The perils of street life and the heroes who make a difference


“Takin’ it Back,” by John Kuri Hardcover, $23.95, Seven Locks Press

By Betty Bailey / Special to The Malibu Times

Before the printing presses began to churn out John Kuri’s new novel, “Takin’ It Back,” basketball legends Shaquille O’Neal, Jerome Kersey and Bill Walton had already offered their endorsements. Yet, in this tale of five teenagers growing up in the streets of Hollywood, basketball is only a backdrop for the story. Set in the shadow of the famous “Hollywood” sign, along decaying streets that once were the heart of the movie industry, the story is about the perils of street life and the heroes who make a difference.

“It’s real people. Real events. The real stuff that goes on in the streets,” Kuri said in a recent interview.

The story opens when an off-duty police officer who is coaching a team of at-risk youth, dies by a sniper’s bullet in the middle of the ball court in the city playground. Police wrongly suspect one of the players, a 16-year-old Dominican boy. During his interrogation, the suspect captures the attention of two other LAPD officers who learn about conditions in the neighborhood surrounding the playground. They take over as coaches and struggle to help the teens navigate around the pitfalls of drugs and gangs while dealing with their own life dramas.

To give the teens a positive goal, the coaches enter the team in a competition that will stretch each player beyond his limits. The book pays tribute to the officers who donate their off-duty hours and to the teens who are brave enough to want something better.

“It cannot be easy for a kid to break away from their friends and to deal with the ridicule that they have always associated with police officers,” Kuri said.

When the book was nearly finished, Kuri learned how close his story came to real life when he was introduced to members of the Police Activities League, a mentoring organization that has 350 chapters throughout the nation.

“This [program] is 80,000 off-duty officers who mentor some two million kids,” said Kuri. “It’s a great program.”

Even more coincidental, Kuri met an LAPD captain with a remarkably similar history in basketball to that of his main female character. After meeting these officers, Kuri said he re-wrote parts of the book to incorporate some of their real life experiences.

LAPD Chief William J. Bratton, who attended a reception last week for Kuri at the Kodak Theater complex and which was hosted by the Hollywood chapter of PAL said of the author’s work, “From a cop’s perspective I love the book ‘Takin’ It Back’ because it tells the true story of thousands of officers who work tirelessly with at-risk youth across this nation, giving them a chance through the PAL program to make a positive change in their lives.

“The book provides people of our communities the opportunity to learn what the men and women of law enforcement are doing to help kids,” Bratton added.

Kuri flew to Portland to meet with Jerome Kersey (Portland Trailblazers), who composed the foreword for the book.

“He was actually reciting lines from what I had sent him,” Kuri said. “Then he sent it to Shaq, who he had played with on the Lakers.”

O’Neal’s endorsement on the book’s cover says, “This book speaks to all inner-city teens regardless of color…”

The publisher sent the book to his friend Bill Walton (also drafted by the Trailblazers as the No. 1 overall pick) who wrote, “Growing up in South Central L.A., basketball was my escape. And law enforcement is my career, so I related to each character, cheering them past obstacles and celebrating their victories.”

Along with endorsements from the basketball stars, Kuri said the book has also been a hit with police officers. “[The] LAPD is so thrilled with this the chief of police is coming to our reception.”

This is Kuri’s second novel in as many years. Last year, he released “Cheyenne Rising Sun,” the stories of a Northern Cheyenne chief and his grandson, which spanned from the late 19th century to the present.

For that book, Kuri followed the trail of the Cheyenne. For his current book, he went back to his hometown.

“Having grown up in Hollywood and being a third generation native of L.A., it was a lot of fun to write about it,” the author said.

The neighborhood is not the same as in Kuri’s youth. The pressures and temptations are different. But, as he points out in his novel, people can affect change and make a difference.

“If it inspires a couple of adults here and there to see what they can do or even to answer a question now and then, it can change someone’s life,” Kuri said.

Kuri’s book is available at Diesel, A Bookstore in Malibu.