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Hoop Roots : Basketball, Race, and Love

Hoop Roots : Basketball, Race, and Love

by John Edgar Wideman

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A multilayered memoir of basketball, family, home, love, and race, John Edgar Wideman’s Hoop Roots brings "a touch of Proust to the blacktop" (Time) as it tells of the author's love for a game he can no longer play. Beginning with the scruffy backlot playground he discovered in Pittsburgh some fifty years ago, Wideman works magical riffs that connect black


A multilayered memoir of basketball, family, home, love, and race, John Edgar Wideman’s Hoop Roots brings "a touch of Proust to the blacktop" (Time) as it tells of the author's love for a game he can no longer play. Beginning with the scruffy backlot playground he discovered in Pittsburgh some fifty years ago, Wideman works magical riffs that connect black music, language, culture, and sport. His voice modulates from nostalgic to outraged, from scholarly to streetwise, in describing the game that has sustained his passion throughout his life.

Editorial Reviews

John Edgar Wideman presents a look at the connection between the game of basketball with both his own life and the history of black America. His novels have tended to reflect on the game, but in Hoop Roots he focuses on how black manhood and basketball have been intertwined for generations. What does a 59-year-old do when his jump shot is starting to fade a bit? Wideman shows that he's still got game.
Library Journal
Basketball originally propelled novelist Wideman away from the Pittsburgh that later inspired his wonderful Homewood novels, such as Sent for You Yesterday. In more recent novels, Philadelphia Fire and Two Cities, Wideman's narratives have often detoured back to the ball court. Hoop Roots is more openly about the author's lifelong relationship to the game, but it has its share of breakaways, too, into black, white, music, love, marriage, seduction, and divorce as the author takes stock of changes in himself and his boyhood world. Part middle-aged memoir, part blacktop coming-of-age story, the book is Wideman's grudging acknowledgment that, still dabbling in pick-up ball at 59, he is laboring in an unforgiving game of youth. Wideman ably contrasts his early tutelage on the all-male ball court with his boyhood in a matriarchal household. But despite its impressionistic historical sweeps, this book's attempts at a cultural history of the sport are unsatisfying (especially Wideman's crankily light chapter on the jump shot). Nor does it dwell as long as it might on the national basketball success of the author's daughter Jamila. Basketball is a standard (along with writing) against which Wideman has long measured himself, and this uneven but original work is his "way of holding on." For dedicated Wideman fans and large sports collections. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 6/15/01.] Nathan Ward, "Library Journal" Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Novelist Wideman (The Cattle Killing) uses basketball as a doorway through which to glimpse black manhood. Probing his memories and childhood for a larger meaning, as he did in such previous memoirs as Fatheralong, Wideman focuses on basketball as a thread that ties together his past and present. It's his present-day decision to stop playing that takes author and readers back to the summer when he first learned the game. With his father absent and his grandfather dead, the boy went to the basketball court to find what his mother and grandmother could not provide. In his interpretation (thankfully free of the hokum baseball seems to inspire in writers), playground games were rites of passage: not only did players measure their physical growth against others, they established seniority and passed on rules and etiquette that became marks of belonging. This is not a conventional memoir. Wideman also includes a paradigmatic short story entitled "Who Invented the Jump Shot (A Fable)" about a black dimwit who invents CPR only to be hung for touching a white woman; an argument for basketball as folk art; and a call to rename his childhood playground for two local legends. The latter is a particularly effective piece: Wideman makes archetypal giants of men already born large enough to excel at basketball, and in calling for a new name he looks forward to a future with black-defined meaning while evoking the past of Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, and Malcolm X. Each chapter displays Wideman's range as a writer and gives the text a richness that the well-trod field of memoir could not provide alone. He takes a lot of risks, but not always successfully. At points the narrative is needlessly vague and staccato, and Wideman's interpretations of basketball are sometimes clouded by his love of the game. Still, a few missed shots are acceptable in both basketball and books. A creative, rambling blend of memoir, fiction, and essay.
From the Publisher
"brilliant tribute to basketball, survival and families. . .as exhilarating as a few fast and furious hours on the court." Publishers Weekly

