This morning my wife and I had to put down Sophie, our 14-year-old Golden Retriever.

If you’ve never heard the term “put down” as it relates to family pets, it means to euthanize, which is a clinical way of saying to kill painlessly in order to prevent or relieve suffering.

It is the ultimate act of compassion — to see another living being through the process of gently exiting this world.

Sophie had been on the decline for the past few months. This morning it was clear her time had come. Our amazing veterinarian Dr. Stern was there to answer our questions and administer the drugs that propelled Sophie onto her next journey.

By now, you’re probably wondering what all of this has to do with Young Adult literature and basketball. Good question. I’ll do my best to explain.

With respect to YA literature, I don’t know that I’ve ever read a book in the genre that didn’t contain at least one compelling act of selfless compassion, where the protagonist — or even the antagonist — put the welfare of another before his or her own.

Those heart-wrenching moments are what elevate human beings and give our lives a sense of fulfillment.

Consider this: When a young reader witnesses a character leading by example in such a remarkable way, the reader gets a sense of how one might live one’s own life with a greater sense of purpose. That is the power of a good work of fiction.

And then there’s basketball.

If you’ve read my previous posts here or viewed my video blogs, you already know that I’m fortunate enough to have a half-court basketball setup in the backyard of our home — a birthday gift from my awesome wife a couple of years ago.

Whenever I would hit the wall as I was crafting the first draft of “This Was Never About Basketball,” I would go outside and shoot free throws. The rhythm of the knee-elbow-wrist process eventually led to a renewed flow of words.

That’s where Sophie comes in.

For reasons known only to Sophie herself, she was obsessed with playing defense — or at least her own version of it — whenever she was hanging around the backyard and I stepped outside with a basketball.

She hawked me whenever I tried to take her baseline. She went after the rebound of every shot I missed. Once she secured the ball, she would try to puncture it with her teeth, which was not possible, given the size of the ball relative to her snout.

It was really the only time she ever showed her teeth. That’s just the way it was for an animal whose sole purpose in life was to offer abundant love in its purest form — unconditional.

We still have another dog, Beau, a 12-year-old Belgian Tervuren. While Sophie was innately friendly, trustworthy and kind, Beau is vigilant, stubborn and protective.

He’s a herder by nature, so it’s all about offense with him. Consequently, his game is one dimensional. He has little interest in doing the dirty work on D. All he wants to do is take the rock to the rack.

By contrast, Sophie was a lockdown defender. Think Detroit Pistons bad boy Dennis Rodman with better hair, or Chicago Bulls small forward Scottie Pippen with a lesser vertical.

That was Sophie.


Motor always running.

Defend to the end — and that’s exactly what she did.

RIP, sweet girl.

I’d first like to say that I’m overwhelmed by the positive response I’ve received about my novel’s theme and message from readers around the country. Your words of kindness are truly humbling.

I’m going to continue with this blog’s thread by answering another question from a reader. Veronica S. from Key Biscayne, Florida, is wondering about the book title. Here’s her email:

“Dear Mr. Leener: (I always prefer when young folks call me Craig, by the way, but I think Veronica was just being polite.) I was wondering about the title of your book. Even though it says the book isn’t about basketball, there’s quite a bit of basketball being played in it. I’m okay with that because I like basketball a lot, and I play on my team at school. I was just wondering why the title and the book’s contents seem to be at odds each other. I asked my older brother, Ernesto, but he said in a really annoying way, ‘How the heck should I know? Why don’t you ask the dude who wrote it?’ So I’m hoping you can explain it to me. Signed, Veronica.”

Well, Veronica, the sport of basketball drives the story along, but the book’s theme is that of redemption.

The word redemption is defined as “the act of making amends or atoning for a fault or mistake.”

In this case, the book’s lead character, Zeke, makes a really big blunder during the most important basketball game of his life, and that sets a whole bunch of bad stuff into motion. When Zeke eventually finds out what he has caused, he sincerely tries to make it right, mostly for the good of others.

