Hey Tin House Hoopsters, picture this as we enter the final week of March Madness!
Your bracket is nearly entirely busted, but for a team or two hanging by a thread.
Your favorite team is out.
You won’t win the office pool, but you may still claim victory in the last game of smack talk with your neighbor whose team lost in the round before yours.
Nothing left now but to go back to the daily grind.
Nothing left but the old-fashioned joy of the game.
But in basketball, as in life, you ask yourself: how much joy is there?
It’s a game of broken bones and broken hearts.
Depression sets in, and as a matter of fact even here so near spring, Nature turns a cold eye on you and it begins to snow. You do a double-take out the window.
Snow, of all things, falling in heavy sheets that cloak the land in white. You need to get right with the game again, you say, shaking your head.
Get your heart right. But why is one team better than another? What makes a team great? How do we rise and how do we fall? Will it be Louisville, Michigan, Wichita State or Syracuse? Your mind spins as you stare at the keyboard, the pencil, the pen. When does prose or poetry enter the mythical Final Four? You wonder if you’ll ever write what you were meant to write. You click something obscure into the search engine, something about the definition of great writing. Fools gold, you think, but you come across William Giraldi, words that strike with the blunt force of a forging hammer.
Don’t let anyone tell you that it’s impossible to prove how one book is better than another. The difference between a major poet and a minor one is that the major poet writes into the density of language while the minor one merely floats on top of it, and the same holds for prose writers. “[Gerard Manley] Hopkins,” (Geoffrey) Hill said, “enters language as a bird takes off into the air,” and that’s exactly what you feel when reading Nabokov and Bellow at their most vibrant. You know when you’re holding a novel whose language betrays a staggering lack of register, every noun and verb the available jargon, every adjective limply obvious, a morass of cliché without vigor or revelation, abrupt sentences that have arrived on the page without a commitment to the dynamism and dimensions of language. What’s the chief defect that makes Tom Clancy vastly inferior to Nadine Gordimer? The lame inevitability of his language, flogged sentences that disclose a mind incapable of activating self-knowledge or delighting in analogues, and a pandering to the simplistic and reductive, which is precisely how propaganda works.
Serious smack talk, right there in the online ether.
You sit at your desk long after the others have gone. You look long and hard at the screen, then at the window. You remember as the snow falls how lonely we all are, and how you’ve dreaded going back to work after the Madness is over. You remain in your chair until past midnight.
The window is dark, the world outside inviting.
Beyond your reflection in the black pane of glass, the snow falls in slow big flakes, everything white and new, the snowscape like a dream. In your mind you line up the seams of the ball to the form of your fingers. You see the rim, the follow-through, the arm lifted and extended, a pure jumpshot with a clean release and good form. You see the long-range trajectory and the ball on a slow backspin arcing toward the hoop, the net waiting for the swish. A sweet jumper finds the mark, a feeling of completion and the chance to be face to face not with the mundane, but with the holy.
You take the ball from the crawl space beside the desk.
You walk out the door to the car and drive.
At the end of a narrow street you pull into the parking lot of an old grade school. When you position the car lights and turn off the engine all is calm and quiet. Two basketball standards stand next to each other, side by side about 40 feet apart, one basket a little higher than the other.
Bright-lit hoops. Behind and to the side, darkness.
You sit in the heat of the car and stare out.
In the light of the high beams everything is so brilliant, you shudder.
The high end is the shooter’s end, made for the pure shooter, a silver ring probably two inches higher than normal and with a long white net full of snow. Tonight the car lights bring it alive, rim and backboard like an industrial art work, everything mounted on a steel-grey pole that stems down into the snow and concrete, down deep into the wintry hard soil. The snow has fallen for hours, plush and white, and in the car’s light the snowflakes gather like small bright stars.
You leave the lights on, cut the engine and grab your basketball from the heat in the passenger foot space. You step out. The air is crisp. The wind carries the cold, dry smell of trees, and further down, more faint, the smell of roots, the smell of earth. Out over the city, white clouds blanket everything. The night is your sanctuary, snow softer and deeper as it covers you and captures the whole world.
This is where it begins, the movements and the whisperings that are your dreams. You listen and move like the river seven blocks south, stronger than the city it surrounds, perfect in form where the water bends and speaks, bound by snow.
You stare at the rim. The high beams have made everything new. The net has collected snow for hours and atop the rim it settles in a soft white ring, a band of snow six or eight inches high. The street is illumined, the architecture of each hoop in stark relief, angles of metal covered in white, everything sparkling of snow and light.
