Love of KU basketball inspires ‘Airball’ book

It’s not hard to figure out where Lisa Harkrader got the inspiration for the main character in her book “Airball: My Life in Briefs,” a seventh-grade basketball fan who is better yelling on the sideline than he is on the court.

“I love basketball, but I can’t play basketball,” Harkrader says. “I still dribble off my foot.”

Lucky for Harkrader, she’s a writer and not a basketball player.

“Airball: My Life in Briefs,” the Tonganoxie resident’s 12th book and her first foray into fiction, feeds off her lifelong love of Kansas University basketball.

The book, designed for children in fourth through seventh grades, tells the story of seventh-grader Kirby Nickel, who goes out for the school basketball team solely to meet former KU basketball standout Brett “McNet” McGrew, who is returning to have his jersey retired at Allen Fieldhouse.

Kirby is convinced that McGrew is his father, and he’s out to prove it.

Novel beginnings

In Lisa Harkrader's latest book, Airball, a seventh-grader plots to meet a KU-turned-NBA basketball player who he believes is his father. The Tonganoxie author wrote the book under the pseudonym L.D. Harkrader.

The idea for the book came from a 1997 short story Harkrader had published in Cricket magazine.

“I liked it well enough I decided to make it a novel,” she says. “I didn’t want to leave the characters behind. I liked them.”

Harkrader grew up in Tonganoxie and considers KU basketball a religion, not a sport. She graduated from KU in 1988 — the year the Jayhawks won their most recent national championship — with a degree in fine arts.

Since then, she’s written primarily nonfiction books. Her credits include children’s books on such wide-ranging topics as endangered species, Reconstruction and Cuba. She also has ghost-written three books in the popular Animorphs science fiction/adventure series, and has had more than 200 short stories published in magazines.

She also is a substitute teacher in Tonganoxie.

Making the switch to fiction novel-writing was a challenge, Harkrader says.

“It’s different,” she says. “You can’t just go back to the source you got your information from and get more. There are a lot of revisions involved.”

Local ties

Book talk, signing

What: “Airball: My Life in Briefs,” by Lisa Harkrader

When: 3 p.m.-5 p.m. Friday

Where: Oread Books, Kansas Union

¢ A similar event is scheduled for 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. Dec. 22, also at Oread Books.

Harkrader says her publishing company, Roaring Book Press of New Milford, Conn., suggested she go by the pseudonym L.D. Harkrader for the novel to give the impression that a man might have written the book. But she says she could identify with the main character, partly because she’s a mother of two and currently has a son who’s 11 years old.

“Maybe I have a boy inside me,” she says. “Or part of me is still 12 years old.”

Harkrader used plenty of KU-related name references in the book. One of Kirby’s teammates is named Manning Reece, a reference to KU star and current coach Danny Manning. Several towns in the book are named after KU legends such as Lynette Woodard and Clyde Lovellette.

Stuckey, the main town in the book, is crafted after Tonganoxie, Harkrader says. The Double Dribble Cafe, the town hangout in the book, is designed after the Green Lantern Cafe in Tonganoxie, which Harkrader’s parents owned.

‘Larger than life’

Harkrader says she created McGrew, the basketball icon in the novel, to be a composite of several KU players.

“It’s kind of a couple of different basketball legends,” she says. “(McGrew) went to KU for seventh-grade basketball camp. That’s a Wayne Simien kind of thing he went to do. He went to KU basketball camp. They also talk about him being superstitious, and talk about players changing shoes for good luck, like Keith Langford did. And then there’s the whole legend around Danny Manning. I tried to create that whole larger-than-life image.”

Harkrader already has started work on her second fiction novel, about a boy who collects comic books. She has big hopes for her fiction career — and has similar big hopes for this year’s Jayhawk basketball team.

“I think they’re going to be better,” she says. “They’ll slide under the radar and be better than the analysts say.”