I’m not exactly sure when, but it was sometime during the production of the 2015 SCV High School Football Preview that a white-haired figured glided into The Signal’s newsroom, red pen in hand.
The man wasn’t a stranger to the building, just, at the time, to me.
Craig Leener worked as a full-time Signal sportswriter in 2005 and 2006, building lasting relationships with coaches across the Santa Clarita Valley.
He has since continued to help out as a freelance writer and editor, contributing in a large way to the grammatical accuracy of our annual football preview.
He recently released a young adult basketball novel entitled “This Was Never About Basketball,” and I had the chance to ask him a few questions about the book and his writing process:
Q: What impact, if any, did your time working as a staff writer for The Signal have on writing the book?
A: First, I had an opportunity to be around skilled writers who really cared about filing the best, most insightful story possible. Then there were all the chances I had to see so many human dramas play out on the turf or on the court. There was always so much on the line at the high school and even community college level — and if you looked closely enough, you could always find a story within the story.
Q: How long did it take to write?
A: It took a little over seven months to complete the first draft.
Q: If you had to boil the book’s plot down to two sentences, how would you do it?
A: How about I do it in three really long ones:
Seventeen-year-old high school basketball star Ezekiel “Zeke” Archer has a full-ride scholarship to a Midwestern basketball powerhouse in his back pocket and a bright future, but when his temper gets the better of him in the city championship, he is expelled from school, has to forfeit his scholarship and is left to ponder his once-hopeful future while finishing his final high school days in continuation school.
That’s where Zeke discovers, with the help of a young autistic classmate, that the mysterious 7th Dimension, which brought basketball to Earth more than a century ago, has decided to take the game away for good — all because of the ugly event Zeke set into motion in his final game.
As Zeke embarks on the ultimate cross-country road trip to save basketball, he must confront his unsettled past — including a father he’s not heard from in years and a brother fighting in a war half a world away — in order to set his life on the right path and rescue the game he loves.
Q: What was the most frustrating part of the writing process?
A: All of the stuff that happened after I finished the first draft. After I lined up editorial resources, there was a developmental edit, a line edit, a copyedit, then interior and exterior design, and that was followed by several rounds of proofreading. I guess the frustrating part was that none of it was ever happening as fast as I wanted it to.
Q: What was the most rewarding part?
A: Certainly, putting a period on the final sentence of the final chapter was a high point. I remember seeing the first draft of the cover design and thinking, ‘Wow, this book thing is really happening.’ I still get emotional when I read certain passages that resonate deeply, and it’s tough to put a price tag on that.
Q: When did the thought of writing a novel first cross your mind?
A: I think all people who write think that they have a book in them. I’ve wanted to do it for a long time. I finally got to a place in my life where I felt like I had an important story to tell, and it helped to have a great support system in my wife, my son and fellow writers who were there to offer encouragement and the right amount of constructive criticism.
Q: What’s your background in basketball?
A: My first experience in organized ball was at the YMCA when I was 9 years old. I played for three years at Van Nuys High and made varsity in my senior year.
Q: Which of your characters do you most identify with?
A: I had to write the book through the mind of a 17-year-old jock. The story is told through the voice of star point guard Zeke Archer. I was neither a point guard nor a star when I played in high school, but I can relate to Zeke’s struggle to make things right in the face of tough odds.
Q: What kind of research went into the book?
A: The middle part of the story takes place on the interstate highway system that connects Los Angeles to Lawrence, Kansas. I had made that drive a couple of times, so I was familiar with it, but I had to go back and study it more carefully, in the interest of accuracy. I also did a deep dive into the history of basketball, all the way back to Dr. James Naismith’s invention of the game in 1891. I even made a couple of trips to Allen Fieldhouse on the campus of the University of Kansas, where there’s a basketball museum that is second to none.
Q: If given 100 free throw attempts, you make how many?
A: I’d say 87. I’m an 87-percent free throw shooter on my backyard home court. It’s never been independently verified, but it’s a true fact.