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by Liza Berger

"We were the rough, tough, mean city kids. We weren't the opponent. We were the criminals."

That's how Molly, narrator in Maureen Holohan's Friday Nights by Molly, reads the reception she and her 12-year-old basketball teammates receive when they go on the road to a suburban school.

Holohan (J94), who grew up playing basketball in a city high school, understands Molly's feelings intimately. Molly, in fact, is a lot like her creator, with a mom who's a nurse, a dad who coaches her team, a sister, two brothers and a competitive spirit.

A three-time all-Big Ten guard for the Northwestern women's basketball team, Holohan parlayed her athletic background and her roots into a paperback book series, Broadway Ballplayers, for 10- to 13-year-old girls. The racially and ethnically diverse girls who people the books love to compete in sports and thereby learn about making friends, solving conflicts and proving themselves.

Holohan has paid attention to research reports that girls' self-confidence starts to wane beginning in sixth grade. Showing girls playing sports, she reasons, is a way to break through this insecurity. Her characters are tough and aggressive and work hard in everything they do, in sports and in school.

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"At this age, girls are worried about how they look," Holohan says. In contrast, the girls in the Broadway Ballplayers "have a passion for what they do."

Holohan's books tap into issues of gender stereotypes, race, prejudice, relationships and family problems. Chicago Sun-Times writer Leslie Baldacci wrote that Holohan manages "a realistic portrayal of the families these girls are coming from. There are perceptive things about her books that kids this age are living." Maggie Coyne, a freshman at Evanston Township High School, seconds that assessment. Of the first book, she says, "I really liked it because I could identify with it."

Each book is told from the viewpoint of a different girl and focuses on a different sport. In Friday Nights by Molly, the first book, the gang plays in a summer basketball league. Tough-talking narrator Molly learns to lose graciously.

Book 2, Left Out by Rosie, is narrated by Rosie, a talented baseball player who faces the pressure of her father's expectations. In book 3, Everybody's Favorite by Penny, the title character tries to help the team's fund-raising drive for soccer camp. Book 4, Don't Stop by Angel, revolves around cross-country running and issues of peer pressure at school. Sideline Blues by Wil, book 5, treats both Wil's desire to get off the bench and play and a death in the family.

Holohan says much of the inspiration for the series comes from the close-knit community in which she grew up in Wynantskill, N.Y. All the characters in Broadway Ballplayers live on Broadway Avenue within shouting distance of each other.

"The kids are from a working-class neighborhood," says Holohan. "Their one escape is the playing field."

Like her characters, Holohan grew up with a passion for the playing field. She received a full basketball scholarship to Northwestern. During 2.5-hour practices in college, "she'd push herself until she dropped," says her former coach, Don Perrelli. "She was one of the players I respected the most. She's like Larry Bird. She didn't have speed, so she worked harder at other phases of the game."

Holohan also proved herself off the court, winning the Randolph Hearst Journalism Award, considered the Pulitzer Prize of college journalism, for a feature about two police officers she met at a basketball tournament. Her prize money bought her the computer on which she later wrote her books.

Holohan's series comes at a time when women in professional basketball remains a serious topic, with one surviving women's league, the Women's National Basketball Association, and the now-defunct American Basketball League. Nevertheless, when Holohan approached publishers with her idea of a book series about girls and sports, they all turned her down. So the journalism major, who never took a business class, came up with her own money and investors.

A couple whose children she'd tutored in basketball agreed to cosign a loan for $12,000 to fund the first run of Molly books. Putting her Medill education to use, Holohan planned a publicity campaign. She spoke at basketball camps in Upstate New York and visited "every bookstore in Chicago." The first printing of 3,000 books ran out in eight weeks.

Holohan attracted other investors after that instantaneous success. She has sold more than 30,000 books since September 1997. The first five paperbacks are on the shelves in stores throughout the country and are also sold independently by Holohan's publishing company in Evanston. Holohan says her goal is that the series be "as big as the Baby-sitters Club" among adolescents, though she's waiting to see how well the first five books do before she writes more.

From her base in Evanston, Holohan goes around the country signing books at bookstores, teaching basketball clinics and visiting schools. She talks about basketball first to get kids' attention. "Then I teach them lessons of publishing," she says. "If I get good questions, then we'll play some basketball."

She has traveled to more than 50 cities so far. When she is in the East, she manages to stop by her old neighborhood to see the gang.

"We find a gym late at night, shoot some hoops, go home and order pizza," says Holohan. That's not so different from Molly and her friends, except for the late hour and having money to pay for the pizza.

Liza Berger (WCAS97) is a graduate student in the Medill School of Journalism.

Photos by Loren Santow