Gene Yang’s Latest Defines Exhilaration and Exhaustion

Gene Yang’s ‘Dragon Hoops’ vividly captures a storied O’Dowd basketball season in graphic novel form.


Published:

Photo by Lance Yamamoto

For Gene Luen Yang, athletics were always something to be avoided or endured. But when Oakland’s Bishop O’Dowd High School computer science teacher started hearing excited talk in the hallways about the upcoming 2014-15 basketball season, he knew he wanted to chronicle the quest in the medium he knew best – comics.

A National Book Award finalist for his 2006 graphic novel, American Born Chinese, Yang was in a perfect position to capture all the drama of O’Dowd basketball, one of the winningest programs in the state, and its struggle for victory in the California State Championship. With Dragon Hoops, published in March by First:Second, he set out to travel with the team, get to know the players, all the while teaching and trying to balance family life back in San Jose with his wife and their four children.

Although intrigued by the idea of chronicling a potentially extraordinary hoops season, Yang also had his doubts, expressed in the book by a cartoon version of himself.

“Sports have always been this arena of humiliation and pain for me because I am athletically anti-talented,” Yang explained.

What excited him more was comic book superheroes. The first comic book Yang read featured Superman, and the Last Son of Krypton has been a guiding light throughout his career. Superman plays a role in Dragon Hoops, when Yang receives an invitation to write a series about the superhero just as he’s contemplating leaving O’Dowd after 17 years. 

At more than 400 full-color pages, Dragon Hoops is an impressive feat of illustrated journalism. Above all else, Yang considers himself a storyteller, and Dragon Hoops affords him the opportunity to devise a narrative that is both personal in its approach and universal in its presentation. The recipient of a MacArthur “genius” grant in 2016 and appointed a National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature in 2018, Yang relishes the versatility of the medium, with a style that’s accessible and dynamic.

Although not trained as a journalist, Yang tried to stay as close to the facts as possible. He made some changes for dramatic effect but took pains to include accurate details in a Notes section.

Yang’s guide through the world of high school basketball was O’Dowd head coach Lou Richie. An O’Dowd alum, Richie had made prior trips to the state championship game as a player under longtime O’Dowd coach Mike Phelps, then later as O’Dowd’s assistant coach and head coach, without being able to seal the deal. Dragon Hoops generates a lot of suspense around an event whose outcome will be well known to many readers and can be easily Googled, but every cartoon panel is designed to capture the exhilaration and the exhaustion of playing basketball at a supremely elevated level.

Yang smartly structures the book so that there is not a linear story but a tapestry of interviews, intimate conversations, historical basketball notes, and flat-out action sequences. Anyone familiar with Japanese manga or anime will recognize illustrative techniques taken directly from that genre.

Yang said the hardest part of planning Dragon Hoops was structuring the book with no idea how it was going to end. “Up until that point, all the books that I had done had been fiction, and usually I had at least a rough idea of what the ending was as I was trying to write the book.”

As he planned the book, Yang asked himself, “How do you tell sports stories for people who are not interested in sports?” Yang looked at Olympics coverage. “That’s sort of where I got the idea of doing these snippets of each player in between the games.”

For Dragon Hoops, Yang wanted to focus on the senior players.

“I knew from the get-go that was mostly because of Ivan Rabb and Paris Austin. They were these two basketball phenoms, best friends and stars of the team.”

In interviewing other players, Yang found a diverse group of individuals, some children of immigrants, one a Chinese exchange student, with “really interesting stories.”

Immigration and race are themes that run through Yang’s work, whether he’s exploring China’s Boxer Rebellion in Boxers & Saints or extending the reach of Nickelodeon’s The Last Airbender to comics. The son of immigrants from China and Taiwan, Yang is sensitive to how immigrants are portrayed in the media and takes the opportunity to show how basketball was particularly suited to immigrant communities that didn’t have large outdoor playing fields.

“The most surprising thing I learned is that basketball was originally almost an outsiders’ sport. African-American communities, Jewish communities, immigrant Roman Catholic communities would all gravitate toward that sport.”

Yang realized that his growing interest in basketball dovetailed with his fascination with immigrant stories and superheroes.

“Superman is the very first superhero. At the core of who he is, is the immigrant story. That’s why he’s an American icon.”

The discoveries of the basketball origin story also fit nicely with Yang’s decision to tell the stories of individual players’ different backgrounds. O’Dowd librarian Annette Counts noted, “What I love about [Dragon Hoops] is that it shows each kid’s unique personality, strengths, and interests, and how they all come together to make a whole team” pursuing the ultimate achievement in high school basketball.

Coach Richie also appreciated the inclusion of the stories of individual players. “Even though we like to be very analytical and quantify things,” said Richie, “it’s about helping kids.”

For Coach Richie, the championship victory marked the end of an era and a new beginning.

Richie said, “The hardest thing about coaching high school basketball is when you lose that relationship with an Ivan Rabb or a Paris Austin, when you’re with them every day and then all of a sudden life happens and you’re no longer around them.”

Yet Richie keeps tabs on his former players, able to rattle off details of their post-O’Dowd careers.

O’Dowd players for the championship have gone on to success in college and beyond, some continuing to play basketball, others pursuing graduate and medical educations.

With Dragon Hoops finished, Yang has time to be reflective about his experience, especially his relationship with Coach Lou.

Despite some initial awkwardness, Yang said, “We became friends. That’s the long and the short of it.”

In Dragon Hoops, Yang delivers an unexpected work of art uniquely suited to its medium. In the end, victory came down to a single shot. Through the storytelling power of Gene Yang’s comics, the impact of that moment continues to reverberate.

“You could feel it in that school during that year that they were in the middle of something epic,” Yang said. “And that epic thing should be recorded.”