NOW I’VE SKIPPED OVER a lot of the basketball books, a lot of the sports books, partly because they so often rehearse the same old dorkball bootstrap capitalist Darwinist fantasies, they suck I’m saying, they are brutal I mean, so I’m actually nothing like an authority, let me never be, let’s get that out of the way. But as far as books about sport, I’ve never read anything even close to John Edgar Wideman’s Hoop Roots1, published a hundred years after Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk, which Wideman did on purpose to give us an idea of how serious he considers basketball to the soul of the nation. We must contend with hoop, he’s telling us.
It’s classic Wideman: storytelling, history, theory, analysis. Better than any writer I know, he articulates the fiction of race and the material conditions that fiction has wrought. Better than any writer I know—okay, Morrison, yup—he studies the murderous lie of race the way you might study someone’s game: dude always goes left, but he’s shifty in traffic, so heads up; also, he doesn’t miss open shots, so get a hand up, but stay on your goddamn feet because he’s good with his fakes, best I’ve ever seen, pump fake so crisp you don’t even know you’re going for it till you sail by and he’s stepped in for an easy fifteen-footer, and boom, you’re dead.
Wideman was a very good college player at Penn, and he stayed a bona fide baller decades beyond that, but you can tell he loves the game in a special way (à la DeBarge) by what he sees, which is not probably what you or I see, which I guess is testament both to love and vision, and by the words he chooses to say it with. By which I mean to say, though I love this game, I no sooner would’ve likened someone dribbling back and forth behind the back a few times to them toweling off their ass, but especially if they’re not real low, which they probably should be, it really looks like that. A million of them he has, looking with the eyes of someone who could do it, and the longing that he’ll do it no more. The way things become more lustrous, dearer, when we know they, or we, are disappearing. (This might be, incidentally, the beginning of an ethics.)
Though I doubt that was the first thing I was thinking of when I read Hoop Roots the first time, probably right when it came out, in 2001. I wasn’t yet thirty, both of my parents were alive, and my knees, despite being tore up, were still pretty supple. But now, at forty-eight, that Wideman is writing from his new status as a former ballplayer (is a ballplayer ever former?), as a spectator, as a witness, whatever the word is to imply that what he did he will do no more—that’s to say the elegiac yearning with which he writes, a yearning that sutures the elegiac to the erotic; it is desire after all; it is only for one night, as Luther Vandross sings—well, let’s just say I kinda get it. These days hoop, more than anything, makes me realize, as my buddy Dave says, that we have a certain number of jump shots, it is written on a cosmic tablet (I don’t know that Dave would cosign the “cosmic tablet” part), and one day we will reach that number, boom: no more jump shots. Or if you were a bit of a flier, as I was, boom: no more dunks. (But probably no boom; probably it will be a whisper; probably it will be a Bergman film.)
The way things become more lustrous, dearer, when we know they, or we, are disappearing.
I am lying on a couch as my brother2 snores in a bed across the room and his oldest daughter—there are pictures of me holding her, one of the cutest babies ever born (her little sister’s the other), maybe you say toddler, or infant, I don’t know—she’s in a daybed curled up, now almost six feet tall, kind and curious and with a penchant, much like my brother, for being delighted. She is a reminder, as kids I guess are, that so-called time . . . goddamn, where’d that go. I knew you when you couldn’t talk except for babbles and laughter and crying and you wore those cool little red overalls. I knew you when dunking was easy and frequent and not a negotiation with the gods. I knew you when my jump shot was wonky and occasional and required some negotiating with the gods. Boom.
The reason I’m sleeping on a couch in the same room as my brother and niece is because we’re taking a bike ride, a very leisurely trip down a rail trail along the Pennsylvania Grand Canyon, which, no kidding, while nothing at all like the other Grand Canyon, I mean nothing at all, is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been. And I’ve been outside of Pennsylvania! It’s beside a gentle creek that has, I guess, over the millennia, cut this groove through the Appalachian Mountains, which are lush and languid and thick with trees, from which we saw bald eagles (yes, plural) emerge and take flight, three or four times. One landed almost directly across the creek from us on a dead tree, and we were all suddenly whispering. They’re sleeping, the child silently, the adult snoringly, as I’m writing these sentences.
By the way, a conversation between my brother and me after this very leisurely ride:
Me: “Matty, why are you walking like that, is your knee hurting you again?”
Matty: “No, I’m old.”
But before we got on the trail, ten hours ago, we were at an outdoor outfitters place—they take your keys and drop your car to the end of the trail for you—and directly behind their place was a pond you could hear before you could see it because of the frogs croaking. It was green and scummy with algae, pierced with cattails, elderberry on the verge of blooming, and as I walked by I could hear but not see the frogs plopping from the muddy shore into the muck. I needed to pee so walked to the other side of the pond to a trail into the woods, and as I was relieving myself I saw a sign maybe ten feet away that read:
FOR ANY REASON!