"A creative, rambling bland of memoir, fiction, and essay." Kirkus Reviews

"Reading Wideman is like listening to John Coltrane. Like 'Trane, Wideman is challenging, furious, confounding, and healing." Boston Globe

"Buried at various depths in Hoop Roots are love letters to basketball, his family, his youth and his race." The San Francisco Chronicle

"...dazzling and confounding for all the usual Wideman reasons. Breathtaking insight. And Missing verbs. Memorable flights of literary fancy." The San Diego Union-Tribune

"Playground anecdotes are expertly told, from no-look, alley-oop passes to standing on the court, hearing the teaching voices of the players.." The Denver Post

"An unconventional memoir, Hoop Roots is at times evocative and provocative, bristling with intensely personal revelations." The Baltimore Sun

Product Details

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
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5.50(w) x 8.25(h) x 0.56(d)

Read an Excerpt



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 us 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. Only trouble was, to reach the court we had left our women behind. Even though we'd found the game and it allowed us, if not to become our own fathers, at least to glimpse their faces, hear their voices, the family we'd run away from home to restore would remain broken until we returned to share the tales of our wandering, listen to the women tell theirs.

No book. Only a wish I can make something like a book about a game I've played for most of my life, the game of playground basketball I love and now must stop playing. At fifty-nine I'm well past the age most people would consider the natural, inevitable time to give up what's clearly a young person's sport. According to this conventional wisdom I've been stealing for years, decades, stretching unreasonably my time on the court, lacing on sneakers, abusing my body, running up and down as if it never has to end. My three kids are grown and I have a granddaughter in North Carolina old enough to chatter with me on the phone and as I write these words a horrifically bloody century has just ended, my marriage of thirty-plus years has unraveled, and each morning my body requires more coaxing, more warming up to maneuver through the thicket of old aches and pains that settle in during sleep. Still, for some reason basketball feels important. I'm not giving it up willingly. I dream about it. I'm devoting passion and energy to writing a basketball book. Writing something like a book, anyway, because for me what's more important than any product this project achieves is for the process to feel something like playing the game I can't let go.

So this writing is for me, first. A way of holding on. Letting go. Starting a story so a story can end. Telling playground basketball stories, and if I tell them well they will be more about basketball than about me. 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 become as good as those 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.

I think of this game and see my first son, Dan, best ten-year- old free-throw shooter in Wyoming, slowly bowing his head, his knees nearly buckling, eyes filling with tears, looking suddenly so tiny out there alone on the foul line in a cavernous Nebraska high school gym when he realizes his best is not going to be good enough that particular day to win the eleven-and-under regional-free throw contest. His brother, Jake, at thirteen sinking two sweet, all-net jumpers in a row from the corner to win a tough, tight pickup game in the university gym when finally both my sons are old enough to hold their own and play with me on the same team against college kids. See their sister, my daughter, Jamila, leading her Stanford University women's team, number one in the country, into an arena packed with 14,000 fans, a huge roar of rooting for and against them greeting her and her teammates as they trot onto the court, then the eerie quiet two and a half hours later, two and a half hours of some of the most riveting hoop I've ever watched, as Jamila, totally exhausted, collapses into her mother's arms after performing heroically and losing in overtime her final college game.

Whatever you make of this book, I need it. Need it the way I've needed the playground game. Need it like I needed this rain softly falling now, finally, after a whole day so close to rain I found myself holding my breath till dark in expectation of the first large, cooling drops. A sweltering June day I climbed a steep trail up a mountain and hiked through woods surrounding two small reservoirs where people skinny-dip and sunbathe naked, as if the summer of love never ended. Rain in the air, in the sky, on my mind all day. Gray heaps of clouds drifting in, gradually trumping what's been mainly blue. Then the sky scrubs itself stark blue again. The threat of rain never going away, however, even in the brightest streaming down of sunshine, and I can't stop needing it, daydreaming cool rain breaking through. Need to write something like a book because last week back home in Pittsburgh, in the morning I visited my brother Robby who's serving a life term in Western Penitentiary and in the afternoon of the same day visited in a VA hospital the body of my father whose mind has been erased by the disease Robby and the other prisoners call old-timers. Need it in this season of losses, losses already recorded in stone and imminent losses, virtual losses, dues paid and dues still to pay heavy on my mind, never far from my thoughts whatever else I might find myself doing in this transitional time, season to season, epoch to epoch, century to century, young to old, life to dying, giving up things, losing things I never believed I'd have to relinquish.

