BASKETBALL'S DREAMY MARRIAGE WITH literature returns as a theme to The Weekly Rader. Last time, it was the Tournament of Books with its Final Four-March-Madness-Head- to-Head seeding of books and writers.
Today, though, in honor of the NBA playoffs, we're going simple. Just a regular poem by a regular guy, Sherman Alexie, who sent ESPN's Henry Abbot a poem Alexie wrote about playing pickup basketball with former NBA forward James Bailey.
Let me sing an honor song for James Bailey,
A pro hoopster who is mostly forgotten,
But for me will always be contemporary.
Nearly seven feet tall, clad in white cotton
And new hightops, he once rose and blocked my shot
Off the court and down the pavement walkway,
Bouncing, bouncing, bouncing, and rolling on a hot
August day until it splashed into Green Lake,
Maybe seventy-five yards away from the court.
That spectacular play shut down the game.
After that humiliation, who can keep score?
One guy asked me, "What's your name? What's your name?"
Because he wanted to get all the details
"Correct." Two other brothers just ran away
And never returned. I supposed I failed
In some basketball sense, by thinking my lame
Spin move running jumper could ever succeed
Against a player like Bailey. But I had game
In those days. Skinny and mean, I could compete
On any court. Or so I thought. How strange
To know, now that I'm old and broken, how young
And foolish I used to be. James Bailey
Was only a decent pro, but I was a runt
In his presence. I'm still a serf, puny
And contrite: "Mr. Bailey, I'm so sorry
I tried to sneak that garbage into your house.
But, damn, that block of yours was so pretty,
Epic, and canonized by the adoring crowd,
That my embarrassment felt like a blessing,
Like a parable teaching me this lesson:
When we hoopsters look into our interiors,
We learn we can be gorgeous and inferior."
Not enough people write about the poetry of basketball, especially the blue-collar workaday poetry of pickup basketball in which so much of what happens is, like a poem, a kind of groping for elegance and beauty. Most who write are, like Bailey in the NBA, competent, decent. What I like about Alexie's poem is his ability to find beauty in that which is not-stellar.