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A wisdom-inducing
case of hoops fever

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I have hoops on the brain. I bounce a ball down the driveway to the mailbox and back. At night, after dinner, I lie on my back on the bed and flip the ball in the air over and over. I'm carrying an old Downtown Freddie Brown trading card in my wallet. I've got it bad.

The fever started when I read John Edgar Wideman's new book, "Hoop Roots," a memoir and meditation on the appeal of playground ball. Then, last weekend, my amazingly wise and generous wife gave me a free-standing basket as a birthday gift. "It will be good for you," she said. "You need this."

I've been lost in a hoop dream ever since. I have Wideman in my ear and a ball in my hands, and I feel fine.

Wideman is an accomplished writer, probably best known for "Brothers and Keepers," the story of his relationship with a brother serving life in prison for murder. He's also an accomplished ballplayer -- team captain and All-Ivy League at Penn in the 1960s, and a dedicated pick-up player ever since. "Hoop Roots" tells the story of how he discovered and fell for the game on a court in Homewood, Pa., one summer when he was young. It also makes the case that playground ball is an art, and a mode of African-American resistance.

The book understands basketball as a way of seeing things, and Wideman is at his best when he talks about the game as a way of seeing himself. Playing and writing about ball remind him what it was like to edge out into the world for the first time, help him make sense of being black in a predominately white culture, and let him tap into the power of his body, and to appreciate its limits. As he projects his thoughts and memories through the lens of basketball, the book isn't just his story, it's a testimonial to the way hoops, or whatever sport you love, can take hold of you and become a way of organizing and imagining your experience, on and off the court.

Excerpt from "Hoop Roots"
Because the game rules, the game will assert its primacy. I need the game more than it needs me. You learn that simple truth as a neophyte, an unskilled beginner enthralled, intimidated by the unlikely prospect that you'll ever becomes as good as those others you watch. Learn this truth again, differently, the same truth and a different truth as a veteran observing the action you can barely keep up with anymore and shouldn't even be trying to keep up with anymore.

You play for yourself, but the game's never for you or about you. Even at your best, in those charmed instants when the ball leaves your hand and you know that what's going to happen next will be exactly what you want to happen, not maybe or wishing or hoping, just the thrill coursing through your body of being in the flow, in synch, no fear of missing or losing or falling out of time -- even in those split seconds which are one form of grace the game delivers, the game is larger than you, it's simply permitting you to experience a glimmer, a shimmer of how large it is, how just a smidgen of it can fill you almost to bursting. When you were born the game was here waiting, and the beat will go on without you.

---- John Edgar Wideman, "Hoop Roots," Houghton Mifflin, 2001

I've been out in the driveway every day since we set up the basket, shooting, dribbling to the edge of the pavement, shooting again. I take 10 free throws in a row, telling myself to bend my knees, breathe out, follow through. I dribble between my legs and fade straight back. I toss the ball off the garage door, take the pass and turn to the right for a quick shot. Between shots, I stop to look at the dirt on my finger tips and then line them up with a groove on the ball, pull my elbow in, square my shoulders and let it go.

I haven't had a hoop in my backyard since I graduated high school, but the ways I'm moving now, the sound of the ball on the pavement ... these are things I know. They echo other late afternoons spent shooting alone, and open up memories of days when I played so long I could barely hoist the ball to the rim. I was a wound-up kid, worried about everything. I used the time and isolated rhythms of backyard practice to work things out when my head was full. Concentrating on flicking my wrist or locking in on an imaginary spot just two inches above the rim would push me out of my thoughts. If I stayed at it, my mind would become blissfully empty and, as Wideman puts it, I'd "lose myself in doing something."

If the game is a way to reflect on who you are, it also offers a vision, every time you lace up, of who you might be. Hoops, Wideman says, are an exception to the "dictates of the workaday world," a challenge to mainstream ideas and expectations. More than relief, he's interested in the idea that the rhythms and rules of the game offer a chance to participate in an alternative sensibility.

Jazz musicians talk about this kind of thing -- the pianist Cecil Taylor describes playing in an uncommon chord structure or time signature as an experiment in another "mode of being." Forget who you have to be, or who you worry you should be, when you play, you're privy to a range of options, you feel chances to improvise a more graceful or powerful version of yourself and to test out new ways of interacting with others. The so-called "real" world might be categorized and segregated, but the court is an instrument, Wideman says, prone to democratic arrangements and full of "infinite possibilities for expression."

The possibilities are political -- they allow African-Americans, for example, to "act out a symbolic version of who they are, who they want to be."

The possibilities are personal, too. Each run up the court is an opportunity to reinvent what you've done before, every shot or pass is a variation on the theme of your form.

Playing means always being unfinished, still becoming the player, maybe even the person, I hope to be.

This week on the driveway, that hope has been played out in dozens of subtle ways. "Shoot from the balls of your feet," I think. "Press off your left side. Now your right. Roll the ball off your index and middle finger tips. Bring your left hand under the ball. No, let it fall away. Exhale on release. Don't be afraid to miss. Let go. Fade left and believe it's going in anyway."

I read somewhere that Mike Krzyzewski tells his players the most important play is the next play. I'll buy that. I guess, like Wideman, I play ball because it lets me see myself not only as the guy who missed or made the last shot, but also as the guy about to take this shot.

Eric Neel will review sports culture in his regular "Critical Mass" column for Page 2. The former managing editor of Sportsjones, Neel holds a Ph.D. in English from the University of Iowa.

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