Playground basketball only a game. Why, given my constant struggling and juggling to fit a busy schedule into days without enough hours, does basketball sit there, above the fray, a true and unblemished exception to the rules, the countless hours committed to it unregretted. Why was basketball untouchable over the years as I devised and revised blueprints for making the most profitable use of my time. Why am I missing the playground game, yearning for it now even before it quite slips away. Why when I know good and well it's time to stop play- ing hoop, time to reconcile myself to the idea of moving on, why do I continue to treat these ideas as unacceptable. Why can't I shake the thought that this break from the game can't be final. If I'm patient, hang around, give myself a little time to heal, to get right, I'll be back out on the court again, won't I.

If I knew the answers, I probably wouldn't need to write the book, or the something like a book I'm pushing for, would settle for, anxious it may be less but also hoping for more than a book. No answers sought here. No book. My need enough. My desire to lose myself in doing something like playing the game.

Growing up, I needed basketball because my family was poor and colored, hemmed in by material circumstances none of us knew how to control, and 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. It's probably accurate to say that anybody, everybody wants more. But how strong is the desire. How long does it last. What forms does it take. How many young people are convinced they deserve more or believe they possess the strength required to obtain more or believe they actually have a chance for more. The idea of race and the practice of racism in our country work against African-American kids forming and sustaining belief in themselves. Wanting more doesn't teach you there are ways to get there. Nor does it create the self-image of a deserving recipient, a worthwhile person worth striving for. You need the plausibility, the 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, stifling, stunting the self- awareness of far too many. Including black kids not poor. Imagining a different portion is the first step, the door cracking between known and unknown. A door on alternative possibilities. If you want more and you're lucky enough, as I was, to choose or be chosen by some sort of game, you may then begin to forge a game plan. If you believe you're in the game, you may be willing to learn the game's ABCs. Learn what it costs to play. Begin making yourself a player.

I figured out early that hard, solo work the only way to get certain things about hoop right. Every chance I got I practiced alone the shooting, dribbling skills other kids had somehow mastered. Fear part of it. Fear of failure. Of humiliation. Love just as important as fear. Unconditional love from my family. A sense someone cared, someone rooted for me, someone expected me to do well. I didn't want to let those folks down nor behave on the court in a fashion they might be ashamed of. If I wanted more, I must risk failing, and it helped immeasurably to know that somebody somewhere supported my effort to play well. Would support me if I didn't play well. If no one cared, why bother. Why beat myself up. Set myself up for disappointment. Love helped me imagine I possessed the power to invent myself, make more of myself, become a player.

Fear and love, love and fear raised the stakes of the game. Engendered the beginnings of a hunger, the hunger driving the serious players I admire most, who never seem satisfied no matter how well they perform, players who consistently push themselves as if more hustle, more speed, more brawling competitiveness is never too much. Players who refuse to settle into a comfort zone, who won't accept limits, who attack the game with the same unstinting voraciousness as the game when it attacks them, consuming the best of their bodies and spirits.

The pampering and privileges I received because I was male and the oldest child in the various households of our extended clan certified love in abundance and also stimulated my desire for more. The slightly larger share my mother sometimes tried to slip me when she divided a cake or pie under the hawk eyes of my siblings I took not only as a sign of love and eldest status, as they did. The tiny bit extra also reinforced a sense of entitlement. Without exactly knowing it, I was beginning to single myself out, practicing in the interior world of daydream and fantasy, where no one could eavesdrop, how it might feel to exercise power and authority, fire and a voice I had almost no reason to anticipate my material circumstances — colored and poor in Homewood — would ever grant me.

