★★★★ This Was Never About Basketball by Craig Leener tells the story of seventeen-year-old Zeke Archer, an avid basketball player who, after instigating an unfortunate brawl at one of his games, is forced to attend a remedial school for students at risk of not graduating high school. Zeke soon learns that his actions may have had an impact that even he couldn’t have imagined. An autistic classmate named Lawrence informs Zeke that a group known as the 7th Dimension—a sort of inter-dimensional peacekeeping taskforce—first brought basketball to humankind. And now they’ve decided to take it back. What follows is Zeke’s desperate last-ditch effort to find the 7th Dimension and appeal to them directly, traveling from Los Angeles all the way to Kansas in his brother’s stolen car in the hopes of locating them and reversing their decision to remove basketball from the planet. After all, this whole mess is really his fault, isn’t it?
Leener’s novel is unexpectedly powerful, perhaps because you wouldn’t expect a story about sport-stealing aliens to carry such emotional weight. But, as its title suggests, This Was Never About Basketball is focused primarily on the journey and growth of its protagonist, Zeke, and uses this zany plot to help him reach his destination. While Leener’s other characters are certainly memorable in their own way, Zeke is given more than enough room in this novel to show the reader just how much he’s willing to learn from past mistakes. The story’s strongest moments come towards the end, when Zeke is brought face to face with his father, who left Zeke’s family when he was a child, and his older brother Wade, who left to fight overseas after enlisting in the Marine Corps. This is a potent, positively charged novel that has a great message for young adults about the importance of leading by example and owning up to your own shortcomings.