47 pages • 1 hour readGene Luen Yang
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Dragon Hoops is an autobiographical graphic novel published in 2020 by novelist Gene Luen Yang. Told partly through flashbacks of individual characters and including details from the history of the game of basketball, Lang’s Dragon Hoops investigates basketball’s development from a Canadian invention to a professional intercollegiate sport. Among the book’s numerous recognitions, School Library Journal selected Dragon Hoops as a Best Graphic Novel of 2020, Publishers Weekly named it a Best Book of 2020, and the New York Times listed it among the 25 Best Children’s Books of that year. It won the 2020 Booklist Editors’ Choice Award and appeared on Booklist’s List of Best Graphic Novels that same year. Dragon Hoops also received the Harvey Award for achievement in comic books. In 2021 Dragon Hoops won the Michael L. Printz Award for the best book written for teens. This was Yang’s second time to earn this distinction, following the 2007 National Book Award-winning graphic novel American Born Chinese (2006). Dragon Hoops also won an Eisner Award in 2021 for the Best Publication for Teens, marking his first time to win the award after four prior nominations.
Content Warning: The source material includes references to childhood sexual abuse.
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Dragon Hoops begins with the protagonist and author Gene Luen Yang (often called “Yang” by the novel’s other characters) teaching at his alma mater, Bishop O’Dowd, a Catholic high school in Oakland, California. Not knowing what to write about for his next novel, Yang hears a group of O’Dowd students talking about the men’s basketball team. Although Yang does not consider himself an athlete, he ventures from the academic to the athletic side of campus and musters the courage to introduce himself to O’Dowd-alum-turned-varsity basketball coach Lou Richie, whose passion for his role as head coach and confidence in his team inspires Yang’s next novel. Yang’s subsequent research leads him to learn about the history of basketball, invented in 1891 by a Canadian physical education teacher. Yang also meets Coach Lou’s star players, the reserved Ivan and the dominant Paris. Meanwhile, Lou commences a history of basketball that takes place in various gymnasiums and features basketball’s early stars, including maverick Globetrotter Marques Haynes and Georgeann Wells, the first female to slam dunk. An integral part of the story is O’Dowd Coach Mike Phelps, who was placed on leave in 2003 following charges of sexual molestation that allegedly took place decades earlier. Yang has heard this infamous story, but, despite the controversy, he knows he must include Phelps in his graphic novel.
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In addition to Coach Lou, Yang begins interviewing other players on the team including O’Dowd’s guard Jeevin Sandhu, who is taunted for his skin color, and Chinese-born forward Alex Zhao, who comes to O’Dowd as an upperclassman. Coach Lou also opens up to Yang regarding a hamstring injury that prevented him from continuing to play basketball competitively but ultimately led to his career as a coach.
Meanwhile, Yang follows the O’Dowd Dragons through their exciting post-season play. O’Dowd first beats the Castro Valley Trojans to claim the North Coast Section title. Next, the Bishop O’Dowd Dragons defeat the Sacramento Dragons to earn the Men’s Northern California Championship title. Their final opponent is the 11-time champion Mater Dei Monarchs, in a game that is decided by a single free throw in overtime. After traveling with the team as far as Florida and being privy to private interviews, teammate feuding, and locker-room pep talks, Yang decides that he must leave his teaching job to fulfill his wish to be a full-time cartoonist.
Dragon Hoops is an emotionally intense, layered novel that explores themes of racism, sexism, and peer pressure and prejudice as they shape the history of basketball and the experiences of O’Dowd’s players in the present day. Although his characters are depicted in illustrations, his drawings resist seeming like cartoons. Yang imparts not only emotion but also depth of character to the range of players, coaches, and family members that he presents. Although some characters appear for only a few pages—as teammates, opponents, or family members of supporting characters—Yang captures the lived experiences of those involved in competitive athletics.
Yang’s accomplishments as a graphic novelist began with the publication of American Born Chinese (2006) and continued with the companion novels Boxers and Saints (2016). He won the MacArthur Award, commonly known as the Genius Grant, in 2016. The widely positive reception of Dragon Hoops proved the merit of Yang’s work as a powerhouse in the young adult fiction, comics, and graphic artist fields.
By Gene Luen Yang