Growing up in a world where adults heaped love on kids in any and every fashion they could manage, the women lavishing daily, close- up care and attention, the men leaving the house at dawn to line up on the corner where work might or might not arrive, men gone from can to caint, splicing multiple, piecemeal jobs into a precarious living wage, where delicious meals were scraped together from cheap cuts beaten and boiled to tenderness, from government-surplus cheese, powdered milk, and canned, ground, jellied, mystery meat, from chicken's feet, necks, gizzards, beef neckbones, pig's feet, a world in which piles of shiny new toys appeared miraculously once a year at Christmas, the holiday when grownups spent themselves silly, diving deeper, more hopelessly into debt as if one morning of glittering extravagance could erase all the empty-handed ones, in this world of abrupt change, boom and bust, feast and famine where love on one hand acted as a steadying, stabilizing force and on the other hand could exert no control whatsoever over the oppressive economic environment in which both kids and adults were trapped, without that love I would have been a lost soul, but love also created a desperate hunger for more, far more than the people who loved me could provide. Love bred a dark fear of its absence. Because if love disappeared, what would remain. Wouldn't the point be I didn't measure up, didn't deserve love.

As a kid, did I think about my life in terms of wanting more. More of what. Where would I find it. Did I actually pose similar questions to myself. When. How. Why. Looking back, I'm pretty sure about love, an awakening hunger for the game, and not too sure of much else. The act of looking back, the action of writing down what I think I see/saw, destroys certainty. The past presents itself fluidly, changeably, at least as much a work in progress as the present or future.

No scorebook. No reliable witnesses or too many witnesses. Too much time. No time. One beauty of playground hoop is how relentlessly, scrupulously it encloses and defines moments. Playing the game well requires all your attention. When you're working to stay in the game, the game works to keep you there. None of the mind's subtle, complex operations are shut down when you play, they're just intently harnessed, focused to serve the game's complex demands. In the heat of the game you may conceive of yourself playing the game, an aspect of yourself watching another aspect perform, but the speed of the game, its continuous go and flow, doesn't allow a player to indulge this conscious splitting-off and self-reflection, common, perhaps necessary, to writing autobiography. Whatever advantages such self-division confers are swiftly overridden when you're playing hoop by the compelling necessity to be, to be acutely alert to what you're experiencing as play, the consuming reality of the game's immediate demands. You are the experience. Or it thumps you in the face like a teammate's pass you weren't expecting when you should have been expecting.

Writing autobiography, looking back, trying to recall and represent yourself at some point in the past, you are playing many games simultaneously. There are many selves, many sets of rules jostling for position. None offers the clarifying, cleansing unity of playing hoop. 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. The past is not forgotten when you walk onto the court to play. It lives in the Great Time of the game's flow, incorporating past present and future, time passing as you work to bring to bear all you've ever learned about the game, your educated instincts, conditioned responses, experience accumulated from however many years you've played and watched the game played, a past that's irrelevant baggage unless you can access it instantaneously. Second thoughts useless. Opportunities knock once. And if you think about missing the previous shot when you're attempting the next one, most likely you'll miss it, too. And on and on, you lose, until, unless you get your head back into the game. Into what's next and next and next. The past is crucial, though not in the usual sense. Means everything or nothing depending on how it's employed and how you should employ it strictly, ruthlessly dictated by the flow, the moment. Yes. You can sit back and ponder your performance later, learn from your mistakes, maybe, or spin good stories and shapeshift mistakes into spectacular plays, but none of that's playing ball.

