Interview With Joseph Lacy, Author of "Mountain Reign"

Mountain Reign front cover

As a nice tie-in to Roy Williams' comments in my previous post, I present here an interview with Joseph Lacy.

Joseph Lacy is a first-time author of a new book about basketball called Mountain Reign,which he describes as "...a hardscrabble coming-of-age tale about coal country teens struggling to make it to the state basketball finals in Rupp-era Lexington.  It has sort of a 'Hoosiers meets October Sky' feel."

The interview with Joe about Mountain Reign follows the jump.

Mandatory full disclosure:  I have been sent a free copy of Joe's novel, and no other financial or in-kind consideration whatsoever.  This interview was my promise to him before he offered to provide a copy, and I have no financial interest in the novel, either directly or indirectly except as disclosed herein.  The purpose of this interview is to make our readers familiar with a new novel about a subject that may interest them.


Tru:  How many books have you written?  

Mountain Reign is my first novel, and you always hope that people don’t say the new baby’s ears are too big.  Previously, I wrote a biography of Ohio native Jim Foulkes, MD.  I joined Jim on his mission hospital rounds in the bush country of Mukinge, Zambia (south central Africa) and the seeds of To Africa with Love:  A Bush Doc’s Story were planted then.   I also compiled a series of inspirational gift books in a "Prescription" series, including Prescription for Life.  I did a satisfying cover story for Iron Master on the life story of my uncle, Ronald Coleman Lacy.  Ron was the greatest all-around athlete I’ve ever seen.  I’ve also written quite a bit in the medical field, and am currently working on two medical thrillers, Shadow’s Call and Pearl Dive.  

Tru:  What was the inspiration behind Mountain Reign?

For my money, Hoosiers is the best sports movie ever.  So why fictionalize Kentucky basketball when we have dozens of Hoosiers-like tales?  Instead of telling one story, I took slivers of many and coupled it with the spirit of Kentucky basketball and came up with Mountain Reign.

I grew up with basketballs bouncing around my ears (Lexington-born, UK alumnus), and gained great inspiration from watching a lot of fabulous players, notably college basketball players.  Patrick Patterson and Jeff Sheppard come to mind, but also classic ones, such as Dan Issel, Jamal Mashburn, Pete Maravich, Roger Harden, Tony Delk, Jack Givens, and Rex Chapman.  Basketball is a birthright in Kentucky.  

As well, I was raised by wonderful Appalachian grandparents and my Hazard-born Uncle Ron.  Their profound love and example influence me to this day, and a lot of the hardiness is found in the characters of Mountain Reign.  

Appalachia’s story is one of a hardscrabble life and the quality of that life depended upon a man or woman’s independence and self-sufficiency.  I set the book in 1950.  At that time, the severe terrain and isolation of this population left many of these mountain communities unlike any found elsewhere in the world.  

Much of Appalachian writing diverges into stereotype or romantic legend.  I wanted neither.  I wrote about a sturdy people who happened to be Appalachian.  The creative center of Mountain Reign is people. As well, the rich landscape of the Appalachian Mountains presents as a character in itself.  Add a little basketball to the mix, then put the reader behind the eyes of teenagers (who can get away with speaking their minds more so than what the domesticated tongues of adults might speak), and you some interesting stuff.  

Tru:  Were any of your characters inspired by UK players, past or present?  If so which characters and which players?

High school players, of course, will not have the polish college players have.  In fact, I did not choose one particular player to model my characters after, but took facets from many.  And quite a few of those facets came from lesser-sung players.  

When Hazelwood’s pint-sized point guard (Stub) barrels down court dribbling the ball like he’s squashing bugs, readers will see a little guy with a big desire to win.  UK fans will hopefully see a composite—Dicky Beal, Anthony Epps, or even Ron Lacy, a UK football player (running back under Bear Bryant, an Army All-Star basketball player, and former Mr. America).  These guys had motors that didn’t quit.  If John Wall had played at Kentucky before I’d finished Mountain Reign, there would probably be a sliver of him in there, too.  With Wall, you're tempted to use Ali’s famous line:  "Keep the camera moving, ‘cause I'm kinda fast."

Hazelwood plays scrappy, in-your-face defense.  I hope readers see slivers of Anthony Epps, Jay Shidler, Cliff Hawkins, Saul Smith, Travis Ford, and Sean Woods. 

In Mountain Reign, even some of the opponents have a UK essence.  For example, a city player who "looks like he has cantaloupe halves strapped where his calves should have been" muscles his way in the paint with his NFL-style frame (think James Lee) to torment foes with his silky shots (insert Jack Givens or Louie Dampier).  

When other characters stroke polished textbook shots, I hope the readers see in their mind’s eye images of Kevin Grevey, Jodie Meeks, and Troy McKinley.  When the hometown player sets a rock-solid box out, here’s hoping visions of Charles Hurt, Dan Issel, or Patrick Patterson leap to their minds.   A dribbler blurs through the defense like gale through a corn field, and I hope they ask—was that Roger Harden or Rajon Rondo?  Derek Anderson or Wayne Turner?  Larry Conley or Ralph Beard?

