The Assist

Hoops, Hope, and the Game of Their Lives


By Neil Swidey

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Jack O’Brien, the impossibly demanding basketball coach at Charlestown High School in Boston, has led his team to five state championship titles in six years. Less talked about is O’Brien’s other winning record: Nearly every one of the players who stuck with his program — poor kids growing up in high-crime neighborhoods and saddled with the lousy educational system available in urban America — managed to get to college. But O’Brien is no saint. Saints give without expecting anything in return. O’Brien needs his players and their problems as much as they need him.

Revolving around fascinating, complex characters, The Assist is a captivating narrative of a basketball team in pursuit of a championship that also drills down into the legacy of desegregation and explores issues of education, family, and race. O’Brien is a middle-aged white guy coaching an all-black team playing in an all-white neighborhood that three decades ago was at the center of the busing wars dividing cities across the country — a time and place indelibly described in J. Anthony Lukas’s powerful book Common Ground. It’s the inspiring story of a man who makes a difference, and of boys surmounting nearly impossible odds; it is also the story of the ones who don’t make it, and why.


Praise For The Assist
“Team sports, like life, are never simple. Beneath the concrete final score, there are games within games, small plays leading to big plays, a melding of diverse talents and personalities into a cohesive (or disparate) unit. Rarely is that tapestry revealed as fully, and as convincingly, as in Neil Swidey’s The Assist.”
Boston Globe
“This is a fine piece of journalistic literature; do not make the mistake of thinking it is for sports fans only.”
School Library Journal
“Basketball may be the soul game, but, as Swidey deftly reveals, it’s often played and coached by wounded souls . . . There’s triumph, tragedy, and salvation in this story. Not to mention a movie. GRADE: A-.”
—Steve Wulf, Entertainment Weekly
“Thankfully, The Assist isn’t a formula sports story where everything leads up to ‘The Big Game’ that’s won in overtime. It’s an absorbing examination of at-risk, inner-city youths who succeed against all odds. GRADE: A.”
Rocky Mountain News
“[Swidey] builds narrative momentum and details his subjects with the touch of a skilled novelist. This is a prodigiously reported, compulsively readable book that readers (sports fans or not) will savor.”
Publishers Weekly
“A classic . . . This book made me laugh. This book made me cry. This book made me think.”
—Michael Holley, author of Red Sox Rule and Patriot Reign
“Swidey, an award-winning journalist for the Boston Globe Magazine , quickly converts his readers into genuine fans of these young men. Like [Coach Jack] O’Brien, he shows a fanatical devotion to his subject. He follows the team off the court and into the projects, to pizza parties and prestigious tournaments. The Assist will prove indispensable to anyone interested in the art of coaching at any level or in any sport. And by distracting us from the sordid, steroid-fueled headlines, Swidey reminds us why we enjoy watching sports in the first place.”
—Andrew Ervin, Washington Post Book World
“One does not have to be from Boston to appreciate Swidey’s writing skills. His characters are real and have a story to tell. It’s a tale that pulsates with the intensity of a full-court press.”
Tampa Tribune
“[Swidey] uses practically unfettered access to detail the ups and downs of O’Brien’s powerhouse program and the coach’s fierce dedication to the players.”
New York Times Sports Magazine Play
“Neil Swidey might have started out trying to tell the tale of an exceptionally successful high school basketball team and their coach, but as he spent time with the subjects of his story, he realized that they could help him explore a much larger story. His book is about basketball, certainly, but it is also about education, race, the hypocrisy with which our games are riddled, and a collection of young men trying to figure out who they are and who they can be.”
—Bill Littlefield, host of NPR’s Only a Game
“He shoots, it’s good . . . Swidey masterfully deploys his observations to make his points.”
New York Post
“Like Hoop Dreams, this captivating account transcends its time and place.”
“With a powerful, moving narrative, Neil Swidey has delivered the rarest of transcendent sports books. Coach Jack O’Brien and his Charlestown players will bring you to your feet, and they’ll bring you to tears. Most of all, they’ll make you care about a game so much bigger than winning and losing. This is a brilliant book, one that will stay with you.”
—Adrian Wojnarowski, author of New York Times bestseller The Miracle of St. Anthony
“A noble debut.”
Kirkus Reviews
“The Celtics may have reached thirty wins in fewer games than any team in NBA history, but the best story to come out of Boston this season is The Assist by Neil Swidey.”
—Mark Kriegel, author of Pistol: The Life of Pete Maravich
“A must-read.”
Las Cruces Sun-Times
“368 pages of fast reading. Turn the TV off and dig into The Assist. Once you do, you’ll realize just how high the stakes are for every jump shot, rebound, and game.”
Dime Magazine
“Set in compact, feisty, history-haunted Charlestown, this book is a powerhouse work of literary journalism about a powerhouse basketball program and the coach who wouldn’t take no for an answer.”
—Madeleine Blais, Pulitzer Prize-winner and author of In These Girls, Hope Is a Muscle
“Swidey is there for it all.”
NCAA Champion Magazine
“So much of Boston’s history, good and bad, can be seen through Charlestown. So much of our basic humanity can be seen through the games we play. Neil Swidey brings all of that forward with a shrewd eye, a wide-ranging mind, and an uncommon gift for illuminating our common humanity.”
—Charles P. Pierce, NPR commentator and author of Moving the Chains: Tom Brady and the Pursuit of Everything
“A must-read . . . The second-best book about inner-city high school basketball behind Darcy Frey’s The Last Shot.”
—Bill Simmons, ESPN
“What happens when a tough-as-nails Boston basketball coach dedicates his life to helping inner-city teens? Success.”
—NBC’s Today Show
“This isn’t a great basketball book. This is great literature.”
—Yahoo Sports