You walk quietly and move into position. The message is an echo in your mind: only one shot at the game-winner. In the title game your senior year in high school you might have won with a shot like this in the final seconds of double overtime, the gym-noise like an inferno. Your brother might have met you in the parking lot when the bus returned to the school and you might have gone home and stayed up the whole night and laughed together and talked hoops.
All night, until dawn.
We are attended by darkness and light.
The net is long and white, laden with snow. No training for this, other than the chance to rise like the players of old, to shoot the jumpshot and feel the follow-through that lifts and finds the rhythm, the sound, the sweetness of the ball on a solitary arc in darkness as it falls and finds its way.
Every shot is a form of gratitude. You watch the rim and envision the ball in flight.
Then you angle to the baseline where you kick an opening at the corner of the court. As you clear the snow, the corner lines reveal themselves, and a step further in, the place where the three-line intersects the baseline. With your shoes you sweep a path about two or three feet wide, following the three-point line in a wide span up and around the key, all the way to the other side. You also clear a route along the baseline and up in order to outline the blocks, the key, the free-throw line. From there, to keep from spoiling it you walk back down to the baseline and up around the three-line again to the top of the key. Here you clear a final straight-away, deep into three-point territory.
All is complete. The maze you’ve created lies open, an imprint that reminds you of this solitary life, a stepwise progression of highs and lows, a form of forms that is a memory trace and the weaving of a line begun by loved ones and friends and by all you have gone before, some of them distant and many gone, all of them beautiful in their way. The loneliness and the love that unburdens loneliness are like a basketball in flight, the yearning and the longed-for affection, the heightened expectation, the resolution that comes of seeing the ball in the net.
The moon is hidden, the sky off-white, a far ceiling of cloud lit by the lights of the city. Snow falls steady and bright. Your body is limber, the joints loose from clearing snow. You have a good sweat going. It’s just your hands that need warming so you eye the rim while you blow heat into them. The motion comes to you, the readying, the line of the ball, the line of the sky. You remove your coat and throw it out in the snow toward the car. You are in a grey t-shirt. Steam lifts from your forearms.
The ball is perfect, round and smooth. The leather conforms to the heat of your hands. You square your feet and shoulders to the rim and the gathering runs its course. At the height of the release your elbow straightens and the arc of the ball is pitched beautifully, like a crescent moon in the air—the follow-through a small lamp post in the dark, the correct push and the floppy wrist, the proper backspin, the arm high, the night, the ball, the basket, everything llumined. Your hand as it follows through is loose and free, the ball the radiant circle. Your hand as it follows through is loose and free, the ball the radiant circle you’ve envisioned from the moment you looked out the window at work, small sphere in orbit to the sun that is your follow-through, a new world risen with its own glory here among the other worlds, the playground, the schoolhouse, the cars of distant streets, the nearby fire hall.
Breath plumes from your mouth and all is silent and slow as the snow falls and the darkness and the shadows bend backward from the tall fan backboard. You see the halo of snow on the rim, the ball falling from above like a dark stone as it pierces the white ring. A muffled boom sounds in the air and snow flings wide.
Below the net a small cloud of snow fractures into tiny points of light, glittering as they descend to the ground.
You breathe and stare at the open hoop, no longer bound by snow, at the ball that has bounced and come to rest in the white space of the key. An arm of steel extends from the high corner of the school building. A light burns there.
You reach the ball, lift it up and carry it to the car. up and carry it to the car. As you walk you are caught in the beam of the headlights and snow surrounds you, your body black. Behind you the net moves in the wind, each square clear and clean.
A ring of snow remains, a white wreath above the rim.
You turn the car out from the playground to the street. The city knows nothing of you, nothing of those who speak your name, the voices and shadows, the days and nights, the stars that blaze and die out. You drive home. Inside the apartment, the floor doesn’t creak or strain. You slip unnoticed from the kitchen to the hall. Your breathing is quiet. The city sleeps. In bed you draw the covers to your chest and leave your arms free. You cast the basketball up over your head into the darkness and follow through, releasing everything. The follow-through is like the neck of a swan. You catch the sphere again in your hands. You lay the ball near your head.
No one is lonely. No one is afraid.
We are all lonely. We are all afraid.
You close your eyes and sleep.
You dream of a city where people remember each other’s names, where beneath the fear we reside in places of sacredness to which others are invited, sanctuaries attended by the architecture of what we lend to one another and raised by slight motions and larger movements that build and break away and result in things that surpass what we imagine. All your life the geography of words has shaped how you spoke or grew quiet, shaped your understanding of things that began in fine lines and continued until all the lines were gathered and woven to a greater image. That image, circular, airborne, became the outline and the body of your hope.
The Madness begins and ends and begins again.
There is grace in the world despite such deeply held suspicions.
A basketball on a fine arc ascends, and falls, entering the light.
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.