Review: Rez Ball

Book cover features a young man in a basketball tank holding a basketball under one arm.

Rez Ball by Byron Graves

Publisher’s Summary: These days, Tre Brun is happiest when he is playing basketball on the Red Lake Reservation high school team—even though he can’t help but be constantly gut-punched with memories of his big brother, Jaxon, who died in an accident.

When Jaxon’s former teammates on the varsity team offer to take Tre under their wing, he sees this as his shot to represent his Ojibwe rez all the way to their first state championship. This is the first step toward his dream of playing in the NBA, no matter how much the odds are stacked against him.

But stepping into his brother’s shoes as a star player means that Tre can’t mess up. Not on the court, not at school, and not with his new friend, gamer Khiana, who he is definitely not falling in love with.

After decades of rez teams almost making it, Tre needs to take his team to state. Because if he can live up to Jaxon’s dreams, their story isn’t over yet.

My Thoughts: Forgive me for a second, but I need to gush. I don’t often gush, but I really did love this book and Tre’s story. From the very beginning Byron Graves had me on the edge of my seat. We are dropped right into the final moments of a regional playoff game that means a lot to Tre, his family, and his community. The loss they’ve had makes them want the victory even more than usual. Byron expertly weaves that tension throughout Tre’s year to come and made it so putting down the book was almost impossible.

The structure of the story is that Tre is trying to make the varsity team with the ultimate goal being an NBA spot and one of his friends is making a documentary along the way. It was a clever bit of storytelling because Tre does several interviews for this film and we get to hear his answers to questions that might not be asked in typical daily conversations. The documentary frames the story well.

Aside from the way the story is structured, the setting and community is incredibly vivid. The rez, the high school, and the basketball courts are painted clearly and it feels like I stepped through into this space and time to see and hear the “beautiful chaos” of the game and can appreciate the relationships of everyone involved. This book is going to speak loudly and clearly to those folks who’ve played and/or watched rez ball.

Though Byron Graves was definitely writing to and for Native readers, this story can also speak to others because there are universal themes of pain, loss, community, love, survival, and people striving to thrive. There are difficult situations and many moments of intense pressure on and off the court. I appreciated that there are wins and losses and it’s hard to guess which one is coming. Above all, it all felt real. Life isn’t often as tidy as a Disney or Hallmark movie. Tre is making some excellent choices like his summer training plan and he’s also managing to make some poor choices that create dumpster fires.

He’s surrounded by friends, including one he’d like to have as more than a friend, and family who help him navigate life and bring love, laughter, and sometimes hard truths. HIs parents are still grieving the death of his older brother so it’s a struggle for all concerned, but they are steady. They don’t always see through to his pain, but they give him space and support when they do see past his armor.

Recommendation: Get this as soon as you can. Pre-order. Recommend it to your local library. Do all the things that will get it into your hands and into lots of other hands too. It’s a page turner with a lot of excitement and heart. I will be recommending this one to pretty much anyone. I watched basketball frequently with my father when I was a child, but am not interested enough to watch it on my own as an adult. Nevertheless, I cared about every single game in these pages. Graves pulled me in there and had me in the stands jumping and cheering with the Red Lake Warriors fans.


Rez Ball Spotify Playlist

Pages: 368
Review copy: Digital copy via Edelweiss
Availability: On sale September 12, 2023