But most importantly, I hope the reader sees in Mountain Reign the concept of team.  Slade (the coach) knows he has a team, and thinks:  His boys were playmakers…all elbows and scabbed knees on defense. But not one was authentic hotshot material. Slade prayed that when his opponent looked down his bench, they would see a ratty string of boys they would underestimate.

Role players often are the crucial cement that molds really good teams.  Mountain Reign is full of players who exude hustle, who are comfortable in their own skin and use solid fundamentals—who better to embody the team concept than Jeff Brassow, Chuck Hayes, Ronnie Lyons, John Pelphrey, or Richie Farmer.  Those guys were as comfortable scraping their chins against the floor chasing loose balls as shooting baskets in warm-ups.  The same can be said for other mountain floor burns—Wah Wah Jones, Reggie Hanson, Joe Stepp, Johnny Cox, and Don Mills.  

While every UK era has its many stars to draw from, one thing doesn’t change from year to year—Kentucky strives for team.  I love what former UNC coach Frank McGuire said:  "Kentucky has found the secret of basketball—five guys playing together." That’s what Mountain Reign is all about.  

In my book, one of the guys shares his money with his destitute teammates.  Not to stretch this analogy too far, but when Jamal Mashburn donated $500,000 from his salary before playing one NBA game, that kind of generosity gets your attention.  

Also, you have to remember, up to only a few years ago, the closest modern touchstone to boys’ basketball in the 50s was girls’ basketball.  I made sure to attend a high school girls’ game at a small school (Class A) to get a little feel for finesse and teamwork.  

Tru:  Is this the first book you have written with a basketball theme?  

Mountain Reign is my first book with a basketball theme.  

Tru:  Why did you pick the mountains of Eastern Kentucky during the Adolph Rupp era as the setting?

The Appalachian players were the rootstock of Kentucky basketball during this era.  And this, at a time when UK was amassing a perennial basketball dynasty, with All-Americans coming off the bench.  Rupp would often quote the Bible:  "I look unto the hills, whence comes my help." 

Also, in 1950 television had yet to homogenize the culture.  The time period and geography made for an amazing abundance of rich-textured themes.  Living off the land.  The blessing/curse of coal veining through the mountains.  Segregation.  Elizabethan dialect that is a somewhat close to what Shakespeare or Chaucer spoke.  

Tru:  Which character, if any, will Kentucky fans find most familiar?

Hopefully, they will see glimpses of many players, not just one.  What basketball lovers will find familiar is that the boys between these pages love basketball as much as they do.  This beautiful game was made to be played well, and to be played well it must be played fast, and be played as a team.  

Really, none of the hometown team in Mountain Reign is good enough to play at UK.  But what they're really good at is being a team.  As an aside, there’s a scene where the coach drives the winding roads to meet an old retired coach from Clay County, Bippy Skyland, for advice.  He’s not exactly a Bobby Keith, but they would have liked each other.  

Tru:  What, if anything, was the most difficult thing about writing Mountain Reign?

On a writerly level, you always worry about the balance of the elements (description, narrative summary, dialogue) used in storytelling.  You want your history and facts to be right, but you don’t want to use a ton of research, because it comes off as a data dump and/or authorial boasting, which pulls a reader out of the story.  That’s one reason why I couldn't mention all forty-nine of Kentucky’s Appalachian counties (nor many of their great players) between the pages of the book by name—but their spirit is there.

Today, of course, kids of all stripes play ball together.  But at that time, you had two Kentucky high school leagues, one white, one black (KHSAA and KHSAL).  Then, blacks and whites did not officially play together.  Fiction allows you to have a little fun—so I had a black team scrimmage the hometown white team in preparation for a tournament.  I didn’t want to rabbit-trail too much from the dominant theme of the book, but I thought this was an important scene (pre-civil rights America).  To get a feel for this, I spoke with Henry Lee Logan, the first African-American to play basketball at a predominantly white institution (Western Carolina University) in the southeastern US.  As well, I had a friend (an African-American MD who played college ball in the south) read the excerpt for suggestions.  

Additionally, one of my main characters is a Melungeon, someone not quite black, someone not quite white.  (Try googling "Melungeon" for an interesting read).  I interviewed a nurse I work with who is part-Melungeon.  Suffice it to say, the self-reliant Melungeon’s skin is not only dark, it’s pretty thick, too.  Toughness comes in all shades of skin color.

What do I want people to get out of the book?  The enjoyment of a satisfying read and an appreciation for that which is the creative center of Mountain Reign—the Appalachian people.

You can read Mountain Reign reviews or pick up a copy at Amazon.com or Abebooks.com.  Lacy is having a book signing at December 19th, (Saturday) from 2-4 pm at Borders Books, Crestview Hills Town Center, Crestview Hills, Kentucky.

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