VIOLATORS WILL BE
DEALT W/ SWITFTLY AND
TO THE FULLEST EXTENT
An unrelieving sign if ever there was one. I am shabby at many things, but I am a good reader. I bring my whole self to the task, and as a not white person in beautiful Bumblefuck, PA, I discern in this baggy haiku, in addition to some interesting line breaks (“violators will be” packs a Hobbesian punch, makes you want to huddle up and arm up and lock your doors, jeez), the absence—the poetic or literary term might be elision—of the phrase “of the law,” a phrase that I am fundamentally skeptical of, for the record, though in this region of abundant WE SUPPORT OUR POLICE signs and BLUE LIVES MATTER flags, I’m pretty sure the elision is a not-friendly and emphatic reminder that you can be killed, because (my) property is more important than (your) life.
Back when I first read Hoop Roots—gosh, right around the time that kid sleeping across the room was born, maybe I was reading it when she was asleep on my mother’s, her munga’s, lap, a lap I also slept on, though it’s been a while—the passage that lodged in me more than any other is toward the end of the book, about the beanpole baller who used to play decked out head to toe in stolen goods—not basketball gear; dress gear. Gear for a night on the town. Beautiful shirt, slacks, dress shoes, a belt, the whole kit and caboodle. He would get the duds from a crew of boosters who stole from the finest stores around—in Pittsburgh, where Wideman’s from, that would probably be Kaufmann’s. (My thieving friends, when and where we grew up, preferred Macy’s.) These were stores that, if Blacks were allowed in, it was reluctantly. Probably the very presence of Blacks in those stores felt to the owners like a kind of trespass. I wonder why. Oh, I know why! Because those Black people, some of them anyway, are the descendants of property, whose refusal of the idea (i.e., liberation, or disowning) in the good old days could be dealt with swiftly and to the fullest extent. And whose very existence disrupts the idea—I mean makes plain the lie—of property itself. Whose unpropertied life is insurgence.
I suspect this passage, which comes late in the book, appealed to me because it helped me to understand my powerful, if inarticulate, feeling of “fuck them and their stuff,” a kind of rage that was easier to stomach than the sorrow beneath it when my broke folks would pine for what people with dough, didn’t matter their color, didn’t matter they might be my relations, had or could do. I thought, Fuck them and their stuff. Lots of fantasizing about torching expensive cars and chucking bricks through fancy stores where security might trail me if my likes went in. Some petty theft and breaking things at my college for rich kids. A very precise fantasy about wanting to vomit—not figurative, I mean to get myself to puke—in the midst of the outdoor diners at one of the fancy restaurants in Rittenhouse Square. I wanted to get it on their shoes.
It was a not yet articulate refusal percolating in me, I think, that when I read in Hoop Roots about this kid balling in snazzy stolen gear, and ruining it, made me swoon. I loved it because it was a sophisticated, embodied, performative, and social refusal of a way of life. Matter of fact, as Wideman says, the balling in hot clothes says, “Here’s what we really think of your stuff” (Wideman, p. 189). And further, it says the only thing I want to do with your destructive way of life, and what it’s done to us, is destroy it. Fuck you and your stuff. And maybe even: Fuck you, and fuck stuff. And where better to do the show than on a pickup basketball court, where the game itself is also a refusal of their way of life? Where the game itself also tears stuff to shreds? How do I mean?
No one owns a basketball court, and no one ever could—even if on that court someone might be owning someone else (playing better than the person they are matched up against) or owning enough someone elses to feel like (to delude themselves into thinking) they own the court, that simple thought will be yanked like a tooth from their head soon enough, maybe by someone they thought they were owning, and they will be back on the sidelines, a wanderer again, asking permission to play, possibly of another someone whom they previously imagined they owned. On a pickup basketball court, no matter how good you are, you ask to be let on a team, and into the game. Which is to say, you are a perpetual guest. Likewise on a pickup court, when you have the next game, you are often inviting others onto your team, and so you also get to be a host. On a pickup basketball court you might have the opportunity to call the next game—I got next!—but you can’t call the next three, or the next to eternity. Which is to say, pickup doesn’t abide the settler. Try that shit on a real court and tell me how it goes. Nor does a pickup court abide the grudge, or the fixed opponent, or the enemy, given that whoever pissed you off earlier in the day—crossed you so hard you fell on your hands and knees and everyone hollered and laughed, or elbowed you in your throat making space in the post, or shouted every time you caught the ball beyond fifteen feet, let him shoot!—will probably end up, if not in a couple games, then in a couple days, on your team, passing you the ball. And in that way, too, the pickup court laughs in the face of purity—a five, as we call the team we’ve gathered for this game, as long as we stay on (score more points than the other team), is momentary, ephemeral, miscegenal as hell. On a pickup basketball court—unlike the terrifying sign I encountered on land inhabited and stewarded and belonged to for millennia by the Haudenosaunee before the European settlers arrived and got to genociding, which included cutting down every last tree, I mean every last tree, before they moved on—aside from what’s fixed (how much a basket counts, what’s out of bounds), there is no fixed law. There is only us, ten of us at a time (depending on the court), assembling and disassembling and reassembling, in perpetual negotiation of the rules, in perpetual common wonder of how we’re going to be together today. What’s going to be a foul, what’s going to be a carry, what’s going to be a walk, what’s going to be our mode of protest, our mode of acquiescing, our mode of negotiation, changing with every game. I’ve heard it called a swarm, I like to think of murmuration, a school’s not bad either, and I like to think it suggests we belong to each other, or are practicing at it anyway. Without which there’s no game. Which is to say, belonging to each other is what we’re playing at. And belonging to each other means belonging to the game. Belonging to each other is the game. It reminds us, this game, the true version, to almost quote Paul D talking to Sethe in Toni Morrison’s Beloved: we are each other’s best thing.
