Street Basketball and the Act of Mourning

I never played basketball at a high or very organized level. But for 40 years, until I quit in 2012, I frequented the rec centers at the universities where I studied and worked, to play “pick-up” or “noon-ball” once or twice a week. Nothing kept me from the court over those years. Not kin. Not work. Not my inability to go to my right. Not my indifferent defense. On the court, I found very little wrong. I liked the feel of the ball. I liked talk to trash. I liked how the game preoccupied my mind with nothing other than positioning my body: setting picks, boxing out, and shooting the ball. It was exercise; but it was so much more. Pick-up basketball was not just of and for the self.

This little ode to my “glory days” is not meant simply as a lament. I recall my time as a white middle-class basketball player in American society because of the stark contrast it sets with the black under-class players Onaje X. O. Woodbine writes about in his wonderful new book, Black Gods of the Asphalt: Religion, Hip-Hop, and Street Basketball. For the young men in Woodbine’s book, street basketball disconnects players from daily life in a way that gives them joy, like noon-ball did for me. But, at the same time, inner city life literally enshrouds their game, and this tragedy is what Black Gods brings to life in vividly realized accounts of young men and the street ball tournaments they play.

In equal measure, Black Gods is both autobiography and ethnography. It tells the story of Woodbine’s life on and off the basketball court in Boston’s low-income black neighborhoods, as well as the larger story behind street basketball in that city today. The book begins when Woodbine resigns from Yale’s basketball team after two successful but deeply alienating years, and with it the patronizing blowback his resignation created among coaches and the college community at large. Playing street basketball in the context of a fatherless single parent home, the game—for him and for many other young men like him—had a distinctly moral quality which allowed him to feel a kind of wholeness he lacked in daily life. Varsity basketball at Yale, by contrast, felt cold. As the first to go to college, not only in his immediate family but in his Boston neighborhood, Woodbine decided that it was more important to become a well-educated black man in America than it was to complete his intercollegiate eligibility in the Ivy League.

The book, which offers some great basketball writing, depicts the passionate joys of street basketball in tournaments that commemorate the dead; where play may be both ecstatic—dunks arouse delirium—and an act of mourning. Organized by players, street-ball tournaments are held on courts every weekend all summer in Roxbury, Dorchester, and Mattapan (including one built at the site of the murder of a 14-year-old student who was mistaken as a gang member). Through moments of silence, videos, and banners, each tournament explicitly commemorates such deaths. The tournaments assemble a moral community in concentric circles that enclose the court. At the outer edges, there is a strong gang presence. The middle ring consists of women and children selling refreshments. Uninhibited spectators press close to the court and create an intensely vocal atmosphere of call and response. In the middle of it all, neighborhood-based teams play for their dead. Street-ball tournaments, I suppose, might be loosely compared to pre-Lenten celebrations, like Mardi Gras in New Orleans, when the power and prestige structures of everyday life get reversed, but much more tenuously.

Toward the end of the book, Woodbine recounts a moment when a player leaps in the air with the ball and soars so far up above everyone else in the game that time seems to stop. But what happens? He doesn’t dunk. He doesn’t even shoot the ball. He simply returns to the asphalt. He returns to the commemorative world of the tournament. Basketball only allows an ephemeral escape from daily life, as uncompromising as gravity.

Nevertheless, players tell Woodbine how important basketball is to them; and how the triumph of making a slippery, slick move to the basket, and belonging to a team, kept their moral identities alive amid gang violence and poverty. On the court, say the young men, they find freedom and “their humanity.” Again and again, we hear how the game provided teammates (brothers) and coaches (fathers) who became proxies for kin killed in the world beyond the court. Woodbine’s main argument in Black Gods is that street basketball is like a religion to players, but one that both does and doesn’t work. Street basketball both does and doesn’t create meaning, power, and moral order for players. It does and doesn’t resolve or relieve their grief.

There is the story of Shorty, whose play seemed guided by “an otherworldly force,” and who, at the age of 15, was a local legend among neighborhood kids who adored his “unscripted and uncanny” style of play. Shorty tells Woodbine about the context of his childhood, where the street was filled with drug dealers and he viewed the court as his salvation. Then, when his father made him buy crack for his family, Shorty began using himself, and was in jail by 18. When he meets Woodbine in 2012, he is sullen and barely able to speak. His grandmother and best friend, Kane, are both dead, but Shorty keeps playing because when he does he feels connected to them. The basketball court, for Shorty, is both a refuge from and a “repository for” his suffering.

Woodbine explicitly argues that the game consoles young men who otherwise have no way to grieve, but he also concedes that the solace street basketball games offer does not return mourners to social life with hearts and souls in one piece. It doesn’t work, he claims, because the community to which they return is itself broken; it lacks paternal authority, it lacks figures of masculine love who might nurture the young. As such, the game the Black Gods play is bittersweet; it is jubilant but the basket is made of heartbreak.

The world of street basketball Woodbine’s compelling, disturbing book portrays is a far cry from my little world of pick-up basketball. Sure, the game is one and the same. Each side has an equal number of players, one ball and a basket to attack and defend. But everything else—which is to say, the game’s significance—could not be more different. For the heroes of Black Gods of the Asphalt, the game is a momentary pleasure that is part of a life and death American struggle to maintain moral personhood in a hell that is hardly of their own making.

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David Lipset is Professor of Anthropology at the University of Minnesota