unexpected ways.

Ball Don’t Lie, which was published in 2005, is artful yet quick read that teens and all who care about them will have trouble putting down. Readers who want more should try the author’s other young adult novels Mexican White Boy (2008), We Were Here (2009) and I Will Save You (2010).

Also, Ball Don’t Lie was filmed a few years ago, but the movie was never released to theaters. It can be downloaded online and stars the well-known street basketball star Grayson “The Professor” Boucher.

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About Alicia Rudnicki