Hoop Roots: Basketball, Race and Love
by John Edgar Wideman
Nearly everything essential to the playground game resides in players’ heads. The game’s as portable as a belief. Fluid, flexible, and as open to interpretation as a song. Basketball on the playground requires no referee, coach, clock, scoreboard, rule-book. Players call fouls, keep score, mediate disputes, police out-of-bounds, decide case by case, mano a mano how close to mugging and mayhem the pushing and shoving and jockeying for position are allowed to escalate. They agree to seriously challenge each other physically but not maim one another in this game where everybody is constantly moving and extremely vulnerable, unprotected by helmets or pads as they fly through the air, sprint full speed, set picks and screens within the relatively small scale of a court’s dimensions, a court that shrinks precipitously, dangerously, the bigger, stronger, and faster the players are, the more both teams want to win.
© 2001 John Edgar Wideman. Reprinted with permission of The Wylie Agency, Inc.
The playground game is generated by desire. The desire to play. In this sense also it’s truly a player’s game. It exists nowhere except where and when the players’ minds and bodies construct it. If I hadn’t watched the game and listened to the stories, how would I have discovered its existence. How could I play it. The game’s pure because it’s a product of the players’ will or imagination. If the players’ desire cools, there is no game. Or at best some sloppy substitute of game not worth bothering with.
On the other hand the game’s also sensitive to the call and response of its physical environment, the nature of the play mediated by location, the condition and size of the playing surface, weather, the skill and numbers of players. Some courts draw players from all over a city. Other spots gain their rep from the players who reside near enough to be summoned by the drum of action. The history of a court, the roll call of greats who once competed there, the vagaries of urban renewal (removal), the official posture of the city, the welcome or rejection extended by the court’s residential neighbors all leach into the game’s soil.
To be worthwhile in any venue, the action must be improvised on the spot. You got to go there to know there. Like a one-more-time thing. Every note, move, solo, pat of the ball happens only once. Unique. Gone as soon as it gets here. Like a river you can’t enter twice in the same spot. Each performance created for/within an unrepeatable context, a specific, concrete situation that hasn’t appeared before or since. The hoop moves, the notes materialize in the flow of playing, then disappear instantly, preserved only in memory or word of mouth. Performance is all. The present tense presides. Films of playground hoop, recordings of jazz may achieve their own variety or art, repeatable, portable, stopping time, outside time in their frozen fashion, but the action is always long gone as soon as the players step off the court, off the bandstand. Gone in the limbo of fine lost things where lyric poetry seeks its subject.
Playground hoop is doing it. Participating in the action. Being there. The chance to be out there flying up and down the court. Its duration finite. Its time the only time, yet so intimate, inalienable, saturated, whole, it’s all time, Great Time. Each isolated moment briefer than brief (was I there, did it happen to me, tell me about it) also provides continuity, the novel, constantly evolving, improvised context allowing the solo, the move to happen one more time because the players share lore — assumptions, standards, common memories (an aesthetic) about making music, playing the game. These understandings persist. Are the ground against which the figures become visible.
You can pick up in the playing if you listen hard, listen easy enough, the chorus saying, We are doing this together and it’s just us out here but the game has been here before, other players have found themselves in the middle of this same deep, good shit and figured out how to deal. Similar moments set in transient yet abiding structures registered in the minds of players who are also the truest fans. The medium the message. Fragments of performance suggestive of a forever unfinished whole, the perfect whole tantalizingly close to now and also forever receding, each fleeting segment vital, absolutely necessary and equal and right if the show’s going to go on. The context that provides possibilities for the unexpected, the unknown, does not compromise or bully the moments. Playground hoop was invented to offer room, become room, to bust open and disappear except as invisible frame for what’s in the break. For what’s next, for what no one’s ever done, ever seen before. Maybe the primary reason the game exists and persists is because it reliably supplies breaks, moments a player dreams of seizing and making his or her own when he or she thinks music or thinks basketball. Moments when weight, the everyday dominoes collapsing one after the other of linear time, is shed. When the player’s free to play.