For Denise, my partner in everything I do, And for my parents, Samuel and Mary Swidey, my first and finest teachers

Jack O’Brien knelt down, and his index finger began tracing the etching in the black granite. It moved quickly through the curves of the numeral 3, the straight line of the 1, but lingered when it arrived at the detailed image of a basketball sailing through a net.
He closed his watery brown eyes. His large forehead, made to look even larger by the way he brushed his brown hair up and back, became as deeply grooved as the granite.
He stood up and stepped back, taking in the full image of the stone. Then he turned to the two boys he’d brought with him. “Nice, huh?” O’Brien said.
Between the 31 and the basketball net, there was a face. Laser-etched onto the granite, it belonged to a handsome young man who wore his hair closely cropped, diamond studs in each ear, and a slightly crooked smile.
Below the face, a name:
O’Brien’s mind flashed back five years, to the fall of 1999, when Richard Jones first crossed the threshold of his gym. O’Brien had made it his job to be aware of every teenage boy in the city of Boston who ever picked up a ball. But Richard, a tall laid-back junior, had bounced around enough schools in and out of Boston to have eluded O’Brien’s detection. The kid with the electric smile and spot-on Eddie Murphy impersonation was so friendly he was impossible not to like instantly, even for O’Brien, who had learned the power of withholding warmth. But Richard also had a habit of making excuses for himself. During his years coaching in Boston, O’Brien had heard more excuses than a highway cop clutching a radar gun. His reaction was always the same: ride the kid so hard that exhaustion wore down any reflex to pass the buck. Yet somehow Richard had inspired O’Brien to be more creative. Once when he showed up late for practice, O’Brien got Richard a chair and sat him down in the center of the court, making sure he was comfortable. Then he made the rest of the team run grueling “suicide” sprints around him. Richard was never late for practice again. Better yet, he turned into a leader, holding himself and everyone else around him accountable. He, more than anyone, helped O’Brien guide Charlestown High School to the first of its four back-to-back state titles. In turn, O’Brien helped Richard score an athletic scholarship to a Division I college in Buffalo, where he became a model on and off the court. He was on track to graduate a semester early and begin graduate school—hardly a typical trajectory in the world of Division I basketball, where graduation rates tend to clock in well below field goal percentages.
Staring straight ahead, O’Brien extended an arm in either direction. The boys on either side of him, his co-captains for the upcoming season, clasped their hands with his, and bowed their heads. “Dear Lord,” O’Brien began. “Please watch over Richard and his family, especially his mother. And let us meet again someday in Paradise.”
O’Brien’s eyes fixed on the dates etched into the granite: November 5, 1982-May 5, 2004. Richard Jones had been gone for nearly four months now, but his stone had just been erected. Then O’Brien glanced at the dates on the gravesites on either side of Richard’s. To the left, a sixty-four-year-old; to the right, a seventy-eight-year-old. There’s grief in every death, for sure. But there had to be a special sadness reserved for the death of a twenty-one-year-old who had overcome the long odds imposed by life in the inner city, only to drop dead on a basketball court in college. The cause of death for Richard, whose warmth and love of life seemed to be boundless, was an enlarged heart.
