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Penguin, NBA Team Up for Literacy

Penguin and the National Basketball Association (NBA) recently teamed up to launch a literacy campaign featuring the retired Earvin "Magic" Johnson, Ray Allen of the Seattle SuperSonics, Dwyane Wade of the Miami Heat, and Becky Hammon of the New York Liberty, a team in the Women's National Basketball Association. As part of the campaign, titled Aim High, Live Classic, the athletes promote literacy on the radio, at public events, and on posters and in print advertisements that include images of them holding their favorite books in the Penguin Classics series.

While many literacy programs feature ballplayers—the American Library Association's READ campaign showcases the NBA's Shaquille O'Neal and Jason Kidd; the Get Caught Reading program sponsored by the Association of American Publishers includes Major League Baseball's Derek Jeter and Sammy Sosa—the Penguin-NBA partnership is unique in its effort to send a message to athletes and fans who may have turned away from books by drawing a connection between the themes of classic literature and the real-life experiences of sports superstars.

"The hope is that we can reach a whole slew of young people, particularly young males who think reading is sort of boring," says Kathryn Court, Penguin's publisher. Each promotional poster features an image of an athlete holding a Penguin Classic, a quote from the selected book, and the slogan: "Before we can know our opponent, we must know ourselves. The great players know it, and the great writers say it. It's not about winning, it's about enduring. Legends endure. So do classics. Aim high. Live classic."

While Penguin hopes to instill a love of all books, the publisher would also like to introduce a new wave of readers to its own line. This combination of philanthropy and promotion fuels other corporate programs such as Verizon Reads, which the telecommunications giant started in 1999. The Verizon Foundation's seven-year-old campaign features celebrities and athletes as "Literacy Champions." Since 2000, the Verizon Foundation has spent over eighty million dollars on collaborative programs with the American Library Association, First Book, and Reading Is Fundamental, among other nonprofit organizations. Nancy Williams, the foundation's national program director for literacy, says the investment has a practical purpose. "If people can't read, then they aren't going to buy products and services from Verizon. They're not going to read text messages or go on the Internet and search information and use technology."

The publishing and sports alliance behind Aim High, Live Classic achieves the goals of both partners: Penguin found in the NBA a well-oiled, high-profile marketing machine, and the NBA found in Penguin's line of classics a way to expand its Read to Achieve program—a literacy campaign targeting young children that was launched in May 2001—to the sixteen-to-twenty-five-year-old age group.

"We're reaching a new audience," says Kathy Behrens, senior vice president of Community and Player Programs for the NBA, adding, "We believe that the private sector has a responsibility to address important social issues, but we feel even more strongly that sports and basketball [have] an even more unique responsibility.. And our players and our teams are fully engaged with their communities." Of course, the fact that the NBA gets some literary street cred in the process doesn't hurt either.

As part of the campaign, each of the basketball players was asked to choose a favorite classic book. Seattle's Allen chose Siddhartha by Herman Hesse and Miami's Wade picked Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, selections that "probably surprised a few people," says Behrens. "I don't think that too many people on the Jane Austen blogs [had ever] talked about Dwyane Wade the way they have in the last couple of weeks."

Doug Diesenhaus is the editorial assistant of Poets & Writers Magazine.

“The Penguin-NBA partnership is unique in its effort to send a message to athletes and fans who may have turned away from books by drawing a connection between the themes of classic literature and the real-life experiences of sports superstars.”

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Penguin, NBA Team Up for Literacy (July/August 2006)

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