If playground hoop is about the once and only go and flow of time, its unbroken continuity, about time's thick, immersing, perpetual presence, writing foregrounds the alienating disconnect among competing selves, competing, often antagonistic voices within the writer, voices with separate agendas, voices occupying discrete, unbridgeable islands of time and space. Writing, whether it settles into a traditional formulaic set of conventions to govern the relationship between writer and reader or experiments with these borders, relies on some mode of narrative sequencing or "story line" to function as the game's spine of action functions to keep everybody's attention through a linear duration of time. The problem for writers is that story must be invented anew for each narrative. A story interesting to one person may bore another. Writing describes ball games the reader can never be sure anybody has ever played. The only access to them is through the writer's creation. You can't go there or know there, just accept someone's words they exist.

While playing the game is everything in playground hoop, in writing, if there ever was a game, it's finished before the reader arrives. The written text happens only after the action it describes, real action or imaginary, is over. Everybody's dead in a way before the story begins. The writer may be dead too, even though the text also and always enacts itself in a timeless, eternally present tense of composition. Pity the poor writer. He or she's a benchwarmer, a kind of made-up spectator who may or not be spectating the game in front of his face, or other games, other places, other times, or a mixture of the actual, of memory, wishes, dreams of game, a fictitious fan like those created in press releases by promoters who claim the arena's empty stands are full of adoring, paying customers so other paying customers will be attracted. Though the writer seems to be in charge, he's more like a coach who can't insert himself in the lineup. The closest he can come to the action is sending in a substitute for himself and reflecting the action from the sub's point of view. He can lend the sub his uniform, name, number, but the writer remains stuck on the pine.

In the early days of sports broadcasting, announcers at small- town, local radio stations would receive a tickertape summary of a baseball game occurring far away in a major league city. Based on the tape's skeletal account, the announcer (President Ronald Reagan labored as this kind of fabulator) would narrate the game to his listening audience as if he were sitting behind home plate, observing play by play what he was saying. Depending on the announcer's skill (deception) in manufacturing details, filling in background, elaborating in a colorful, dramatic fashion on the bare-bones info of a scanty script, the fiction of a ball game would become satisfyingly real or not for listeners. The writer's voice, like the voice of this remote, radio, play-by-play announcer, pitches itself to the reader from a site distanced from the action words describe — by many kinds of distance, many kinds of remove, many layers of art and artifice, illusion and lies that also keep the reader at a distance, multiple removes from the action, many forms of remove the reader can choose to think about or not (is this report fiction or documentary, true or false, is the tale-teller reliable, am I listening to a real person or a made-up person pretending to be a person, etc., etc.), but removes always there, built into the circumstances, conditioned by the nature of narrative construction.

Here's the paradox: hoop frees you to play by putting you into a real cage. Writing cages the writer with the illusion of freedom. Playing ball, you submit for a time to certain narrow arbitrary rules, certain circumscribed choices. But once in, there's no script, no narrative line you must follow. Writing lets you imagine you're outside time, freely generating rules and choices, but as you tell your story you're bound tighter and tighter, word by word, following the script you narrate. No logical reason a playground game can't go on forever. In a sense that's exactly what Great Time, the vast, all-encompassing ocean of nonlinear time, allows the game to do. A piece of writing without the unfolding drama of closure promised or implicit can feel shapeless, like it might go on forever, and probably loses its audience at that point.

Fortunately, graciously, the unpredictability of language, its stubborn self-referentiality, its mysterious capacity to mutate, assert a will of its own no matter how hard you struggle to enslave it, bend it, coerce it to express your bidding, language, with its shadowy, imminent resources and magical emergent properties, sometimes approximates a hoop game's freedom. The writer feels what it's like to be a player when the medium rules, when its constraints are also a free ride to unforeseen, unexpected, surprising destinations, to breaks and zones offering the chance to do something, be somebody, somewhere, somehow new. As if the tape the remote baseball announcer depends upon suddenly stops transmitting and he improvises a home-run riff to fill dead air, then discovers when the tape resumes ticking that some batter has knocked a ball out of the park.

