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A Family Writes About Inspiring Sports Heroes

Rising Above: How 11 Athletes Overcame Challenges in Their Youth to Become Stars

Penguin, May 2016, $12.24/Hardcover


West Orange—Fourteen-year-old Elijah Zuckerman of West Orange had a brainstorm.

He had been reading and hearing incredible stories involving famous athletes who had overcome adversity earlier in their lives. Fascinated, he began to research the topic. The more he looked, the more he found. With so much material, why not turn it into a book?

Soon his brother, 17-year-old Gabriel, an avid reader who had always dreamt of writing a book, jumped aboard and the brothers began vetting player biographies for potential inclusion. Their father, Gregory Zuckerman, a financial writer for the Wall Street Journal who has written two bestsellers and regularly appears on shows such as CNBC and Fox Business, joined the venture. Thus began their 18-month project that culminated in the May, 2016 publishing of Rising Above by Penguin Random House.

The Zuckerman family is very active in their community, both in their shul, AABJ&D, and at Kushner, where both boys attend school and will be starting on their respective soccer teams in the fall. Greg noted that on some levels, Rising Above is very similar to the story of the Jewish people. These unlikely stars overcame serious obstacles to achieve success, much as we, the Jewish people, are about “surviving against all odds and turning our differences and disadvantages into huge advantages.”

The book delves into the inspirational lives of 11 athletes, including current NBA stars Stephen Curry and Lebron James, one-armed pitcher Jim Abbott and tennis legend Althea Gibson. Although the book jacket says it is meant for those aged 8 to 12, Greg believes that the level of writing is not much different from his financial works and that the book is appropriate for anyone aged 8 and above.

Initially, there were far more than 11 stories. Greg explained that in the winnowing process, the goal was to include athletes who each had their own unique set of challenges. Racism, poverty, physical and sexual abuse, physical deformities and mental challenges all came into play.

Choosing the stories to incorporate was the easy part. Pinning down the players was infinitely more difficult. As Greg explained, they would reach out “to agents, managers, team representatives and others to explain the goals of our book and how the stars could contribute.” Some players were eager to share their stories in the hope they would inspire young people, while for others it literally took months until they were comfortable enough to delve into a past that was undoubtedly painful.

For five of the interviews, it was a Zuckerman family effort, as Greg’s sons joined him in the process. For the remainder, Greg went at it alone. In the case of Golden State Warriors basketball star Curry, unanimously voted the NBA’s 2016 MVP, it was a full 10 months until an interview could finally be arranged. It took place in the locker room at Madison Square Garden following a Knicks game. Greg related that in the 10-minute conversation they had, Curry was patient and eager to talk, and “like most of the other stars, Steph seemed eager to share life lessons with young people.”

Greg noted that in some cases, having his sons with him was clearly a plus. Serge Ibaka, a Congolese-Spanish basketball star on the Oklahoma City Thunder, gave them a full two hours of his time, putting his arms around Greg’s sons as he spoke. R.A. Dickey, knuckleball pitcher for the Toronto Blue Jays, spent nearly two hours in the dugout with the Zuckermans prior to a game against the Yankees, discussing the multiple obstacles he was able to surmount.

What makes the book unique is the sheer range of challenges faced by these players. When Greg and his sons were asked to share their most inspiring story, each chose a different player. For Elijah, it was NHL coach Jacques Demers, the only coach in the league’s history to win the coach of the year award for two consecutive years. Demers underwent physical abuse as a child, which rendered him unable to focus in school. As a result, he didn’t know how to read through much of his life, but, through clever deception, was able to hide it from others, including his own family, until much later.

Gabriel was most inspired by the story of American soccer player and USA goalkeeper Tim Howard, who suffered from both OCD and Tourette Syndrome. Gabriel admired the fact that Howard was able to turn a negative into a positive by using the hyper-focus symptoms of his illnesses to become extremely focused and highly effective in his job as goalkeeper.

Greg found the previously mentioned R.A. Dickey to be most inspiring. He admired how Dickey was able to overcome sexual abuse as a child and reach the point where he was about to sign a seven-figure contract as a pitcher, only to have it slip away because of the discovery of a missing ligament. Close to suicide, he got help and then learned to successfully throw his trademark knuckleball pitch. At the depths of despair, he was able to pick himself up and turn his life around.

The book can be found on Amazon at this link: http://tinyurl.com/jdwdlje, as well as at Barnes & Noble and other local book stores. In the fall, there will be book signings and readings at both yeshivot and other schools.

By Robert Isler

Robert Isler is a marketing researcher and writer who lives in Fair Lawn. He can be contacted at [email protected].

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