On a pickup basketball court, no matter how good you are, you ask to be let on a team, and into the game.
And at Seger Park, on Tenth and Lombard, my home court between 1998 and about 2006, games started on weekends at around seven-thirty, where some of the earliest would start gathering. We were creatures coming to water, I could hear it before I could see it because I lived right down the block, and often by the time I crawled out of bed, threw on my gear, chugged some water, and got out there, Gerald’s little sister would be there, maybe with a girlfriend, with a smile sleepy and swoony enough that when she croaked What up Beast it made me giggle they’d probably been up all night. Lil Sis had that dozy crossover into her midrange jumper. And then here comes her brother, Gerald, G, who called everyone cousin, especially in moments of debate, or tension, reminding us we’re kin here, always dragging a few sleepy teenagers from the apartments so they don’t miss the run. And here comes Pop, his slip-ons itching the sidewalk, always with a jug of water, and sometimes his pipsqueak daughter, who sometimes became our daughter if Pop was on the court and she stumbled out there after her daddy. There was a dude the spitting image of Raekwon, Sixers adamant. Little Nate, built like Spike Lee, a grasshopper, always wore sweats, hustled his ass off, came on his bike, and was the single person at that court to call me by my government name. That put-together kid with long braids and only one hand, who went to the hole like Marshawn Lynch. The two Jays: the first, who played at the community college, silky shot, and whose full-speed pull-up defined “stop on a dime.” Jay two, a tough guard who defended and knocked you around and liked to yell and laugh and pass to himself off the backboard twenty years before LeBron was doing it and who looked at me like an uncle, like a big brother, when I told him I was in school up at Temple, saying, Alright Beast, alright. D-Bo, muscle and a loudmouth with whom I felt often on the cusp of a scrap. Crafty Peewee, think Rod Strickland with the prettiest smile in town. Marl, a tough kid I loved, and loved to play against, and banging against him crotch to ass in the post-realized ball was sometimes plein air frottage. Marshall and his oldest, unless it was all the kids. That stiff white dude who could shoot. That white dude who rode his mountain bike over and talked loud like he was good. That light-skinned woman, was she a lawyer, maybe a teacher, seemed to be looking out for us, she could ball. As soon as there’s ten, first five from the line, that’s teams, let’s go.
All birds sing, but maybe early birds the loudest, or it seems that way anyway, especially when the early birds are mostly Black across from the fancy condos, down the street from Whole Foods, soon to be (the) Amazon, playing a game whose song is loud and brash and consoling and flaunting and flouncy and tender and laughter-filled and profoundly unsingular, endlessly emergent, schools in the kin-dom, practicing for an elsewhere we are in the midst of by practicing it. Practicing the elsewhere we imagine. Pickup is an elsewhere, I’m saying, whose logics—by which I really mean practices, grown up with and by Black people (though not exclusively, don’t misunderstand me)—refuse ownership and the owners, refuse settling and the settler, refuse the very conditions by which we became Black (or white, or whatever) in the first place, because those conditions are the end of our time here on Earth.
Which raucous birdsong mustn’t disturb the dreams of those who think they can own the world. For even their dreams must be guarded against trespass. Maybe their dreams especially. And as such must be dealt with swiftly and to the fullest extent, which means, on a court, in a school of elsewhere, in the kin-dom of joy, they had to take the rims down. Which means, once again, we would have to find each other elsewhere.
Meet you there.
1. Okay, okay, about sports that aren’t basketball: Eduardo Galeano’s Soccer in Sun and Shadow. It’s remarkable.
2. Who also loves Wideman, and used to teach his work to his high school English classes. Once we learned Wideman was from Pittsburgh and was in the ballpark of our father’s age, we fantasized that maybe he played against our dad, Gilbert “Poochie” Frank Gay, in the Dapper Dan Classic between the Western PA and the Eastern Ohio High School All-Stars, which our dad claims to have played in (Dad could fib). Turns out their ages are a little off for that anyway: Wideman was born June 14, 1941, whereas our dad was born June 13, 1945. Though my mother was born July 13, 1941. Which, you’ve probably already gone there, makes me think of Wideman as both my mother and my father. Literarily so, I mean.
This essay is excerpted from Inciting Joy by Ross Gay. Published by Algonquin Books. Copyright © 2022 by Ross Gay. All rights reserved.