Questions for Mike Lupica

Mike Lupica, newspaper columnist and TV sports commentator, has written many books for adults, and his first book for children, Travel Team, hit #1 on the New York Times Bestseller list. With his new young adult novel, HEAT, Mike Lupica delivers another compelling sports drama, this time centered around young Cuban-born Michael Arroyo and his team's shot at the Little League World Series — an opportunity that's threatened by a rival coach's accusations of age-fraud. Lupica, who has also coached basketball and Little League teams, offers his own wisdom and experience about competition, hero-worship, the drive to reach for your dreams, and the importance of family — wherever you may find it.

As a father, you've been a coach in the Little League program. As a sports journalist, you're aware of the Danny Almonte age-fraud scandal where the 14 year-old star pitcher for a Bronx team passed himself off as twelve years of age to be eligible to play in the 2001 Little League World Series.

How have both experiences influenced the storyline in this novel?

As a coach, I am constantly struck by how dedicated most parent/coaches are. They are the ones we never hear enough about or talk enough about, like the old "silent majority" we used to hear about in politics. But there is also the loud, pushy, obnoxious minority that is able to drown out the good guys. They are the ones who say it's all about the kids, and really, with them, it's not. It's about them. It's about them fulfilling some need within themselves.

So we've got both in HEAT. There is Mr. Minaya, Michael Arroyo's coach, and Mr. Gibbs, another of the coach/heroes in the book. But there are all the guys who gang up on Michael when they see him as a possible obstacle to them making it to the Little League World Series, and do everything they have to get him out of the game.

As for Danny Almonte, I've always though it would make an interesting novel if we could tip that on its side: What if a boy really was the age he said he was, but couldn't prove it?

In both your young adult novels, you have examples of overbearing and controlling parents who have become too wrapped up in their children's successes. The character of Mr. Ross from Travel Team is one example. He prevents Danny from joining the town's team, in order to favor his own son. In Heat, the coach from the Westchester South team writes a letter to the district board of directors accusing Michael of age-fraud so that his own team, where the coach's son is a star player, will have a better chance of making to the finals.

Is there more pressure from parents these days for their children to succeed in sports?

Sure. Because they all look at talented kids especially, and see them in the big leagues eventually. But always remember: Most parents who coach do it for the love of kids and the love of the game. I picked on the yellers, the guys who do put too much pressure on kids, because they deserve to be picked on.

Should limits be imposed by the sports organizations or teams to help control such behavior? How can parents set limits for themselves?

Parents should set limits for themselves. I love Michael, when he's declared ineligible, coaching third base for his team in HEAT. I've always thought that in baseball, the only time a parent should be on the field is if somebody gets hurt, or if he has to make a pitching change. If not, the field should belong to the kids.

Hero-worship for sports figures is very common in American society. Michael's faith in his beloved Yankees is rewarded in the end. In real life, however, many sports heroes are shown to have feet of clay.

Do you think our idolization of players is healthy for young sports fans?

To a point. My kids are lucky, they've gotten to know a lot of coaches and famous athletes, and are constantly reminded by me that when you meet them, they are just people. I want children to idolize their parents, their teachers, even older kids who set a proper example, on and off the field. I tell my sons and my daughter all the time something I wrote in a book once: I hope that when I am old and they are older, they will love and respect me the way I love and respect my parents.

What can parents do when one of those heroes suffers a fall from grace that is all over the news?

Tell them everybody falls in life. Anybody can do that. The true measure of a person, and sometimes the majesty, is getting back up. That's what Michael Arroyo does when he gets knocked down in HEAT.

Michael, his brother and his friend, Manny, as well as two adults in your story conspire to lie to "Official Persons", in this case Children's Services, and they are nearly successful.

Why did you choose to have the adults participate in the deception?

Because the adults understand that the children are not in "jeopardy"— that these two brothers deserve to be together.

You are obviously a big supporter of youth sports, having coached basketball and Little League games.

What do you think are the most important things that team sports can teach kids?

Sports teaches kids about being on a team, being part of something greater than themselves if they play hard and well and unselfishly. If they can learn that, they can apply it to anything they do, in or out of sports, for the rest of their lives. The great coaches in Little League are the same as the great coaches in the big leagues, or managers: Get a bunch of different kids, every one with different talents and backgrounds and attitudes, and get them on the same page, get them to be better in the end than they thought they could be. When it works, it's a wonderful thing.

I still use the first coaching plan I ever got, when my middle son first started playing YMCA basketball, from my best friend Paul Westphal, a great NBA player and coach, now coaching Pepperdine University:

  1. If you're open, shoot.
  2. If somebody else is more open, pass him the ball and let him shoot.
  3. Have fun.

I tell the kids all the time, this ain't a job, this is playing ball with your buddies, and if you can't do it with a smile on your face, we're all wasting our time.