Dragon Hoops masterfully retells story of basketball team’s championship run

“Maybe it isn’t the fewest mistakes that wins. Maybe it’s having the courage to take that next step—even at the risk of making a mistake.”

Dragon Hoops by Gene Luen Yang is YA sports graphic novel that masterfully combines the story of one high school basketball team’s journey to the California state championship, the history of basketball and the author’s personal journey as an artist.

You would think that the combination of all three of these stories would get convoluted, but they all serve to enhance each other. Yang’s inner conflict of whether to pursue comics full time or stay a teacher complements the basketball players’ conflict to win the championship. The history sections give more context to the player’s stories, like how the section on basketball in China gives more depth to one of the players who is a Chinese exchange student.

The art is cartoony but still manages to show an array of emotions. The art itself explores comics as a medium with creative panel usage. The art makes the action scenes fast-paced, clear and tense. The comic also has many visual gags that make you want to reread to catch all the details. Yang’s art style has developed to be more rounded and soft compared to his other works such as Boxers & Saints and American Born Chinese. His more pointed art style had turned me off from reading his comics because they seemed stiff and unappealing, so this is definitely an improvement. 

One thing that makes me feel conflicted about the graphic novel is the inclusion of the story of Mike Phelps, the previous coach of the team, and the person who taught the current coach Lou Richie. He is important to the story of Richie and has a deep connection to him, but Phelps is a controversial figure. In the early 2000s, Phelps got accused of molesting a student back in the ’60s. There was only one accusation, and Phleps pleaded innocent. He never went to court because the statute of limitations had passed, so he never got the chance to be proven innocent or guilty. The comic does address this and includes Yang’s struggle to decide to include Phelps. I do applaud Yang for keeping it transparent and unbiased. He is honest about how no one can know if he did it or not, and he is honest about how the students of Phelps still love him, without putting his own views about if he believes Phelps was guilty or not. 

On one hand, it is difficult to see people forgive a potential abuser because of a personal connection. On the other hand, It brings up the difficult topic of the humanity of abusers. It’s easier to see abusers as monsters because that means something is innately bad with them so we could never count ourselves with the abusers, that if we knew one, we would act decisively and cut them out, but when that abuser is suddenly a former role model, a friend or a previously loving partner, it becomes complicated, but when we see them as humans, it allows us to see anyone could be an abuser. It allows us to teach ourselves and others how to be respectful because if anyone could turn into an abuser, we have to address the issues in society that make abusers and the toxic traits within ourselves that could make us abusive. It allows us to forgive because anger is hard to hold on to. It is up to his former students like Lou Richie if they want to forgive him either because they believed he did it or forgive him because they believe he is innocent. It’s difficult to read, a difficult situation to live in and a difficult decision to make.

Overall, Dragon Hoops is an amazing read for people no matter if they prefer to watch the game on the weekends or prefer to cozy up with a book. I had the opportunity to read this as a part of the 2023 Battle of the Books competition. I hope the teams’ victory in the novel can inspire our Tigers to chase victory at the Grand Battle at Marshalltown in April.

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