The coach-player relationship is, to oversimplify things, complex. At best, it’s the embodiment of tough love, emphasis on tough and love. It’s defined by tears and triumph. Frustration and trust. A coach wants something—needs something—from her player and often goes to extremes to get it. And the player should want to deliver, to submit to the coach’s will, to trust her judgment and perform.
We all know the labels affixed to this relationship: mentor, leader, idol, friend. A coach can be a surrogate parent, a surrogate priest. And that’s the crux of it—a player has to have a near-religious faith in her coach, a self-negating belief in her guidance, a fervor and a passion. It’s an extreme closeness with important boundaries.
Trust me on this: I have been in love with my coaches. I have been in awe of them. I’ve feared them. I’ve looked down on them. I’ve fallen into complicated and ultimately detrimental friendships. Lines have been crossed, spirits broken, confidence built, skills gained, trophies lifted.
Such a dynamic, with all its potential for abuse and misunderstanding, sits at the heart of Lucy Jane Bledsoe’s eighth novel, Tell the Rest. The narrative follows the divergent paths of Delia and Ernest, who decades earlier escaped Camp Celebration, a Christian-conversion therapy camp in rural Oregon. Now, they have returned.
Each has risen above the events of that summer, embracing the sexual identities that drew the ire of family and church. Ernest is a successful poet and professor who lives with his partner, a playwright. His poems circle his past at Camp Celebration and his lingering faith without ever quite being explicit about the experience.
But Tell the Rest is primarily Delia’s story. In her own words, she “made a clean transfer from god to basketball, from Jesus to Pat Summitt.” Summitt, of course, was the legendary basketball coach of the University of Tennessee’s NCAA champion Lady Vols for nearly 40 years—the kind of figure a player may love, hate, or fear but will nevertheless kill herself to impress.
Tell the Rest begins with Delia on the downswing. After a superstar high school and college basketball career, she’s been fired from her coaching gig at a small East Coast Division III school, and her wife has recently left her. With no other options, Delia returns to her hometown of Rockside, Oregon, to coach at her old high school. Her onetime boyfriend is the principal, and her brother is the janitor.
It’s the old homecoming setup: the more things change, the more they stay the same. Yet despite outward signs of progress—including openly gay students—Rockside remains gripped by small-town pettiness and provinciality.
Bledsoe toggles between Delia and Ernest, both as adults and in flashbacks to Camp Celebration, eventually arriving at the core of their trauma. To Bledsoe’s credit, she doesn’t overdo the horrors of the camp, which makes the necessity of escape even more persuasive.
Tell the Rest is anchored by a series of subtle moments that give the novel gravitas without weighing it down. If a book can be encapsulated by a single scene, we find just that near the midpoint when Delia is confronted by Isobel, one of her stars. Isobel, unaware of her coach’s sexuality, tries to shock Delia by revealing her own lesbianism. Delia remains aloof, focusing on basketball and basketball alone. Trust must be won, in other words, not dispensed out of any shared belief or identity.
It can be difficult to write about subjects such as poetry or basketball without flattening them. Bledsoe does well to stay clear of long descriptions of either one. Instead, she allows us to see how Delia and Ernest have chosen their callings as ways to center themselves and rebuild the trust they lost when they were sent to Camp Celebration.
As a writer and a former professional athlete, I have long believed that art and sports are two sides of one coin. What poetry and basketball (or painting and tennis or whatever else) share is a way of parsing the world, of comprehending and shrinking its problems to a manageable size—a poem or a court. They allow the practitioner to make religion out of a passion or a pastime. With Tell the Rest, Bledsoe succeeds in giving life to my conviction on this point, focusing not on the art or the game itself (except in small doses) but rather on their ability to save, redeem, and uplift, to help us construct or reconstruct our faith.•