It’s the ultimate dream of anyone who plays basketball: to be plucked from obscurity and given the chance to make it onto an NBA. The thing is, those aspirations can become a reality…or they can blow up in the aspirant’s face. At least, that’s the idea John Grisham, famed author of legal thrillers The Firm, Pelican Brief, and The Last Juror, presents in his latest novel, Sooley. Unfortunately, the lifeless and absurd story behind the idea was an offensive foul (basketball pun intended) in my eyes.
Samuel ‘Sooley’ Sooleymon is a growing boy from Lotta, a remote village in South Sudan. On paper, he appears like the perfect basketball specimen — he’s 17, 6’2” tall and growing, and he’s got the quickness and vertical leap down pat. The only slight problem is his passing isn’t on par and his shooting constantly bounces off the rim. But nonetheless, he’s invited to try out for the national team where his height and vertical leap grab the attention of Ecko Lam, a talent scout and coach formerly from South Sudan but now working for a nonprofit in America.
While the main story focuses on Sooley and his aspirations, a bloody civil war in its second year continues to ravage his country. As Sooley is on his way to America, rebel troops ransack his village, killing his dad and forcing his mom, Beatrice, to run off for safety with Sooley’s 3 other younger siblings. They have to walk for days without proper supplies, drinking tiny drops of water from wherever they can. When Lam finally decides to tell Sooley about what happens, his immediate reaction is to head home to South Sudan. But what good would that do?
Despite his fierce determination and practicing shots on a daily basis, Sooley’s record is barely able to capture any of the American coaches’ attention. But due to his special circumstances back home, a coach from North Carolina Central offers him a scholarship to go to school and train with the team. Sooley heads to Durham, preparing to sit out for his freshman year. He meets kind people who welcome him with open arms, gets a job as the assistant equipment manager for the football team, and makes friends easily with others on the basketball team.
Then magically overnight, Sooley starts landing all his shots. And not just from the free throw line, but from the three-point line and beyond which Grisham consistently calls ‘bombs’ (UGH) at an unbelievable rate. His popularity soars — people who once ignored him now are begging for his attention, he has to change his phone number to avoid getting bombarded by unwanted calls, and talent scouts are lining up around the block to sign him.
What’s troubling me about the story is how it exposes a lot of elitism (DUH) within America. Despite Sooley’s warm and cheerful personality, his work ethic, and unbreakable spirit, he’s not useful to anyone like that. But when he has the value as an entertainer, America opens its arms to him — clearing all roadblocks to any immigration and citizenship challenges he may have encountered otherwise trying to bring his mom and brothers over. There are thousands of refugees his mom and brother are hiding out with, and yet they aren’t helped because they have zero value to the U.S. But it’s a topic Grisham merely glosses over rather than speaking about it.
And there doesn’t seem to be much thought put into the civil war and Sooley’s reactions to it. Maybe that’s his way of dealing with the trauma of hearing that his dad’s dead? Either way, it doesn’t align with the person we’re introduced to in the beginning. And Sooley experiences zero racism at all, which doesn’t speak to actual experiences people of color have in North Carolina. Lastly, it seems Grisham forgot about the subplot in South Sudan until the last quarter of the book, creating an ending that makes you wonder if it was taken from somewhere else.
Though Grisham has ventured into sport-themed stories before — Calico Joe, Playing for Pizza, and Bleachers — Sooley is his first novel-length book focused on basketball. Sadly, the lack of research, horrendous subplot about Sooley’s mom and siblings sparsely sprinkled in the beginning and end, and the inadequate realism is just plain lazy on Grisham’s part. Don’t bother reading this book because you’ll wonder why a rich white Southerner would ever have the audacity to pick a poor African main character when it’s clear he has zero reference to that sort of life.