Basketball In The Blood


Welcome to March Madness at Tin House!

In the back lot, Sherman Alexie strokes money J’s like he breathes air.

Jess Walter shoots a rainbow jumper that is pure butter.

Natalie Diaz posts you up and makes you look like a fool as she lofts a jump hook as cool as the other side of the pillow.

John Edgar Wideman knows the sound of the net by heart.

C.K. Williams strides down the lane like a king of the finger roll.

Shann, in his Pepperdine playing days.

Look around you. Check with your people, your poets and prose writers, your nonfiction crowd. Yes, there is a common bond beyond words that resides somewhere on a hardwood floor between two panels of glass and two metal rings, where a net, a ball, and the sound of leather popping into a pocket of cotton makes people weep.

Who would have thought so many writers love basketball?

I have a theory about this, borrowed from Dostoevsky.

Here it is: “Beauty will save the world.”

And basketball is a beautiful game.

We witness the astounding elegance and profound power of the human body.

Something in the heart of basketball lovers everywhere rises when March comes around. Every year about this time, at night at the solitude of the writing desk I think of basketball and the rhythm and movement of women and men. The brotherhood I’ve found in basketball is akin to the sisterhood and brotherhood of the writing life when I go to the shelf and pick out a great book and listen to the gorgeous sequence of breaths and beats that rises from the page. I am brought into a sense of gratitude for the exquisite discipline of the writer and the gift they’ve given the world.

Similarly, March Madness draws me to appreciate the exquisite discipline of the athlete and the gift that comes of watching young women and men emerge as if from a fiery crucible, more passionate and more refined.

At Montana State, I played shooting guard on the last placed team in the league my freshman year.  Our team: seven young black men from all across the country and five white kids mostly from Montana. We had a marvelous, magical point guard from Portland named Tony Hampton. He was lightning fast and had wonderful ball-handling skills and exceptional court vision.  He brought us together with 7 games left in the season. Our record at the time was 7 wins, 16 losses.  Last place in the conference. “We are getting shoved down by this coaching staff,” he said, and I remember how the criticism and malice issued from the coaches mouths. Their jobs were on the line. They’d lost touch with their players. Tony said, “We need to band together right now. No one is going to do it for us. Whenever you see a teammate dogged or beat down, go up and give that teammate love. Tell him good job. Keep it up. We’re in this together.”

A team talk like that doesn’t typically change a season.

This one did.

Tony spoke the words. We followed him and did what he asked, and we went on a seven-game win streak, starting that very night when we beat the 17th ranked team in the country, on the road. The streak didn’t end until the NCAA tournament eight games later. In that stretch, Tony averaged 19 points and 11 assists per game.  He led the way and we were unfazed by hell or high water.  We had our own inner strength.  Playing as one, we won the final three games of the regular season.  We entered the Big Sky Conference tournament in last place and beat the number fourth, second, and first place teams in the league to advance to March Madness. When we came home from the Conference tournament as champions, it felt like the entire city was at the airport to greet us. Men and women, girls and boys, everyone went crazy when we came off the plane. We waded through a river of people giving high fives and on the spot we held a wild pep rally with speeches and roars of applause.

We went on to the NCAA tournament as the last ranked team, the 64th team in a tournament of 64 teams. We were slated to play St. Johns, the number 1 team in the nation, the number 1 team in the field of 64.  We faced off in the first game of the southwest regional, and far into the second half we were up by 4. St. John’s featured future NBA players Mark Jackson (future NBA All-Star), Walter Berry (collegiate player of the year and future NBA player), and Shelton Jones (future winner of the NBA dunk contest). We featured no one with national recognition. We played well, and had the lead deep into the second half but in the end we lost by nine.  A tremendous journey. A once-in-a lifetime journey.

In life there is the reality of being encumbered or full of grace, beset with darkness or in convergence with light, and for the artist who writes there is the question of how one establishes an evocative interplay between darkness and light, between violence and beauty, a paradoxical embrace of both nature and nurture, be it in landscape or character or the shape of a story, the role of lyricism, the percussion of cadence, or the consummation of narrative force. Having loved basketball much of my life, I believe this interplay echoes the wholly realized vision of exceptional point guards and the daring of pure shooting guards, the speed and finesse of the wing slasher, the stretch four with arms like a praying mantis who rains threes in bunches, the power and torque of the center who catches a lob in mid-air and thunders over every defender.

The writing life is mystery, grace, torque, transcendence.

In basketball too we encounter the ineffable, the formidable, the agony, the ascent.

March is a time of year when writers who love basketball feel it in their bones.

The blood rises, the heart grows hopeful.

Fill out your brackets everyone, and let the madness begin!

Shann Ray teaches leadership and forgiveness studies at Gonzaga University, home of the nationally #1 ranked Gonzaga Bulldogs, as of this posting.  He played college basketball at Montana State University and Pepperdine, and professional basketball in Germany’s top league, the Bundesliga.  His book of short stories, American Masculine (Graywolf), won the American Book Award, the High Plains Book Award, and the Bakeless Prize.  His book of creative nonfiction and political theory Forgiveness and Power in the Age of Atrocity (Rowman & Littlefield/Lexington) was an Amazon Top 10 Hot New Release in War and Peace in Current Events.