Ball Don’t Lie was Matt de la Pena’s first book, published in 2005, and it was developed into a movie of the same title starring Chris “Ludacris” Bridges and Rosanna Arquette. de la Pena is a California native, with an MFA in creative writing from San Diego State University. He currently resides in Brooklyn, teaches creative writing and visits high schools across the country.
de la Pena has written ten books, and whatever your opinion of Young Adult books is, Ball Don’t Lie is one of the better examples of the genre. The author won the Newberry Medal earlier this year for Last Stop On Market Street, and I am gradually working my way through the rest of his novels. I recommend trying to locate his work at your local library, or perhaps online at Amazon.
The story opens at a place called Lincoln Rec, which is a local hangout for professional amateur basketball players. Dreadlock Man, with his fierce fists and suspect jump shot, sets his stuff ($1.45 sandals, key to bike lock, extra T-shirt) on the bleachers and holds his hands out for the ball. Most of the characters go by nicknames, which they were given when they first started playing at the rec center. The exception is Sticky, the book’s protagonist. Sticky is seventeen years old, and he’s been in and out of foster care since he was a kid, due to either behavioral problems or adults who don’t really want the responsibility of taking care of him because he isn’t what they had in mind. At the time the book opens, he’s on his third or fourth set of foster parents.
Sticky has a fairly severe case of a likely un-diagnosed OCD, which affects him even when he’s on the court. He often becomes fixated on sounds, the tone of things, repeating actions over and over again until he’s satisfied with the “PING!” or the “PONG!” Despite the fact that he’s white, this is no story of privilege. While basketball is our hero’s passion, he feels as if that’s the only thing he has going for him. That is until he meets Anh-thu, a pretty Vietnamese girl who works in a clothing store. That he meets her while trying to shoplift from the store where she works is mostly beside the point, although his penchant for theft comes into play later.
The overall point of the book is, Sticky can ball, and the book is full of urban slang on that note. Ball, baller, daps, hoops, etc, but it never comes off as patronizing or condescending. Sticky and his friends, who are mostly older, live the game in between their days at school and at work; but the kid isn’t sure there’s life beyond the court. Skin color aside, society has an impression of him and kids like him; and while he wants to be the “Eminem of hoops” he needs to rise above the self-defeating belief that he can never be anything other than a semi-thug on a basketball court. When Anh-thu enters his life, he becomes almost immediately smitten, even if he isn’t always capable of expressing it.
As the book progresses, his episodes of OCD continue, and as his girlfriend’s birthday approaches he decides to buy a fairly inexpensive stuffed bear, but steal a more costly bracelet as gifts. But although he changes his mind about the bracelet, he ends up using the knife he found to hold up an older man. He finds himself in possession of a little over four hundred dollars, more money than he’s ever seen in one place at one time. He counts it out once, slowly and deliberately….and then his condition kicks in. He’s locked in place, fixated on the bills in his hands, the compulsion to count them out a second and a third time holding him there until someone else comes along and steals it from him, shooting him through the hand in the process because he tries to resist.
Sticky wakes up in the hospital with Anh-thu asleep in the chair beside his bed. The reader gets a potent flashback into his childhood and how he decided his name was always going to be Sticky. His mother, who is only referred to as ‘Baby’, was an off and on drug user with a history of bringing boyfriends home. The reason he ended up in foster care is that she committed suicide while he was the only one in the house. Only he was locked in an episode then as well, concentrating on splitting out of a window while trying to hit the fender of a truck parked outside. The sound of his mother shouting his name, “STICKY! STICKY! STICKY!” got stuck in his head on a loop. After that his given name, Travis, fell by the wayside because that’s the last memory he has of her.
But the upside is, the memory triggers a breakthrough, and as cliché as it sounds, Sticky and Travis merge for a brief time, and he begins to cry, likely for the first time in years. He loses his cool, the hard shell between himself and the world around him, finding catharsis.
The book ends with Sticky returning to the rec center after spending three weeks at a summer basketball camp, playing up and down the West Coast in front of college coaches and scouts. The scar on his hand resembles a purple spider, but he can still ball. More than that, he’s discovered that he isn’t nothing without the sport; he has friends and family and love. A future, which he didn’t know was possible until he let go of the preconceptions of not only society, but his own preconceptions.
In the end, Ball Don’t Lie isn’t a perfect book, but it’s such a triumphant story that the flaws it contains make it even more worthy of a read. Sticky is every boy with aspirations, finally bringing those aspirations within reach. Give it a look. You won’t regret it.