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Black History Month: NBA All Star Weekend and John Edgar Wideman’s Hoop Roots

John Edgar Wideman shares his love for the game in Hoop Roots.

John Edgar Wideman shares his love for the game in Hoop Roots.

In addition to being Valentine’s Day, yesterday was Day Two of NBA All-Star Weekend in Phoenix.

It’s already been eventful, and the actual game hasn’t yet happened.

Highlights have included Kevin Durant going off for a 46-7-4 stat line in leading the sophomores to victory in the annual rookies-sophomores game and a razor-thin dunk contest in which 5’9″  Nate Robinson narrowly edged Dwight “Superman” Howard after using the seven-foot Howard as a prop in the final round.

There has also been a tip of the hat to history, as the game H-O-R-S-E has been added back to the weekend after a 16-year hiatus.  This being the new millennium, the game is actually spelled G-E-I-C-O, but the game remains the same. 

John Edgar Wideman has been playing basketball for just about 60 years now.  The decorated novelist, short story writer, and essayist writes about race, his life, and his bone-deep love for the game in Hoop Roots: Basketball, Race and Love.

Wideman writes from the very beginning that he needed basketball, because as a poor black boy growing up in the rough Homewood section of Pittsburgh, he needed to “single myself out.” 

Basketball became that way.   

Wideman was hooked from the first shot he hit and has played the game with love and passion since.

The prelude to the first chapter reads:

“We went to the playground court to find our missing fathers.  We didn’t find them but we found a game and the game served as a daddy of sorts.  We formed families of men and boys, male clans ruled and disciplined by the game’s demands, its hard, distant, implacable gaze, its rare, maybe loving embrace of us: the game taught us to respect it and respect ourselves and other players. Playing the game provided sanctuary, refuge from a hostile world, and also toughened us by instructing us in styles for coping with that world.”

This excerpt, which goes on to talk about the boys leaving the men behind, introduces many of the book’s major themes: the love of the game and the lessons learned on the court; the forging of  male identity in the absence of fathers; life beyond the veil that W.E.B. DuBois described in The Souls of Black Folk; and the game’s impact on the players.

The book is about far more than Wideman’s recounting of his gradually emerging  prowess-he became an All-Ivy League forward at the University of Pennsylvania and the reader can feel him swell with pride when college coach Jack McCloskey  tells Wideman that he was the best rebounder on any team McCloskey had ever been associated with in his years in the game.

The book is rich and multi-layered, combining an imagined trip by the Harlem Globetrotters to Illinois, where the only black resident was lynched, reflections of Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and the development of minstrely, a painful recounting of Homewood native Maurice Stokes’ paralyzing injury, and Wideman’s enduring passion for the game.

Hoop Roots is intensely personal, too. 

Wideman writes about the distintegration of his 30-year marriage and contains a chapter in which he and his former wife Judy have a dialogue about their lives.  Wideman also has a section in which he nearly receives fellatio from a female student who has just graduated from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and shows up to his office dressed like Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct.

These titillating revelations aside, Hoop Roots also has lots of rhythmic and varied writing.  Wideman moves between staccato, verbless sentences as well as longer riffs that evoke a trumpeter’s jazz solo. 

Wideman’s final sentence is an example of the latter.

He writes, “The time our bare feet in the ring sout on southern plantations, tapped on the boards of Catherine Street wharf in New York City after we’d sold our oysters, and figured out more money was to be made, more space liberated by the mesmerizing charms of our flying feet, the tune drummed in just yesterday by the dribbler’s measured patting of the basketball as he jooks, spins, scoots over the asphalt on the court in the Village, over the coourt in Westinghouse Park, the park reappearing right on theim now after we’ve played at losing it, Freed, on time because it’s okay to go there now, it’s time to rename it, reclaim it, to let the thought of it materialize again, every detail clear, ready, and shining as we hump down the track or down Finance, Freed, to catch a run.”

In the end, the marriage ends, but the love for the game endures.  And so, with the fusion of time and music and soul, with the knowledge that balling means leaving the women behind, with the memories of his Homewood roots, in New York city on “one morning soon”, with other men, Wideman goes to play again.

Challenging?  Certainly.  Uplifting? Not necessarily.

Worth the time? Definitely. 

 The All-Star game begins  tonight at 8:00 p.m., but for anyone looking for something to do before it starts, I recommend picking up Hoop Roots and spending a few hours with it before LeBron, Kobe,  D-Wade and company show the world what they have for them tonight. 

Their skills may be greater than Wideman’s teammates, but I doubt they love the game more.