If O’Brien could find any hint of comfort in Richard’s death, it was that at least he had died of natural causes. Oak Lawn Cemetery sat atop a Boston hill between a boarded-up Ford dealership and a battered Stop & Shop supermarket. Across the street was the larger, more established Mt. Calvary Cemetery, where the gravestones dated back more than a century and carried the names of Boston’s Irish-Catholic past. That was O’Brien’s past, but because he was closer to his players than to most of his own family, O’Brien knew the contours of Oak Lawn better. There, the names were a mix of black Boston, the Washingtons and Morrisons first attached to the sons of sharecroppers, the Baptistes and Campbells attached to newer arrivals from Haiti and Jamaica. Given its tether to the city’s black neighborhoods, Oak Lawn also offered a visual profile of the stretches of recent history when it was most dangerous to be a young black man growing up in Boston. The cemetery, only fifteen years old, had already logged more than 3,000 burials—and far too many of them belonged to the young. There were clusters of head-stones memorializing teens cut down in the early- and mid-1990s, but far fewer as the decade wore on, when Boston’s murder rate for the young had decreased so sharply that it was branded the “Boston Miracle.” Yet even before the criminologists acknowledged the shift in the narrative, a rush of new names and dates etched into granite at Oak Lawn documented the miracle’s demise.
O’Brien had come to Boston as an outsider, a white guy from the suburbs whose success as a coach defined him and whose main goal was racking up more wins. But during more than a decade coaching in Charlestown, a Boston neighborhood that was almost entirely white, he worked almost entirely with black kids bused in from the city’s high-crime neighborhoods. Somewhere along the way, his priorities changed. He was still obsessed with winning, but more and more he saw his relentless pursuit of state titles as a means to an end: an insurance policy against having to spend any more time at Oak Lawn.
O’Brien led his co-captains to an adjacent section of the cemetery. An afternoon shower had left the grass moist, though it had done little to improve the humid August air. They walked in silence, except for the sounds of the Canada geese squawking from an adjacent field, and the players’ high-top sneakers squishing in the soil and the occasional droppings left by the flock. Thirty yards from Richard Jones’s stone, O’Brien stopped and looked down at a rectangular bronze slab laid into the ground. It read: PARIS G. BOOKER, February 19, 1988-August 5, 2003. At the top-right corner of the marker, there was a covered picture frame. O’Brien knelt down and gingerly opened it to reveal a photo of a tall boy, wearing clear aviator glasses and a blue pin-striped suit. The boy looked to be a high school senior. In fact, he was only fifteen. In his hand, he was holding his middle school diploma.
While Richard had made it out, Paris was just beginning his climb. He was 6-foot-2 in the eighth grade, destined to be a star. Even his name—Paris Booker—sounded tailor-made for the loudspeaker at an NBA game. One year earlier, just a few weeks before he would start his freshman year at Charlestown High, Paris was riding his bike in the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston. An SUV hit him and then dragged him 30 feet. The driver fled. Paris’s mother buried her boy with a Charlestown jersey in his arms.
O’Brien put his head down and his arms out. Once again his co-captains joined him in prayer. “Dear Lord, please watch over Paris and his mother,” he said. “I never got the chance to coach him, but he was part of Charlestown, and we miss him.” O’Brien’s new co-captains were both seniors, so Richard had graduated by the time they joined the Charlestown program, and Paris had never suited up as a member of their squad. Still, in the family O’Brien forged, they were all brothers. The coach had Paris’s initials sewn onto the shoulders of the team uniforms and Richard’s jersey framed and hung on the gym wall. Before every game, he led a locker room prayer asking Jesus to watch over Richard and Paris. And as soon as the players took to the court, they would perform the same rocking, swaying, pre-game huddle chant that Richard had introduced during his Charlestown days.
O’Brien let his arms drop to his side. Then he stepped back, so he could make eye contact with both co-captains, Ridley Johnson and Jason White. O’Brien had taken a gamble in pairing them: although they had played together for three years, they weren’t at all close. Ridley was a 6-foot-3 wire with a soft voice and a demeanor as gentle as the slope of his profile, Jason a muscular 6-footer with piercing eyes and a penchant for icy stares. “Remember,” O’Brien told them, “no matter how tough life may get, these guys would do anything to change places with you.”


