I go to the basketball court and figure things out.

What lies behind a game of hoops in
John Edgar Wideman’s writing.


John Edgar Wideman is one of the most talented and awarded contemporary American writers up to date. His writing includes novels, memoirs, short stories and recently microstories published as his latest release under the title Briefs. A recipient of the International PEN/Faulkner Award (twice), the O. Henry Award for short story, the American Book Award, the James Fenimore Cooper Prize for Best Historical Fiction, the winner of the Rea Award for the Short Story and the lifetime achievement award of the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards. The only thing left to add is the MacArthur genius grant which he was honored with in 1993 and we can start wondering why is he still largely unnoticed by wider audiences.

Maybe because his writing extends far beyond what critics address as the
African-American prose of the Twentieth Century. Wideman’s narration is a mixture of modernist stream of consciousness technique, poetic prose, inner-city slang, and historical and literary references of a wide cultural and temporal scale. As Claude Julien puts it in his introduction to a special issue of Callaloo devoted to Wideman’s fiction:

Here are texts in which a welter of contradictory truths and irrationality holds center stage and creates architectural possibilities. (…) not for the reader to draw general truths, pernicious simplifications.

The author on court

In the context of this article it is indispensable to underline another important aspect of his biography. Besides being a literary visionary, Wideman is a die-hard basketball fan.

In his college years (the early 1960’s), he was an All-Big Five and All-Ivy League basketball player for the University of Pennsylvania. On the court, during his sophomore year, Wideman scored in double-figures several times. Being a co-captain in his junior year and sole captain in 1962, he led his team — the Quakers — to a combined 20–8 Ivy League record and a Big 5 championship. He is currently a member of the Big 5 Hall of Fame. In an article researched and written by Elliot A. Greenwald for Pennsylvania University Archives, John Edgar Wideman is referred to as the Ivy League Ideal and the apotheosis of an Ivy League student athlete. Wideman was an active after-hours basketball player up to the age of sixty. His daughter, Jamila Wideman, has a history as a point guard with the professional WNBA team Los Angeles Sparks. No wonder basketball is often present in his writing.

In this article I would like to focus on the various meanings and dimensions that basketball has for Wideman. Trying to give a general overlook of basketball leitmotif in his work I will concentrate on his book published in 2001 entitled Hoop Roots: Basketball, Race, and Love.

Identity and Attitude

In a TV interview given for Charlie Rose Show in 2001, Wideman says:

I go to the basketball field and figure things out.

As vague as that may sound, this sentence can actually direct us towards the most important aspects of the game for Wideman.

Figuring things out as in active construction of one’s own identity and forming an attitude towards one’s own surroundings. Wideman connects his need of playing basketball directly to the conditions in which he grew up — those of a poor and colored family hemmed in by material circumstances none of us knew how to control. In his early youth he has understood that basketball might be a way to exercise his own potential within a harsh environment:

if I wanted more, a larger, different portion than other poor colored folks in Homewood, I had to single myself out. I say ‘if I wanted more’ because ‘if’ was a real question, a stumbling block many kids in Homewood couldn’t get past.

From the very beginning, basketball is a form of continuous effort which aims at putting oneself above the harsh and poverty-stricken surroundings of Homewood, but also a process of singling oneself out.

Basketball for young Wideman seems to be a commitment to the struggle for self-realization through perfecting his game skills (I figured out early that hard, solo work the only way to get certain things about hoop right). The game becomes a platform on which hard work and consequence give meaning to efforts in the form of games won, obtained points, blocked shots and earned rebounds. All of these prove the player’s worth and hint at a possibility of imagining a different life for yourself, other than the meager portion doled out by the imperatives of race and racism, the negative prospects impressed continuously upon a black kid’s consciousness.

Basketball playground is a place of unfettered expression and skill display in the heart of a classic example of urban decay, the movable famine that can descend on any section of a city and gradually render it unfit for human habitation.

The basketball court is also a place of creating your own identity
through performance. The goals are clear but the ways of obtaining them put you to a test:

The heart of Homewood a marketplace among other things, where you discover the price of what you want. Where you brought your game to check out what it might be worth. What your game might make you worth. What name you could earn there and carry back home.

The new name you receive becomes superior to the one you have on your birth certificate, because you earn it yourself with your court achievements. It is not as much a name as a reputation. Your role on the court as well as your attitude towards the game reveal your attitude towards hard work and placing yourself in the game’s social context. The game tests your ability to constantly prove your worth within the environment sketched out by a set of basketball rules, where numbers you earn, fouls you gain, your offensive or defensive style of play add up and come to surface as the kind of person you are and demonstrate your general attitude towards achieving goals in a social situation:

Every game you’re obligated, challenged to fill the line of empty slots following your name with field goals attempted and made, foul shots hit or missed, personal fouls, rebounds, steals, turnovers, assists, blocked shots. Who Wideman is is drastically simplified. You are the numbers, period. Nothing else matters — where you came from, who your daddy or grandmammy might be — you’re just a player.

Democracy

Here, we run into two concepts (hard work and democratic conditions) that stand at the foundations of the American Dream — the national ethos of reaching ones peak in a democratic environment, where all men are created equal and have equal opportunity in the struggle for achievement. Although being highly critical towards his own country and its history, Wideman points to a street game of hoops as a situation where the concept of
achieving ones’ own goals with hard work and overcoming obstacles is at play. Wideman’s basketball field becomes what the United States of America never was to him:

playground hoop transcends race and gender because it’s about creating pleasure, working the body to please the body, about free spaces, breaks in the continuum of socially prescribed rules and roles, freedom that can be attained by play

Wideman has always been a socially engaged writer — a clear-cut opponent of USA’s penal and police system and an open advocate of democracy in it radical forms:

I am really interested in democracy, in the radical sense-and the kinds of communal storytelling that occur on the basketball court (…) Anybody can come to the court to play. (…) the democracy of the call-and-response style of storytelling … where people with very different views, very different folk can sit down in a room or sit down on the sidelines of a game (…) and each has a chance to explore and play the expressive possibilities of this theme, of this idea . . . everybody gets a chance. And then it’s all woven together. Nobody sits and has a vote afterwards and says you guys are right, you guys are wrong. It’s the process of self-expression, and how it creates a communal attitude or set of attitudes. It’s such a beautiful thing, a democratic thing.

Creative Expression

This radical form of democracy defies thinking in terms of binary oppositions. Cheerful anarchy regulated by the volatile rules of the game becomes a method of operation for real-life democracy. Wideman’s writing indicates that a street game of basketball rises to the level of subversive movement that is beyond the control of any institution.

It is a form of self-expression that builds the self-awareness in the neglected youth of the inner-city ghettoes and hints at a creative way to struggle with their low self-esteem. The freedom denounced in the poverty stricken environment is now regained on the court and might serve as a first step of getting out of the ghetto. The game of hoops becomes an escape route from marginalization, both direct (through gaining recognition and continuing with basketball on higher levels such as university or professional league) and indirect (through self-improvement, building self-confidence, expanding imagination and creating a community of players working together towards a common goal which suggests a possibility of a wholesome society). All that of course is executed within the space of the game with respect for its rules and constraints. These, however, differ from the limitations thrust upon us in real life by society, surroundings and political frame. The difference is that when choosing to play, you choose the game’s limitations knowingly. The playground game of hoops becomes a means of expression — a framework to explore and expand in order to manifest oneself in the most adequate manner:

a game not without rules but with flexible rules, spontaneous, improvised according to circumstances, rules based on a longstanding, practical consensus about what’s important — rules whose only reason for being is to enhance play, radically democratic rules that are a means not an end, not a jail cell but a mutually agreed upon set of restraints

Here we encounter the performative and creative aspect of figuring things out.

The ball court provides a frame, boundaries, the fun and challenge of call and response that forces you to concentrate your boundless energy within a defined yet seemingly unlimited space

If language gives us the possibility of shaping ourselves through uttered and written constructs, so does basketball through our realization of the game. The way we participate and perform during the game reveals our attitude
towards reality and shows how we are able to exercise our way through difficulties in order to score a point. Both writing and playing ball feed on the same qualities: technique, imagination, ability to improvise and unfettered willingness to transcend our limitations.

In an interview given to ESPN.com Wideman finds a common denominator between basketball and writing:

The primary thing writing and basketball share is the sense that each time you go out, each time you play or begin a piece, it’s a new day. You can score 40 points one game, but the next game, those points don’t count. You can win the Nobel Literature Prize, but that doesn’t make the next sentence of the nextbook appear. With both writing and basketball, it really is a question of starting fresh each time out — you have a chance, but you’re also tested each time.

Basketball’s creative and art-like dimension has more to do with its performative character rather than observing standardized rules of the game. Wideman also links the court performance to a performance of an improvised jazz tune:

To be worthwhile in any venue, the action must be improvised on the spot. (…) Like classic African-American jazz, playground hoop is a one-time, one-more-time thing. Every note, move, solo, pat of the ball happens only once. Unique. (…) Performance is all.

Besides the common improvisational aspect of jazz music and basketball play, there is also their common background of players performing what they love in order to free themselves. Jazz musicians frequently assert that they play jazz to free themselves from the rigidity of standardized classical music or the dullness of dance songs. In the same way, one plays a street game of hoops to free oneself from the surroundings and to claim one’s own physical and emotional space.

Wideman puts equation signs between writing, playing jazz and playing streetball. All of these activities are spontaneous acts of exercising freedom as well as finding a perfect balance between the individual’s self-expression at its finest and the democratic sphere in which he is able to express himself.

In his essay entitled Jazz, Freedom, and the Amatuer Otto W. Fick
emphasizes crucial differences between jazz and classical music:

In an increasingly engineered and rationalized society, Jazz is cheerfully lacking in professional scrupulosity and foresight. It remains the property of the rude and idiosyncratic individual who would rather blow his own note wrong than somebody else’s note right. Jazz is free and irresponsible rather than responsible and constrained. (…) Jazz is personal and flighty; serious music is impersonal and rigorous. A Jazz performance is essentially expressive; a performance of serious music is essentially interpretive. Jazz is hasty; serious music is deliberate. In serious music one distinguishes between the music and the performance; in Jazz they are the same.

The contrast between jazz and classical music is clear. Jazz is a heroic attempt to escape the bleak mainstream society, where everything is standardized and institutionalized. Jazz is the channel to fully realize your potential, individuality, skill, and freedom through performance within blurry and expandable boarders of a specific form.

Wideman’s current jazz is his writing. In the past, his first attempt at jazz was basketball. When it seems natural to discuss jazz music (as an art-form) outside the logics of reason, basketball however tends to be much more of a clear-cut phenomenon. Its logical aim is to score points and play to win. Wideman puts these aims in the background. The forefront is the player handling the game. His craftsmanship and performance let him master the art of hoop and consequently win. The playground game of basketball can last forever since the time of the match and its rules are bent according to the players’ will. Their gameplay is a common movement toward the ideal game of basketball that can be as creative, spontaneous and skillful as a group performance of a jazz standard by a jazz band.

Existential Freedom

So far we have spoken about basketball in terms of freedom, performance, identity, individuality, expression, and standing out. When Wideman refers to his personal “hoop roots” he writes:

if I wanted more, a larger, different portion than other poor colored folks in Homewood, I had to single myself out. I say ‘if I wanted more’ because ‘if’ was a real question, a stumbling block many kids in Homewood couldn’t get past.

Putting all Wideman’s strong feelings about basketball together one cannot underestimate the existential dimension of his choice of committingto the game. If we portray the game as a metaphor for exercising existential freedom, we can assume that by choosing to adhere to its rules and conditions one sets out on a life-changing and consciousness-building journey.

The existential dimension of playing a game of hoops relies on its being a series of conscious choices made against the nothingness and absurd of everyday life in the urban ghetto. The game might be even considered a task in making responsible choices in the face of the absurd. The neglected and marginalized people of the abyss have not much to lose and at that point playing basketball is an act of creation — a primary level DIY strategy of finding a purpose, obtaining a goal and socially interact in a micro community. The game becomes a formula within which an individual can perform the acts of his choice and instantly witness their outcome.


These ideas about what lies behind a game of basketball in John Edgar Wideman’s writing, are just a few notions that instantly spring to one’s mind when trying to understand why such a prolific writer would devote so much space in his writing to basketball. Since the game accompanied him from his early days, it has become inseparable from his storytelling
and his image of the past. Basketball is interwoven with his reflections on creativity, responsibility, democracy, freedom, individualism, race, performance, history etc. Since the game’s as portable as a belief. Fluid, flexible, and as open to interpretation as a song he often uses its glossary and macrocosm as a formal frame for his writing.