The story line seems the same. Just change the sport from football to basketball, and the states from Texas to Kentucky.
Keith O'Brien's new book, "Outside Shot: Big Dreams, Hard Times, and One County's Quest for Basketball Greatness," is the basketball version of Buzz Bissinger's highly acclaimed "Friday Night Lights." Much like Bissinger's book on football in Texas, O'Brien spent a year in a small town in Kentucky, documenting the obsession and, at times, the over-exaggerated importance of the local high school basketball team.
This piece first ran in Printers Row Journal, delivered to Printers Row members with the Sunday Chicago Tribune and by digital edition via email. Click here to learn about joining Printers Row.
The book comparisons are inevitable. In O'Brien's book, there is a sense of "haven't we heard this story before?" Bissinger's book, published in 1990, sets a fairly high standard for this category. He also had better material to mine, especially with the star running back who saw his college and pro dreams get shattered with a devastating knee injury. O'Brien's "Outside Shot" doesn't have that level of pathos and emotional pull.
Yet it's been 23 years since "Lights" hit the shelves, and a contemporary account of the high school sports tale definitely merits attention.
O'Brien, a former Boston Globe reporter, tracked the Scott County basketball team for the 2009-10 season. The high school is outside of Lexington in Georgetown, Ky., an economically challenged town that doesn't have much besides basketball and bluegrass. O'Brien weaves in details of industries that have come and gone.
O'Brien writes, "Those living here today will say, simply, that they live in the Bluegrass, as if it is of them, which in a way it is."
With the famed Kentucky Wildcats, winners of eight NCAA titles, just down the road, basketball has a firm hold on Scott County. The expectations always are high, thanks to coach Billy Hicks, the school's highly successful boys basketball coach.
O'Brien portrays Hicks as earnest and dedicated in prodding his team through the long grind of the season. To his credit, Hicks doesn't go to extremes in the yelling department, as do other high school coaches who emulate the volatile former college basketball coach Bobby Knight.
Hicks, though, does face charges of "recruiting" players to Scott County to help feed the pipeline. It shows how important winning is to the program.
O'Brien writes of the pressure on Hicks to succeed: "He was sinking, inching ever deeper into a world where child athletes called the shots and their parents demanded athletic greatness at seemingly any cost, while these fans, this county, longed for the innocence of a not-so-distant past."
The players also felt the pressure. For them, the ultimate prize wasn't a state championship but a college scholarship. Dakotah Euton, regarded as the state's top young prospect as a freshman, faced disappointment as a senior when his talent level failed to match the unrealistic expectations. Ge'Lawn Guyn's aching knees complicated his ability to show his worth to college coaches. Chad Jackson, the starting power forward, had to deal with an uncertain future in the wake of his father's death at age 39.
Then there were the players who simply wanted to get precious minutes on the floor. O'Brien writes poignantly of Will Schu, whose intensity backfired on him when he broke his hand in a fit of anger.
Writes O'Brien: "The boy, with no father in his life and few defined plans for the future, sometimes wondered why he had worked so hard, for so long, to end up here: on the bench, watching a bunch of transfers play."
O'Brien writes a compelling narrative. He makes the reader care about the players and their coach. He also does a nice job with his game accounts of Scott County's up-and-down season. He creates a vivid picture of what it is like to be in those Kentucky gyms on cold winter nights.
Ultimately, though, O'Brien wasn't rewarded with the last-second three-pointer to secure victory in the big game. There's no edge-of-seat drama in "Outside Shot."
Rather, O'Brien provides an interesting look at a place where high school basketball is taken very seriously, much like football in "Friday Night Lights."
"Outside Shot" never reaches the level of "Friday Night Lights," considered one of the best sports books of all time.
But O'Brien's book is more than worthy of standing on its own merits.
Ed Sherman is a former Chicago Tribune sports writer who blogs about sports media at shermanreport.com.
By Keith O'Brien, St. Martin's Press, 309 pages, $25.99Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun