One of the surprises of my life in the last few years is falling back in love with sports. I thought I had given them up, filed them away as philistin...moreOne of the surprises of my life in the last few years is falling back in love with sports. I thought I had given them up, filed them away as philistine nonsense, juvenile and macho posturing, another example of the bread and circuses the gatekeepers of our society toss out to the enthralled masses.
I never really gave up on baseball, to be truthful. The love went too deep, back to my earliest memories, hours and hours spent playing pick up games, over the line, or just solitarily throwing a ball against a chalked in strike zone over and over again. But football I had savagely expunged from my life. I had encountered too many dunderheads whose sole range of conversation consisted in talking about football as if contained grailic importance and talking about women as if they were appendages only. But I loved the game itself, the complexity and beauty and yes indeed the savagery of it. And it was the only game I was consistently good as a kid, I had a damn accurate arm and could move with guile and grace. Until I stopped growing at fifteen and fell under the spell of dope, beat literature and bad girls I excelled at it. So I returned to it too, as a spectator of course, and my sons along with me, and it is a great shared joy we have, one of the few we love equally. I have not yet instilled my love of books in them, my love of nature and of long walks they only seem to latch onto intermittently. My prayer life and meditative practice they find hokey and embarrassing.
Basketball too has returned to my life. It is a sport I never was particularly good at, but the watching of it and the listening to it has now become such a spirit expanding exercise, such a totemic grant of increased personal mojo, that I am convinced I will never set it aside again in some mistaken, elitist purge. I love the swirling speed of it, the joyous abandon of it, the god-like leaps(really-can a human do such things) and body bruising thump of it. On television I have seen things that have struck me silent, sent me up whooping from my couch or made me laugh with delight. Emotion baby, lots of it, and if it is vicarious, surely it is no more so than novel or a book of essays.
Of course I’m a Lakers man, born and bred in Southern Cal. as I am, and it follows from that the human being who has been the source of much of my delight and periodic exasperation is Mr. Kobe Bryant, formerly of Lower Marion High, equal parts artist, working man and to his unlucky opponents, Lord High Executioner. Sure he’s probably a prick in real life, but so many people who are transcendentally great at one thing usually are. Some sort of compensatory balancing I suspect. They honed their skills in one area to such a degree that other attributes suffer. Some great writers have been like this too. Me, I’ve never had the nuts.
While television is the preferred method of imbibing basketball(of course I can’t afford actual tickets) I have experienced a new and weird form of joy listening to Lakers games on the radio on my commute home from work. This may seem both archaic and horribly lacking in the primary sense element(sight) needed to experience the flights of rhapsody involved in pro hoops but there is something wonderful to it to. In a radio broadcast the announcer is forced to explain every minute detail of the action and at such tongue-tripping speed as to constantly teeter on the edge of incomprehensibility. To me this gets more than anything the wonderful, jazz-like, improvisational free-flow that is basketball. Also there a wonderful cadence, an incantatory rhythm, a poetry to the voice work that both captures the games essence and is a pleasure in its own right.
Which brings me roundabout and finally to John Edgar Wideman's wonderful memoir of growing up and playing ball in Pittsburgh, Hoop Roots. Like a good radio announcer Wideman gets to the game he has loved, breathed and bled for all his life. His prose swoops and jives, fakes and pivots and finds only net over and over again. As a stylist the man has got Kobe level game. He also plays(writes) with grit, tenacity and heart is full of what sports junkies know as ‘the intangibles’, the will to win, the willingness to dominate, the down in his bones necessity to be the best player on the court.
And there is more to this wonderful book too. While Wideman gets right at why playing sports makes men out of man-children and conversely can stunt their emotional growth too(there is some wonderful riffs here how balling can drive a man from women and some good ones too on how the courting of a woman can find apt metaphor on court) he also uses a wider lens to talk race, poverty and sex in bug fuck inner city America as one Century has collapsed into the next. He mediates on the oft noted difference between white mid-west ballplayers developing smooth jump shots in farm towns vs. the urban warfare chest against chest drive to the hoop style of the average African-American player.
But for all his intelligence and incisiveness with the big picture, it’s the smaller, more intimate details of this book that are the real heart breakers. Wideman writes as well about the scathing and self-lacerating gauntlet that is male adolescence as well as anyone I’ve read in the last several years. He writes about the pockets of isolation and miscommunications that can develop in a family that no pick up game or heavy sweat can heal. He writes about how a loving relationship can devolve into bitter recrimination with neither party willing to make any pacifying or healing gesture to bring back sweet to the bitter.
But always he loops back into the game. Wideman played until he was 59, until his knees were so gimpy and ground down that he could play no longer. Then he wrote this long letter, this urban sonnet, this bellow of fire.
This is a great book for any one interested in fine memoir, for anyone interested in this particular grace-filled and sometimes exasperating game. It’s a great book too for those who are interested in the American Urban experience at a certain time and place, of those are comfortable with wounded and wounding families. Finally, it’s a great book for readers who are willing to listen to the lessons of the human body as it soars, dips, dares great things and then sputters, breaks and falls into middle or old age still cursing the dying of the light.