“It’s not about winning; it’s about having fun.” That’s what parents and coaches always say—but it’s not always what they mean. In Rivals, Tommy Greenwald’s second novel set in the fictional town of Walthorne (after 2018’s Game Changer), having fun is immaterial when it comes to a high-pressure middle school basketball season between the Walthorne North Cougars and the Walthorne South Panthers. Everyone wants to win, and they’ll do whatever it takes to make it happen.
Students from both wealthy Walthorne North and working-class Walthrone South have a lot riding on this basketball season. Cougar Austin Chambers wants to live up to his dad’s basketball legacy, but no amount of practice with his private coach is going to make him grow eight inches overnight. Panther Carter Haswell knows he’s talented enough to be an exceptional player, maybe even to win a college athletic scholarship, but skill and ability don’t always equate to passion for the game itself. And Alfie Jenks isn’t a basketball player at all. The self-professed “least-coordinated person ever born” dreams of becoming a sports reporter, but she soon learns that investigating the world of middle school athletics means uncovering truths that could shake her community to its core.
Along with appealing first-person narratives from Austin, Carter and Alfie, Rivals also incorporates epistolary elements including text messages, blog and message board posts and transcripts of radio interviews. As the drama of the season propels the plot forward, Greenwald explores the racial, gender and socioeconomic divides in Walthorne in ways that feel wholly organic to the story. He digs deeply and critically into the no-holds-barred, win-at-all-costs environments experienced by many middle and high school athletes.
Rivals features plenty of thrilling basketball and all the turmoil of a fierce rivalry, but what lingers is its indictment of a harmful culture created by adults—parents, coaches and school administrators—that shapes youth sports and, ultimately, young people themselves.