Soccer player Tim Howard was diagnosed with Tourette Syndrome and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder when he was in the sixth grade. But it didn’t stop him from leading Team USA to a World Cup championship in 2014.
When he was growing up in Montreal, Jacques Demers and his mother were physically abused by his father, an experience so damaging that he was unable to learn in school and remained illiterate for most of his life. But he struggled to overcome those deficits to become an award-winning National Hockey League coach and a Canadian senator.
R.A. Dickey, a childhood victim of sexual abuse, was born without a key ligament in his pitching arm. That defect and the residual effects of his childhood trauma threatened his baseball career to the point where he contemplated suicide. But he learned to throw the knuckleball that would account for his many victories on the mound for the Seattle Mariners, the Minnesota Twins, and the New York Mets as well as his current team, the Toronto Blue Jays, and earn him a Cy Young Award.
To break the color barrier in what had been a lily-white country club sport, Althea Gibson overcame the strict segregation and poverty faced by many black Americans in rural South Carolina to become “the Jackie Robinson of tennis,” the first African-American woman to win the French Open, Wimbledon, and the U.S. Nationals.
Their stories and those of seven other professional athletes who conquered the heavy challenges life threw at them are the subjects of a new book, Rising Above, written by a West Orange journalist and his two teenage sons.
The idea was hatched in the mind of 17-year-old Gabriel Zuckerman, a rising senior at Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School in Livingston. For the past year he has been collaborating with his father, Wall Street Journal reporter Gregory Zuckerman, and his 14-year-old brother, Elijah, about to become a 10th-grader at Kushner who uses his nickname, Eli.
“Rising Above isn’t overtly Jewish,” said Gregory, “but on some levels it couldn’t be more Jewish. Our book tells the story of 11 unlikely stars who overcame imposing obstacles in their youth. That is, in effect, the story of modern Judaism.”
Their book, he said, “is about surviving against all odds and turning our ‘differences’ and disadvantages into huge advantages…. Each of the stars in our book says they’re actually thankful for the physical differences and other obstacles they had to deal with, just like we Jews appreciate the survival traits we’ve developed that help us excel in modern society.”
As they prepared to autograph copies of the book they created together, the three Zuckermans sat down at a table in the Barnes and Noble bookstore in the Livingston Mall and discussed what motivated their father-and-sons collaboration.
“The whole idea was to inspire kids as well as entertain and motivate them,” said Gregory. “I am always looking for good stories. So we tried to find athletes from different sports and athletes with different challenges — physical challenges, socio-economic challenges, emotional challenges, sexual abuse, physical abuse, and racism,” he said.
“I knew about a couple of the athletes and their stories, and I was fascinated by them,” said Gabriel. “So I researched them and found so many more stories. I came to my dad and my brother and said, ‘It would be good to put them together and make a book out of them.’ They said it was an amazing idea.”
Together the three worked for a year, as the boys reached out to the athletes they had chosen to profile; then the three of them conducted the interviews.
“The hardest part was actually getting in contact with the athletes,” said Eli. “So I would spend hours finding ways to get in touch with them by contacting reporters who wrote about them.”
The toughest to reach was Serge Ibaka, a Congo-born basketball player whose father was a political prisoner and whose mother died when he was young. He grew up in poverty, forcing him to play wearing cardboard shoes and a “basketball” made from bunched-up clothing. “Because he played so well with such bad equipment, he was able to play that much better with regular gear,” said Eli. After Ibaka played for the Congolese national team he was discovered by American scouts, and he now plays for the Oklahoma City Thunder.
When the Zuckermans met with him, said Gregory, “he put his arm around my boys and wanted to share a lesson for young people about the things he had gone through; he wanted to talk about the lessons from his life.”
Gregory said that was true for a lot of the athletes they met. “They really opened up to my boys,” he said. The athletes “really cared about imparting lessons to the next generation. They would tell my sons lessons they were hoping to share with young people. They were good-hearted people who spent hours with us.”
Because he grew up in the affluent Detroit suburb of Birmingham, Mich., Shane Battier was about to be dropped for inclusion in Rising Above. But what intrigued Gregory was the fact that Battier, a pro basketball player for the Houston Rockets, Memphis Grizzlies, and Miami Heat before retiring in 2014, came from a mixed-race family.
“It affected him until he finally came to grips with it and embraced it,” Gregory said. “He decided to be the player who makes the extra pass or the extra defense. He said, ‘You know what? I’m not going to fit into either community but I am going to be happy with myself.’”
Those lessons, and the learning experiences of the other people profiled, are intended to have an impact on the young adult readers who are the target audience of Rising Above.
“We are trying to teach our own kids how young people can deal with setbacks in their own lives and overcome them,” said Gregory.
To Eli, “it doesn’t matter what obstacles you’re faced with. If you have the right mindset you can do anything and achieve your goal.”
“This book has very inspirational and exciting stories,” said his older brother. “There is action, there is sports, and there is a great message that comes with it, so it’s a great read.”
Although none of the athletes they profiled happens to be Jewish, Gregory said he likes the fact that the Blue Jays’ Jacques Demers “said the one family who gave him support and encouragement for a decade starting when he was age 10 was a local Jewish merchant’s.
“He came to their house for meals and support,” said Gregory. Demers said “he didn’t know what a happy family looked like until he met the merchant’s family, and that is the way he modeled his life — to build a home like his friend’s.”
That, said Gregory, “gave me a lot of pride.”
Gibson died in 2003, so her story is told through the eyes of African-American championship tennis players and sisters Venus and Serena Williams, who view her as a role model. Since Gibson is the only female athlete in the book, the Zuckermans are beginning work on a follow-up volume, one that will focus strictly on the challenges and accomplishments of women in sports.