Book Club: Sooley

I love basketball, and I love John Grisham books. So when I found out that his new book this year was a stray from his normal legal thriller into the world of “hoops,” I was intrigued. I’m not normally a fan of his non-legal books, but because, well, basketball, I wanted to read Sooley anyway.

This post contains major spoilers for the book Sooley by John Grisham.

Samuel Sooleymon is the oldest child of four living in a small village in South Sudan with his parents and three  younger siblings (two brothers and a sister). He loves playing basketball, but in the poor nation he can only play on a dirt court. When he is recruited for a summer league to represent his country against other teams as they play in America, he is thrilled – and apprehensive – to go. But go he does because he wants the opportunity to play his favorite game against other good players. He and the team from South Sudan don’t do so well, and most of the team is sent home after the tournament having won nothing.

While Samuel and the rest of the South Sudanese team is playing in the summer league, his parents’ village is ransacked by militant rebel soldiers. His father is killed and his sister is kidnapped. The family never finds her again, and doesn’t know whether she’s been sold as a slave or killed. His mother and two brothers walk from their home country to the neighboring nation of Uganda. When they make it to the refugee camp, they are finally safe.

Samuel’s coach in the summer league learns about his village and has the difficult discussion with Samuel, letting him know what happened and imploring him not to go back. He promises to help him come up with a way to stay in America. This is accomplished through an emergency refugee/student visa, and his coach convinces a college coach to give Samuel a scholarship so that he can honor the terms of his visa and stay in the country. Grudgingly, Coach Lonnie Britt of NC Central in Durham, North Carolina, awards the scholarship. After seeing Samuel in practice (he’s terrible – barely made the summer league team), he decides to “redshirt” him, meaning he gives him a spot on the team to keep his scholarship but he doesn’t let him play. He gets to practice and will join the team more fully the following year.

As the year progresses, Samuel practices basketball every single day, even on the team’s off days. He shoots and shoots and shoots, eventually shifting his percentage from well below 50 to above it. As Lonnie sees the improvement in Samuel, now called Sooley by his teammates, he takes a chance on him and lets him play in a game. Sooley blows the socks off everyone, becoming the star of the game.

He continues to practice and is rewarded with more game time. He quickly becomes the star of the team, playing almost every minute of every game and scoring upwards of 40 points per game. He ultimately leads his team, always a national underdog, to the college championships – clear up to the Final Four.

Unfortunately, they lose their first game in the Final Four and are eliminated. But Sooley had such an amazing season that he is encouraged by his coaches to enter the NBA draft, and he is taken in the first round by the Indiana Pacers and then immediately traded to the Washington Wizards. He’s thrilled with this because it means he’ll be close to his North Carolina family. The NBA money means he can come up with a plan to bring his family to America, out of the refugee camp they’ve been living in for over a year.

A party in the Bahamas turns tragic when Samuel ODs on Ecstasy. He never makes it to the NBA. He never gets to sponsor his mother and brothers for immigration to the US. It’s a tragic story.

But Murray, Sooley’s college roommate (and part of the “NC Family” I mentioned before) turns the tragedy into something beautiful. He starts a foundation in Samuel’s name and within days it raises millions of dollars. He uses some of the money to finish Sooley’s work of bringing his family over. The rest goes into a scholarship fund in Samuel’s name for future Central basketball players.

I loved this book. I was floored when Sooley is killed near the end, and from that moment on I couldn’t put it down until I discovered how Grisham would turn the tragedy around in just under 10% of the book. It’s so rare to see an author kill the main character of a book, and frankly I’m not sure I liked it. But it worked. It’s been a few days since I finished reading it, and I still feel a little raw when I think back on the story.

As for the writing, I thought it was very well done. I don’t follow college ball, but I found each of the games exciting. They were well described, and I could see all the moves in my head as I read the words. I did find the phrase “behind the arc” to be a bit overused to describe 3-pointers, but that’s literally my only complaint. Now that my library loan for this book has ended, I want to get a copy of my own to have for rereading at the drop of a hat.

Sooley gets 5 stars from me.

Do you like sports, or sports books and/or movies? What’s your favorite sport?


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