Given all the above, I still want more from writing. More than a sense of being stuck on the sidelines. More than the puppetmaster's invisibility. Something besides the defeated, slump- shouldered dejection of seeing my team lose a game before I get a chance to enter it. Not because I expect more from writing, I just need more. Want to share the immediate excitement of process, of invention, of play. (Maybe that's why I teach writing.) Need more in the same way I needed more as I was growing up in Homewood. Let me be clear. The more I'm talking about then and now is not simply an extra slice of pie or cake. Seeking more means self-discovery. Means redefining the art I practice. In the present instance, wanting to compose and share a piece of writing that won't fail because it might not fit someone else's notion of what a book should be.

One of the worst trials for Americans of visible African descent (and maybe for invisible crossovers too) is the perpetual fear of not measuring up to standards established by so-called white people who imagine themselves the standard issue and also presume themselves to be the issuers of standards. We're plagued, even when we have every reason to know better, by deep-seated anxieties — are we doomed because we are not these "white" other people, are we fated, because we are who we are, never to be good enough. I need writing because it can extend the measure of what's possible, allow me to engage in defining standards. In my chosen field I can strive to accomplish what Michael Jordan has achieved in playing hoop — become a standard for others to measure themselves against.

So playground basketball and writing, alike and unlike, both start there — ways to single myself out. Seeking qualities in myself worth saving, something others might appreciate and reward, qualities, above all, I can count on to prove a point to myself, to change myself for better or worse. Hoop and writing may result in the most basic sort of self-knowledge, but none of that's guaranteed. They're about the seeking, the inquiry, process not destination. Hoop and writing intrigue me because no matter how many answers I articulate, how gaudy my stat sheet appears, hoop and writing keep asking the same questions. Is anybody home in there. Who. If I take a chance and turn the sucker out, will he be worth a hot damn, worth the trouble. Or shame me. Embarrass me. Or represent. Shine forth.

But before basketball and writing came music. All music but especially music performed by people who sounded like me, like the voices of Homewood. Music informing me how much more there was to being a black boy growing up than I'd ever have suspected without music's intimations. Music carved space. Music spoke a language of emotion, literally moved me, excited my mind and spirit, set my body parts dancing. A language half understood, brimming with much more than I could comprehend, but a language addressed to me, language belonging to me because it described me. Even when I didn't know exactly what a beat or rhythm or deep bass riff or falsetto trill were saying, I was seized. I could recognize what amounted to ideas, new information, trains of thought, revelations in Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers or the Swan Silvertones or Dixie Hummingbirds or Hank Ballard and the Midnighters. Though I couldn't translate the lucid, shimmering counterpoint of quartet close harmony into words, part of the magic, the freedom of music meant that I didn't need to turn it into words. And I guess I was lucky or smart because I didn't try to translate. Music escaped the net of familiar, everyday language, the official, standard register of speech, the standardized sound and sense that too regularly felt as if they weren't addressed to me, didn't belong to me. In various degrees Homewood folks resisted the dominant vernacular of the language, our speech played against it, or you could say fought, since our ways of talking were intended to detoxify certain features of the common language we felt unfairly raised some people (not us) up because they pronounced particular words in a specific fashion, people who, to our ears, flattened, depersonalized the rhythm of their English. Put other people (us) down who elided or decorated the pronunciation of individual words, who foregrounded the musical possibilities of their talk, speakers for whom cadence, repetition, tone, beat, metaphor, silence expressed a range of meanings and messages others might pursue by expanding and elaborating their vocabularies. The dominant language culture disrespected us, employed the arbitrary authority of its speech habits to mock our culturally inherited difference. Music assured me there was more out there to experience than a world already wrapped up tight in somebody else's words, words tangling me up in them while they also perversely excluded me. Long before I met Caliban, I experienced his ambivalence toward Prospero's tongue.

