Courting Rituals

HOOP ROOTS, by John Edgar Wideman. Houghton Mifflin, 242 pp., $24.

Newsday, October 14, 2001

JUST AS John Edgar Wideman was learning to play basketball, his family moved from Homewood, a poor African-American neighborhood of Pittsburgh, to middle-class Shadyside, Pa. At Peabody High he was president of his class and captain of the basketball team. His intellectual and physical talents won him a scholarship to the University of Pennsylvania and, in 1963, a Rhodes Scholarship; at Oxford he coached his amateur squad to a championship. Wideman wasn’t quite talented enough to realize his dream of competing in the cautiously integrated National Basketball Association, and soon after returning to the United States, he became a professor of English and began writing novels, turning to Homewood and the African-American experience for material. As critics kept praising his work and comparing his voice to Faulkner’s, Wideman played pickup ball well into his 50s, until his aging body forced him to abandon the court. He passed along his love of the game to his children; his daughter, Jamila, spent several years in the WNBA.

This version of Wideman’s life in basketball belongs to a common narrative, the one that gives drama to NBA halftime shows, the one that fueled Bill Bradley’s presidential campaign, the one that props up the hopelessly corrupted collegiate athletic system. It is decidedly not the framework Wideman, author of the memoirs “Brothers and Keepers” and “Fatheralong,” chooses for his latest autobiographical exploration. In fact, some of the details above can be found in the brief sketches in “Contemporary Authors” or “Current Biography,” but not in “Hoop Roots,” Wideman’s fluid, wide-ranging and deeply personal meditation on family, race, storytelling, eros, play and sometimes basketball.

At the outset, Wideman warns that “Hoop Roots” may defy his readers’ expectations. “Whatever you make of this book, I need it,” he writes. “What’s more important than any product this project achieves is for the process to feel something like the game I can’t let go.” Wideman mourns the loss of one cherished form of playful expression while trying to revisit it through another. Writing and basketball pose some of the same challenges – both make one wonder, “If I take a chance and turn the sucker out, will he be worth a hot damn,” as Wideman writes – but the former can’t capture the immediacy of the latter. “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 of jostling for position. None offers the clarifying, cleansing unity of playing hoop.”

Wideman refers to other types of creative play, music and visual arts rooted in African traditions, that are analogous to writing and “hoop.” According to one scholar of Yoruba art cited by Wideman, “The bead artist continually changes perspective … The direction of strands shifts throughout the work.” The same can be said of the style and substance of the prose in “Hoop Roots.” This uneven but often engrossing book includes an imagined dialogue with a long-lost lover; a fable about an orphan, the only dark- skinned resident of his town, when the barnstorming Harlem Globetrotters pass through; a disquisition on how professionalization degrades basketball; and a Proustian probe of the origins of the author’s attraction to the court.

Wideman’s trips to the playground on Finance Street in Homewood, which at first lasted only a few minutes, represented his earliest steps beyond the watchful eye of the female relatives who populated his grandparents’ home and into the world of men. A group of white players offered him his first shot, but in Westinghouse Park, Wideman generally found himself as one “brown body” among many. Looking back, he wants to name the park after two of the fallen from Homewood: Maurice Stokes, a local hero and NBA rising star whose career and life were cut short by encephalitis neglected by team doctors; and Eldon “L.D.” Lawson, a talented but undisciplined peer who left college and ended up a diabetic amputee in the same prison as Wideman’s brother Robby. Just as “Brothers and Keepers” presents the author and Robby as two poles of the African-American male condition, Stokes and L.D., two men who took different paths but were held back by infirmities, stand for many others.

After Wideman’s mother moved to much whiter Shadyside, he returned to Finance Street for a summer to look after his grandmother, who had been paralyzed by a stroke, and to play ball in Westinghouse Park. The writer’s attempt to reconstruct his exploits on the court that summer also leads him to dredge up his budding erotic curiosity and confess, “I never touched my grandmother, but I did something just as bad. I imagined her to be someone else. A woman I desired. … I wanted her to die because I believed she heard everything I thought.”

When he does turn his attention to basketball, Wideman takes the approach of a social scientist or a dance enthusiast, not a sportswriter. He analyzes the fluctuating fashions in basketball shorts, and his descriptive passages focus on motion and mood, observing the player’s pleasure in the moment instead of treating him as a character in a larger drama. Wideman downplays the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat, and he rejects the cliches – Larry Bird as “bedrock symbol of mainstream values,” Magic Johnson as “the wild hair … whose act is entertaining” – that in his view transform the NBA into a racial masquerade, a modern minstrel show reenacted in playgrounds everywhere.

Wideman largely ignores team dynamics, which are admittedly a smaller part of the schoolyard game, and dwells on the individual. From his childhood games of 21 to watching the showboaters on Sixth Avenue in Greenwich Village, he writes about hoop as if it’s played every man for himself. One wishes he had heeded his own critique of the NBA, which downplays how teammates and opponents alike inspire each other. As Wideman says, “The media could have examined how Magic and Bird created each other, how they are inseparable, an amalgamation, how together they achieved something more, probably better than either could have managed alone.”

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