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Sooley: UVA hoops inspires John Grisham to write basketball novel

john grisham
John Grisham

John Grisham’s new novel, Sooley, following the story of a basketball player from Africa to college and eventually the NBA, was inspired, in part, by UVA hoops alum Mamadi Diakite.

“We watched the kid for four years here,” said Grisham, who with his wife, Renee, has season tickets courtside at the John Paul Jones Arena, and also down in Chapel Hill, where Renee is a UNC alum.

More on that in a moment or two.

The title character in Sooley is from South Sudan, and Diakite is from Guinea, but from a character perspective, there’s a lot of Diakite in Samuel Sooleyman.

“When (Diakite) came here, he didn’t play much, and the expectations were pretty low, but he seemed to keep growing and getting better and could jump over the backboard. And then he started dyeing his hair orange and white and green, and he always played with his big, infectious smile, and you knew he was having fun on the court, and we just kind of fell in love with him,” Grisham said.

Sooley, in the book, grows before your eyes, from a 6’2” can’t-shoot point guard into a 6’9” matchup nightmare, jumping through the roof, playing with an infectious smile.

His background was a bit more humble than that of Diakite, whose father was the health inspector general of Guinea, his mother an obstetrician.

The money from being an NBA player aside, you could almost think that Diakite being an athlete isn’t what his parents would have hoped for him in life.

Sooley, in the book, hails from South Sudan, the newest country in the world, established in 2011 from the fallout of a decades-long civil war – where reality is a daily struggle to find basic necessities, and that’s not counting having to hope that this day isn’t the one where a rival faction might decide to burn down the village to gain a meaningless, fleeting moment of revenge.

Four million South Sudanese – a third of the country’s population – have been displaced from their home villages over the past decade, into camps inside the country and across Africa and across the world.

There are two ways out for young males who would otherwise end up being handed a Kalashnikov – football, what we call soccer, and basketball.

Sooley follows the basketball route, as Grisham takes his first stab at writing a basketball novel, after taking on baseball (Calico Joe) and football (Bleachers, Playing for Pizza).

“I’ve always wanted to write a basketball novel,” Grisham said. “Baseball has a very rich literary tradition in this country. There are a lot of great baseball novels. And that’s because baseball, the sort of history of baseball, tracks the history of America. And that’s why there’s so many great baseball stories. Football, to a lesser extent. When I started looking for great basketball novels, I couldn’t find any there. There are a lot of great books. They’re all nonfiction. My goal was to try to write a really fun, popular, maybe great, I don’t know, I can’t judge them, a basketball novel.”

Now, back to the season tickets at UVA and down on Tobacco Road. The Grishams schedule their late fall and winter around ACC basketball.

“You see us at the UVA games. We’re there courtside for almost every home game,” Grisham said. “Our son went to UVA, we’re big Wahoo fans, we love Tony and his kids and his program. My wife is a Tar Heel. She pulls for UVA every game except one. Our daughter went to UNC. She’s a Tar Heel. My daughter married a Tar Heel, and they’ve since produced two small Tar Heels. So you know, they’re all in Raleigh, and they’re going to be Tar Heels.

“We get a lot of basketball in the wintertime, and we go to most of the home games in Chapel Hill. So we’re back and forth and from December through March. Our whole world is pretty much, you know, when’s the next game?” Grisham said. “We love the ACC and basketball. We’re always following other teams. You know, in the wintertime there’s not much else to do but watch great basketball, and we’re so happy, and another great advantage to living here in Central Virginia is we get ACC basketball. All those factors kind of came together to create this desire to write a basketball novel. That’s how it happened.”

Grisham didn’t take the easy way out with Sooley, though, setting it in the ACC. Rather, he chose to have his protagonist land in the hinterland of D1, at North Carolina Central University, the other school in Durham, as some know it.

“I get frustrated in November,” Grisham conceded. “These early games are just blowouts. I feel sorry for the other teams. I don’t like that part of college basketball. The first 10 games are like preseason games, with maybe one serious game in there. But most of the games are sort of embarrassing. We don’t go to a lot of those games. To be honest, I get frustrated with them, or we leave at halftime, we go have dinner.”

Grisham reached out to the coach at NCCU, LeVelle Moton, to learn more what the basketball world is like outside the Power 5.

“He just said, we’ve got to make money, you know, we’ve got to make money, and we get paid a lot of money to go on the road, and, you know, kind of sacrifice ourselves to the big schools to give them an easy win, and we get a big check. That’s how it goes,” Grisham said. “I mean, some of those games are worth $100,000 to a small school, plus travel. So we all know that. We all know why that’s what happens, but I still don’t really like that aspect of it.

“The real thing I think with Central and the MEAC, that conference, was trying to capture just the spirit of how good the basketball is, how dedicated the kids are,” Grisham said. “It’s funny how things happen. A few years ago, N.C. State paid Central a big sum of money to drive a few miles to the PNC Center in Raleigh for an easy warmup game in December, and Central beat the crap out of them. I love it. When that happens. I love it when the walkover teams win.”

The story of Sooley is told in real time – you follow Sooleyman through his freshman season at NCCU, and his family in South Sudan and eventually a refugee camp in Uganda, almost moment by moment.

That part of the research – into what life is like in South Sudan and the refugee camps – was made more difficult for Grisham by COVID-19, but the bigger challenge is the dangerous ongoing, raging civil war.

That work, as a result, was largely voracious reading of a trove of books written by refugees who were able to make it out, “some who barely got out, and they made it here if they had a lot of relatives here, or they made it to the UK or someplace where they found a home and managed to survive, and their stories are hard to believe,” Grisham said.

“The history of South Sudan is very painful to read about,” Grisham said. “It’s tragic, and the ongoing refugee crisis is a humanitarian disaster. There are more refugees today than yesterday. These South Sudanese people are scattered all over Africa in camps where they barely survive, they barely have enough to eat, they barely have enough healthcare, and it doesn’t take much research to get a clear picture of how dire the situation is.”

Basketball has become one way out. Grisham mentions the stories of Luol Deng, who played a year at Duke before going on to a 16-year NBA career in which he averaged 14.8 points per game and earned just short of $160 million, and Manute Bol, who had much more modest NBA stats – averaging 2.6 points per game over 12 seasons, with career earnings of $6 million – but Bol was the first from South Sudan to make it big in the States, and the first to return to try to make a difference back home, literally going broke as he spent his millions building schools and hospitals in his homeland.

“Manute Bol would actually go into the refugee camps in Uganda and Kenya, where his people were, where the South Sudanese people were, and build basketball courts. I saw a picture one time of a basketball court, an asphalt basketball court with real glass backboards that he had constructed for the kids there. He gave his money away. He gave all his money to his people,” Grisham said.

Story by Chris Graham


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