Good African-American music said once upon a time I'd been fluent in tongues the music spoke, and becoming an adult would surely involve relearning, needing to master these tongues again. Music promised more. It named me, stole my name, changed the names of familiar things around me, imbued ordinary situations with drama the way Hollywood soundtracks pump up the ante of mundane scenes. Transcendent is a word that comes to mind when I consider the capacity of music to expand the parameters of experience upward, elevating the spirit, extending the range of what's possible. Music ushers in a transcendent reality. Yes, it did and does rise, did inform my spirit, but music's messages just as consistently took dead aim at my flesh. Penetrated down to the body's visceral core. Even gospel, with its drumbeat and holler and dance roots, worked down to the gut, groin, ground. Transcendent, okay, but better to say music opened me — up and down and all around. Many years after leaving Homewood I encountered a Byzantine icon in a Cypriot church, a portrait of an angel with eyes all over, eyes on bosom, chin, wings, hands, arms, hundreds of all-seeing eyes, eyes all seen once the artist painted his vision. Pierced and transfigured by light, light entering, light going forth from the angel's eyes, a nimbus of light crowning her, and I think that's a picture of how music transformed me as I learned to listen and began dreaming of making my own songs.

No, not transformed or transfigured. Those ideas a little too easy. Just like the angel picture's a little too pretty. But I'm working. Working to help you see what I mean because that helps me see better. More. We're still on the more. Music said there's much more to life than meets the eye and said you were born with a gift, a faculty something like an eye or ear, and if you learn how to make it pay attention, it will reveal much more about the more there is to life, the more there is to you. You'll become different, you are different when you pay attention. Everything's larger than if you don't. Today I say to myself a gift was planted long, long ago deep inside the music by wise people wishing the best for you, wishing something extra for you — transfiguration, transformation — more for you infused in African-American music by beleaguered people who foresaw your coming and understood how desperately you'd need what they'd sown in the music. People who'd used music to single themselves out, to save themselves, music tattooing invisible markings on their skin (like those electronic dots stamped on your palm, unseeable except in a beam of infrared light you must pass your hand through before exiting from the prison visiting room). Hands clapping, feet stomping, a sway, beat, and keening moan, tribal markings aglow when the music's present, identifying your ancestors to each other, to you and yours in a vicious world that strips you and mocks your nakedness. African people who honored something precious in themselves worth too much to let anybody crush and found a means to pass on this knowledge, this more, this other inalienable part of themselves in the songs they sang, the rhythms thumped on drums or flesh with hands, sticks, feet, the whole body's bump and glide, lift and fall through air.

Finally, along with the music, also coming before and informing hoop, there were stories. They were out there. An oral history, so to speak, our version of who when what why. In somebody's mouth. Somebody's ear. Staying alive.

The thing was, since they were out there, being told and retold, you didn't have to think about them. Like money in the bank. You could count on them. There when you needed them. All kinds of stories for different occasions, to be told in particular places, at particular times, and as I hung around the court more and more, I heard the ball-playing ones. About hoop. About the playground game I can look back and say, yes, it's something I truly loved, one of the few things truly loved. Of course, I love my children, my blood relatives, but that's a different love. I didn't have to fall in love to love them, because I can't fall out of love with them. They were here before I got here and will be here long after I'm gone. They are who I am, all of us pieces of a larger thing each of us would be worth less without. The larger thing running through the blood we share and keep alive simply by living, by staying alive.

Playground hoop's something like that only it's not there first time you open your eyes, open your mouth to breathe. Hoop's like the people not blood kin you meet and love. You learn hoop. Then you fall in love. Learn the game and play the game a certain way and what you feel about it can turn to more than you ever dreamed a game could be, a game that starts out as messing around, trying to accomplish something vaguely challenging and fun, throw a ball through a hoop, a fun, silly kind of trick at first till you decide you want to do it better, shoot and never miss, pass and always deliver the ball where it's supposed to go, jump up and never come down. The more you think about getting better, getting to be the best, the harder it is to play without dreaming about a perfect game.

Excerpted from Hoop Roots by John Edgar Wideman. Copyright © 2001 by John Edgar Wideman. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Meet the Author

JOHN EDGAR WIDEMAN is the author of more than twenty works of fiction and nonfiction, including the award-winning Brothers and Keepers, Philadelphia Fire, and most recently the story collection God’s Gym. He is the recipient of two PEN/ Faulkner Awards and has been nominated for the National Book Award. He teaches at Brown University.

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