Already a well-known sports columnist, television personality and novelist, Mike Lupica’s life became even better after a joke from NBA coach Jeff Van Gundy.
After Lupica’s middle son — he’s got four children — was cut from a travel basketball team as a seventh-grader most likely for being too small, Van Gundy said to Lupica, “If this were the movies, you’d take all the kids that were cut and you’d start a team of your own.”
Lupica didn’t have to think long about Van Gundy’s comment. Two days later all the players who didn’t’ make the team made Lupica’s team. He hired a coach, scheduled games and served as the “General Manager in Charge of Quality Control.”
“They were terrible, they got good and it was one of the greatest experiences of my life in sports and those kids changed my life,” Lupica said.
That negative experience for his son, an exchange with someone he reported on for work and the formation of the team sparked a new side of Lupica’s career: young adult author. “That was the beginning of what became my first book, my first No. 1 best seller, ‘Travel Team,’” Lupica said. “It changed my life… That was about three dozen books ago for young readers in 2004.”
Lupica will tell the rest of this story and more at Scarsdale High School on Wednesday, Sept. 11, from 7 to 8:30 p.m. when the Scarsdale Adult School hosts a presentation and Q&A. This is one day after Lupica’s latest Y.A. book, “Strike Zone,” a follow-up to the 2006 New York Times bestseller, “Heat,” is released.
“Heat,” Lupica’s lone book to debut at No. 1 on the bestseller list, was about Cuban-American Michael Arroyo, who was orphaned and lived with his 17-year-old brother in the Bronx. The 12-year-old was a phenomenal pitcher, but couldn’t prove his age and had to try to stay ahead of child services. Thirteen years later in “Strike Zone,” Nick Garcia, the son of undocumented immigrants, is pitching in the Bronx, as is Arroyo, for the Yankees. Their story becomes “intertwined,” according to Lupica.
Certainly the book is timely. “It’s the whole immigration thing, it’s baseball in the Bronx,” Lupica said. “It’s a pretty cool story.”
In 1986, Lupica released his first novel for adults, “Dead Air,” and had collaborated on his first book with an athlete two years earlier (“Reggie!” with Reggie Jackson). Never had Lupica considered writing for a younger audience until “Travel Team” hit big. It was a new calling.
“What I figured out when ‘Travel Team’ exploded the way it did was, I was supposed to be writing the kinds of books I had read as a boy,” he said.
For Lupica, those centered around 24 Chip Hilton sports stories by Claire Bee.
“Those books were about loyalty and friendship and teamwork,” Lupica said. “At their heart, my books are about loyalty and friendship and teamwork. I am now telling the kinds of stories I loved when I was a young reader myself.”
Book sales aside, Lupica’s great reward is doing book tours and having parents tell him that he opened up the world of books to their “reluctant readers.” It’s the same connection he had with Bee’s books growing up.
Making time for his new passion was natural for Lupica. He gets up early to write his books and focuses on his columns and other endeavors as needed.
“What I tell young writers all the time is I’m conditioned to writing 800, 900, a thousand words, the length of a column,” Lupica said. “That’s how I’m programmed after all these years of writing columns. If I write that much on a book every day — say it’s a thousand words, which doesn’t really feel like a hardship to me — at the end of the week if I’ve only written five days, that’s 5,000 words. At the end of the month that’s 25,000 words and you could see how all of a sudden you do that consistently and you’ve got a book. I never feel like I’m overworked.”
Lupica is currently working on a middle grade book about a girl trying to make a boys’ football team and a Robert B. Parker mystery for adults.
All of Lupica’s books are peppered with references to things he’s encountered as a parent, coach and sportswriter, from Reggie Jackson to Bill Parcells to Mike Tyson.
“It weaves all the way through my books,” Lupica said. “It’s all part of this crazy stew.”
Lupica has modeled his career around his heroes, Jimmy Breslin and Pete Hamill, who were also diverse in their writings, and he often works on books for kids and adults simultaneously. He also got some great words of wisdom from William Goldman, writer of “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” and “The Princess Bride.”
“He once said to me, ‘All I ever wanted to do was tell my stories,’” Lupica said. “Well, all I ever wanted to do was tell my stories, so I consider myself completely blessed to have been able to live out my dream.”
Register to see Mike Lupica at scarsdaleadultschool.org. The event costs $25.