THE DODGE CARAVAN STUTTERED ALONG Washington Street in the Roxbury section of Boston as O’Brien slowed down at each intersection to squint at the street signs.
“Is this the turn?”
“Nah, the next one, Coach,” said the kid riding with him.
“This one?”
O’Brien lived in Medford, a small suburban city 5 miles northwest of Boston, with his elderly mother in the same house he had grown up in. When he’d taken the Charlestown High coaching job, he’d had no idea that none of his players would actually live in the neighborhood of Charlestown. Soon enough, he learned an important legacy of Boston’s public school desegregation wars of the 1970s: Because there were virtually no white students left, the schools were more segregated than ever. So O’Brien got used to driving his white minivan, with the Evergreen air freshener dangling from the mirror, around the black neighborhoods of Boston that other middle-aged white guys from the suburbs long ago decided to avoid.
He turned up Townsend Street and pulled in front of a cluster of freshly built townhouses painted in the hues of spring. The New Academy Estates. The complex had just opened, and O’Brien could hardly believe the transformation. Old Academy had been one of Boston’s most treacherous housing projects, a warren of flat-roofed cement buildings flanking expansive courtyards that had turned into shooting galleries where even the cops feared to tread.
O’Brien beeped his horn, and out sauntered Jason White. The kid had grown up in old Academy and then shuttled between apartments during the years it took to raze and replace the project. When O’Brien had picked him up for the cemetery visit two weeks earlier, Jason was living in a tired three-decker on a residential street. But a week after that—actually, it was on September 3, the same day Jason turned nineteen—he and his family turned the key on their new townhouse.
Jason emerged wearing a blue baseball cap with the manufacturer’s 59Fifty label purposely left on the brim and an oversize black quilted jacket. It was 72 degrees outside. On the basketball court, he moved with such ferocious speed that the ends of his cornrows bobbed behind his head, struggling to keep up. But everywhere else, he favored a leisurely, defiant strut. O’Brien knew that many adults at the high school looked at the kid’s posture, his clothes, and his stare and saw nothing but a thug. The nickname Jason went by—Hood—only strengthened the impression. O’Brien liked knowing that his vision was better than theirs.
Hood shook hands with O’Brien without saying anything, and climbed into the minivan.
“Whatup, Spot?” Hood said, extending his hand to the teammate who had been O’Brien’s first pickup of the day. Lamar Brathwaite had a Hollywood smile and a nickname he owed to an oval-shaped birthmark on the right side of his head and the threat a former teammate once made to “smack that spot onto the wall.” He was wearing washed-out baggy jeans, a bright-white extra-long T-shirt, and a black nylon do-rag.
On the drive back to Washington Street, O’Brien spotted a pair of kids, maybe ten years old, shooting jumpers at a broken hoop. “I want you to get me the names of those kids,” he told Hood, chuck-ling. “They’re working on their fundamentals. Most kids in the inner city just wanna play games.”
O’Brien drove past a liquor store with a mural of famous black faces painted onto the side wall, the once proud images now crowded out by graffiti, then on past a used car lot encased in barbed wire, the brightly colored triangular flags strung above the clunkers now torn and faded, flapping in the wind. He drove past clusters of idling teenagers who, like Hood, wore black coats too warm for the weather, and past idling adults who sat in cars on blocks, blasting hip-hop through open windows. Across this landscape of resignation, there were flashes of renewal—a lovingly restored three-decker bathed in a fresh coat of bright turquoise, a storefront church unmistakably in expansion mode. But in a neighborhood where the billboards continued to carry the peeling campaign messages of candidates defeated years earlier, the signs of optimism were rationed. Even the storefront churches had thick security gates over the doors and windows.
O’Brien looked back at Hood and Spot through his rearview mirror. “You guys got your contacts in?” They shook their heads. So did he. A while back, he had arranged for them to get fitted with contact lenses, made sure they got to their eye doctor appointments, even cobbled together some money to help cover the costs. The only thing he couldn’t do was put the lenses in their eyes. He laughed. “Imagine how good we’d be if our players could actually see.”