That’s true redemption.

Toward the end of the book, an authority figure in the story teaches Zeke a vital life lesson. That person explains to Zeke that while the sport of basketball played a prominent role in recent difficult circumstances, Zeke’s inability to control his temper was the root cause of his life unraveling so spectacularly.

The story serves as a reminder that human beings are not perfect. We sometimes make mistakes that carry consequences. It’s always a good idea to avoid screwing up, but when we do, it’s equally important to recognize it and try to make it right, not only for our own sake, but for the good of those around us.

If Zeke would have failed to recognize his blunder, the world would have suffered greatly — and my novel would have been a lot shorter and not nearly as suspenseful and action-packed. Phew, that was a close call.

Veronica, thank you for taking the time to put pen to paper. It was an excellent question, and I hope I was able to clear up any confusion that you and especially Ernesto were having about the book’s title.

I’ll be on the bench until the next question arrives in the mailbox.

Hello, dear reader. Welcome to my first-ever blog post on this newly minted website.

These words were fueled by a hot cup of coffee and the sound of our two aging but attentive dogs, Sophie and Beau, barking at goodness-knows-what in the backyard.

My goal in these posts will be threefold: 1) to provide thought-provoking insight into the creative writing process of Young Adult fiction, 2) to explore basketball’s profound impact on the world and the folks who populate it, and 3) to respond to your questions and comments about “This Was Never About Basketball” in a meaningful (and hopefully entertaining) way.

I’m going to kick off this post with a question I received from Steven L., a young reader and basketball enthusiast from Fairfield, Ohio. In his email, Steven inquires about a sentence in the “About the Author” section at the back of the book.

It was encouraging to receive Steven’s note so close to the novel’s publication date because it alludes to the fact that Steven read everything else in the book to get to that point, which is every writer’s dream. So, Steven, assuming that actually happened, thanks, pal!

Anyway, Steven writes: “The About the Author section says you purport to be an 87% free-throw shooter on your backyard home court, but it also says the claim has never been independently verified. C’mon, that’s a way better percentage than most everyone in the NBA, so it’s more than a little suspicious that you’ve been unable to have anyone independently verify it. What gives?”

That’s a good question, Steven. I’ll do my best to answer it.

First of all, I’m fortunate to have a basketball court in the backyard. It’s actually a half-court, meaning there’s only one backboard instead of the customary two you’d find on a regulation court. It’s about half the size of a normal half-court, but the backboard has official NBA dimensions — it is 6 feet wide and 3.5 feet high. The best part of all is that my wife arranged to have it built as a birthday present a couple of years ago, and that makes me pretty lucky.

So, here’s the deal. It took me about seven months to write the first draft of the novel. Most of my free-throw attempts during that time happened when I was experiencing something known in writing circles as writer’s block. Writer’s block, otherwise known as “Blank Screen Syndrome,” is a temporary condition whereby a writer is unable to think of what to write.

Whenever it set in as I was hammering away at the keyboard, I would head for the friendly confines of the backyard for endless attempts from the charity stripe.

Since writing a novel is mostly a solitary exercise, it meant, by extension, that free-throw shooting would be as well. Tossing up a continuous stream of shots 15 feet from the rack helped to clear my head — think lots and lots of knee, elbow, wrist, repeat. The unexpected side-benefit was an increased skill level from the line.

Since I’m a numbers person in addition to being a word person, I found myself loosely keeping track of the make-to-miss ratio in my mind. So, Steven, I’m pretty sure my success rate is right around 87%, but with no one around to confirm it, I was asking my collective readership to embrace it and take it on faith.

Come to think of it, that’s exactly what I’ve asked readers to do with the storyline of “This Was Never About Basketball” — embrace Zeke’s journey into the unknown and take his basketball sojourn on faith.

Steven, thanks for taking the time to write. I really appreciate it.

Next question, please.