When we watch superstars like LeBron James or Stephen Curry on TV, all we see are electrifying slam dunks and crazy three pointers. But before they win championships and become sports legends, they had to work hard away from the spotlight. We normally miss all the struggles those pros overcame to be the people they are today, but they are the focus of the new book Rising Above.
Written by Gregory Zuckerman with some help from his sons (and co-authors) Gabriel and Elijah, Rising Above shares the inspirational and moving stories behind some of our biggest sports stars. Gregory, Gabriel, and Eli spoke with SI Kids about the book and what surprised them as they wrote it.
How did you guys get the idea to write this book?
Gregory: We each had different reasons to start the whole project and came at it in different ways. I was looking for and believed there would be some moving stories that would inspire and entertain young people. I’ve read over the years about the life stories of different athletes, but I hadn’t seen it all put together in one book. I thought if we put it together it would really make for an inspiring [story] and may be a way to motivate kids and entertain them.
Gabriel: I love books and reading, and so when I heard there is a potential to write a book I was automatically on board. My real motivation was that I always wanted to be a part of writing a book. It’s been my dream. That was really my motivation.
Elijah: I really always wanted to get autographs and meet athletes, and I love sports. That was my goal. But then when I came to my dad with the idea of the book, we all realized how motivational and how many great lessons there are in the book and how it was going to be amazing.
If you all helped write the book, what was everyone’s role?
Gregory: The boys, their jobs were to find the right athletes with amazing stories. They dug and dug and dug until they found really remarkable stories in different sports. They found the right players with touching and moving stories. Not every story works for this kind of book. It’s really got to be someone that has overcome something really challenging, a real big obstacle in their youth. So that was their job. They also went on the interviews and helped interview each of the players and we all did the interviews together and they edited my writing. I write for the Wall Street Journal and I’m a professional, so they did write but I rewrote their work and they looked over my stuff. It was mostly me, but it was a joint effort in terms of the writing. But in terms of the research, they played a huge role.
Were there any athletes that you wanted to include but couldn’t?
Gregory: There were some that you could see as great stories in their youth, like Marshawn Lynch, but they’re a little more controversial. We didn’t want anybody too controversial. Some people would say he’s a great guy, some people didn’t like how he acted in the Super Bowl ignoring the questions from reporters. There were a few people that had really good stories in their youth, but sometimes they slipped up later in life, so that didn’t quite work out. There weren’t so many that didn’t fit perfectly. We also had an international soccer player, at one point, and he was great and a great player and a remarkable story. But a little bit was a little too similar to Dwayne Wade, so we ended up taking him out. That’s where we went from 12 to 11, actually.
Was there any athlete you felt like you could relate to?
Gabriel: So, Serge Ibaka… Although his story was pretty crazy, how he survived in the wartime and extreme poverty, I still sort of relate to him. When you start talking about how his treasured possessions were a couple shoes, they’re dilapidated, not even whole shoes, I kind of related. I don’t have [a ton of] nice stuff I like. I have a couple things that I like, and I relate to him. He doesn’t value the expensive things. He has little things that mean a lot to him and I kind of relate to that.
Elijah: Not especially in the book, but the whole idea of the book, I really liked that. And I could relate to the theme of the book and I brought that to my life, to my personal life. You read these stories and you think how they have it so good but then you have to think and see how you have it, and how these players [have it.] If you have a difference or anything affecting you, these players show how nothing is going to stop that and set your mind on it and try as hard as you can and you could do it.
Were there any athletes that inspired you in a special way?
Gregory: Althea Gibson is no longer alive and she dealt with racism and other kinds of challenges, poverty, and it wasn’t something that we’ve gone through. We haven’t experienced poverty or racism, and yet I think we all took a lesson from her in how she persevered. She wouldn’t give up until she was champion. And she remade herself. She used to be someone who — we didn’t know this part of her story. We had heard about racism, but we didn’t realize she was so bad in school and she hated school and she kept getting punished for skipping school and running away. And yet by the end of her life, or the end of her youth even, she learned to love school and value it.
Also, Serge Ibaka, for example, by the end of the interview he was putting his arm around Gabriel and Eli and giving them life lessons and sharing experiences and opening up about his mother passing away, about his father being a political prisoner, about playing basketball with shoes that had no soles. He was sharing some pain, real pain from his childhood, and again it took a lot of the stars a little while to open up. But eventually, they were really eager to share lessons. This was one of the only times they can speak to young people and share some of these lessons.
What lessons did you learn when writing this book and what did you want to teach others?
Gabriel: I think the main lesson is perseverance and overcoming challenges. Looking at all these athletes, looking at where they are now, and where they were before, it’s remarkable. It shows that you can do anything. Look at these guys who overcame really tough stuff and they’ve managed to become successful in whatever they chose. That was some of the advice that Serge Ibaka gave us. Whatever you choose to do, try your hardest and try to overcome.
Gregory: One of the lessons I learned is that stars are a lot like us in that they have differences and challenges that you wouldn’t necessarily expect. So, you take someone like Shane Battier, I thought Shane Battier was a guy who had basically met success his whole life. I was a little bit weary of speaking with him. Someone had recommended I speak with him, but I was a little bit concerned because I thought if you look back at his career he always had success everywhere. But then when you start talking to him, he is just like everybody else and he had pain and he feels he’s different. One of the things we were trying to emphasize in the book is, I don’t care who you are, you often feel like you’re different. We all have differences and we all feel different at times. Some people have more challenges than others, obviously, physical differences. But there are other kinds of differences, too, and Shane Battier was someone we never expected would have to overcome the kind of challenges and the kind of pain while growing up. But he did. Coming from mixed race parents and being in those two communities and never really fitting in, just like a lot of kids today.
We were just really very surprised by how moving and touching and remarkable some of these stories were. Again, we were a little bit concerned at the beginning of the project that these stories would be good but not great. We were really overwhelmed by how moving they were. We even got emotional at times. We hope that there are some lessons here that young people can learn. Again, there aren’t many times where these stars have an opportunity to speak directly about difficulties in their lives to young people, to give lessons to young people and to inspire young people. They see the book and we see the book as a way to entertain but also to motivate and inspire young people, so we’re hoping young people see that as well.
Rising Above is available in bookstores now. For more about the book, read a chapter about Golden State Warriors superstar Steph Curry!
Photos: Josh Kuchinsky (author), Philomel/Penguin Young Readers (cover), Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images (Ibaka), ChinaFotoPress/ChinaFotoPress via Getty Images (Battier)