As always, O’Brien was wearing one of his Charlestown warm-up suits, which he owned in a rainbow of colors. He was taking Hood and Spot to visit a college on the North Shore of Boston. Unlike many other high school coaches, O’Brien could handle a weekend task like this without having to miss his son’s soccer game or saddle his wife with the kids for the day. He had never been married and his only kids were the ones on his roster. The absence of family commitments allowed him to build his program with complete devotion, investing endless hours and emotional energy in his players’ lives off the court. To them, he was both a shoulder and a scold. He rode them about their homework and drove them to check out colleges. He arranged their doctors’ appointments and rearranged their class schedules. He ran them hard, until every one of their muscles ached. And then he stopped by the Foodmaster to get them the plastic produce bags they preferred for icing their sore joints.
During his tenure, the forty-six-year-old O’Brien had helped nearly every one of his players who stuck with his program through their senior year get to college. The majority of them made it there without the benefit of a big-time athletic scholarship. Most years, at least one of his kids would grab some glory, getting a full ride to play ball at a Division I college. But it was finding a path for all the other kids that took the most work. O’Brien, a phys ed teacher who had struggled to earn his own degree from a not-very-competitive state college, was never much of a student himself. Still, he’d learned what it took to get kids to the next level. Among other things, it required lots of Saturdays like this one.
Nearly an hour after being picked up, Hood was staring out the window as the minivan hugged the coast, winding past the majestic estates of Beverly Farms before gliding onto the campus of Endicott College. The small liberal arts college, coed for only a decade, had been building up its athletic programs in the hopes of attracting more young men. O’Brien was an eager supplier. He’d already sent three former players there. A Division III school, Endicott offered no athletic scholarships. But athletic ability helped students get admitted, and the poor backgrounds that most of O’Brien’s kids came from often allowed them to receive nearly full financial aid.
O’Brien led Hood and Spot into an office near the gym. There, the college coach spoke about his team’s winning record and its up-tempo style of play. He talked up the college’s internship program and asked Hood and Spot what they wanted to major in. Hood said “business.” Spot said the first thing that popped into his head: “electrical engineering.” The coach winced. So did O’Brien. Endicott didn’t offer engineering.
“We see you guys fitting in here really well,” the coach said, moving on.
By the end of the afternoon, it was clear Hood and Spot did not agree.
While O’Brien chatted with the Endicott coach, Hood and Spot walked around campus with the hesitancy of Japanese tourists who had been separated from their American guide. They stayed for the first half of the Saturday afternoon football game, long enough to see the home team get crushed. Around them, the bleachers were a sea of white.
O’Brien could sense the discomfort in Hood and Spot. But he wanted them—needed them—to get past it. As they climbed back into the minivan, he pointed left and right. “Lookit, everything is right here for you—your dorm, the gym, the library. You won’t have to take no more trains and buses to get to class.”
“It looks boring,” Hood said flatly.
“The problem is you want to stay home,” O’Brien said. “Not for anything, but you’d get here faster from your house than it takes you to get to Charlestown.”
O’Brien, who loaded up his players’ days with practices, summer leagues, study halls—anything to keep them off Boston’s streets—was so focused on seeing the streets as the enemy that he sometimes forgot they were also his players’ home.
A few minutes later, the minivan was back on the highway, passing a sign that read, “Boston 28 miles.”
“You can always go back to Boston,” O’Brien said. “This is your future we’re talking about here.”
Closer to home, O’Brien asked, “Hey, Hood, with your new apartment, will it be easier to get to school on time?” The ride to Charlestown High from his last apartment took more than an hour each way.
“Nah, harder,” Hood said. “The 42 never runs.”
“Why can’t you take the 22?”
“That’s not my neighborhood. That’s Jackson. I can’t go there.”
O’Brien shot a disbelieving look into the rearview mirror. “What do you mean? It’s only five minutes from your house.”
Hood stared straight ahead. “I’d get killed.”


  • A Washington Post Best Book of 2008 Selection

On Sale
Nov 11, 2008
Page Count
392 pages

Neil Swidey

About the Author

Neil Swidey is a staff writer for the Boston Globe Magazine. His writing has won the National Headliner Award and been featured in The Best American Science Writing, The Best American Crime Reporting, and The Best American Political Writing. He lives outside Boston with his wife and three daughters.

Learn more about this author