For Ages
8 to 12

Fans of John Feinstein and Matt de la Peña will love Toby Wheeler's dreams of being a basketball star that Phil Jackson says is "a truly great basketball story."

And don't miss Thatcher Heldring's newest novel, The Football Girl--about a girl who follows her passion for the game and tries out for the football team!

When Toby Wheeler has a chance to join the junior high basketball team, he’s eager to prove he can keep up with his best friend, JJ. But practice doesn’t go quite as Toby has planned, and when the coach announces the lineup, Toby’s hopes of playing ball with JJ are history: he’s an eighth-grade benchwarmer!

"A truly great basketball story. Every hoops fan will love this book.”—Phil Jackson, former head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers and member of the NBA Hall of Fame

"This novel will appeal to readers who are looking for something one step beyond Matt Christopher's books."—SLJ

"This engaging sports story gains depth from subplots involving Toby's tricky relationships with his former best friend and with the coach's daughter."–The Horn Book

"Looking for something to do during halftime of the March Madness basketball games? Read this book.”-The Washington Post

"With so much written about the friction between girl friends, it's good to have a book that acknowledges that left-out feeling happens to boys, too."–Booklist

An Excerpt fromToby Wheeler: Eighth Grade Benchwarmer

For as long as I’d been playing basketball, all I’d ever wanted to be was a gym rat. I was just happy playing the game. All the other stuff--coaches, practices, and drills--got in the way. Take my best friend, JJ. When varsity basketball practices started Monday, his sorry butt would be stuck in the school gym five days a week until January, while I was living free, playing pickup ball at our local rec center. Sure, there were those nights when JJ would bring down the house with a game winner and I would get just a little jealous because I wasn’t down there on the court with him. But that was how it had always been, and as far as I knew, that was how it would always be. I was the gym rat and he was the star.
How that all changed started around Halloween--which had a lot do with it, too. We were playing pickup ball with the gym rats. It was five on five and as always, we were playing to eleven, win by two, which meant the game continued until one team scored two straight baskets. If the teams traded baskets, like we had been doing for twenty minutes, there was no telling how long it would go on.
At the moment, I had two things on my mind. Trick-or-treating. And of course beating Vinny Pesto. Vinny was first. He was the captain of the basketball team at Hamilton Middle School--our school’s archrival. Vinny and I had been going at it since the sixth grade. He never let me forget that Hamilton had won the league championship the year before. And I never let him forget that he was a cherry-picking ball-hog chump who wore his team jersey to open gym--major loser move.
I had just missed a jump shot and now Vinny was letting me hear about it, as usual. “That’s a nice two-handed jump shot, Wheeler,” he said. “They teach you that at Gym Rat Junior High?”
“That’s a nice costume, Pesto,” I shot back quickly. “I didn’t know they sold dog-butt masks.”
I used my jersey to wipe the sweat from my hands and smiled, thinking how Vinny was one of the best things and worst things about open gym. The worst because he always seemed to get me in the end. The best because without him, it wouldn’t be any fun.
JJ was taking it easy that day, holding back. Every once in a while we’d try to run some no-look pass we’d practiced on the hoop on our street, but usually that led to a turnover. Otherwise JJ was just having fun and laughing at the dumb stuff Vinny and I were saying to each other. JJ moved without the ball, played defense, and passed off instead of shooting. But anyone who had seen him play knew he could switch his game on like a light.
In the meantime, it was the Toby vs. Vinny show. Vinny hit an ugly runner off the glass to put his team back up by one. I hit an eight-footer from the baseline. He scooped in a shot on a drive after taking more steps than a walkathon. I let it go, since this was pickup ball, and answered with a little magic of my own--a slash and dish to Old Dude for a layup. Vinny came back with his go-to move-the jab-step, pull-back jumper--and nailed it.
“I think we can beat these guys,” I told JJ even though we were down by one and Vinny’s team had the ball. There was no answer so I added, “What do you think--JJ?”
But JJ was focused on the doorway, where two men were watching us play. That was unusual. We didn’t get many spectators at open gym. JJ’s dad was on the right in heavy boots and a thick work jacket. The other man was larger than him--thick in the middle with a neck like an ox. He was dressed in nice pants and a sport coat. He had a tie, too, and glasses. They had been talking and pointing for a minute or so when JJ’s dad whistled, gestured to the other man, and mouthed to JJ, This is him. He mimed a jump shot and nodded. Translation: Shoot.
JJ closed his eyes, exhaled, and opened them again, ready to play. One thing about JJ’s dad--when he said shoot, you shot. First we had to get the rock back. I wondered who the other man was, but Vinny interrupted me before I could ask. “Ready to get burned like a piece of firewood, scrub?” he asked, bouncing me the ball so we could check it in.
I returned the ball. “Ready to get stuffed like a turkey, loser?”
Vinny passed, then got the ball back. He dribbled in place. It was a showdown. You are not winning this one, Pesto. I went into lockdown mode, keeping him between me and the basket, ready to pounce the second he twitched. “Stay with me, gym rat,” he said. My eyes never left his. I knew his tics like the back of my hand. A quick breath meant he was going to drive. A curl of the lip meant he was going to shoot. Gimme what you got, hotshot. All of a sudden, the pace of his dribble quickened. He went from his left to his right hand and back to his left--ba-dum, ba-dum, ba-dum. On the last ba-dum, he inhaled and cut inside. I tried to stay with him, but crossed my own feet and stumbled. Vinny laughed all the way to the hoop, but shut his mouth when he got there. Like a lightning bolt, JJ had flashed across from the weak side as Vinny rose for the layup and snatched the ball cleanly away--almost in midair.

Under the Cover