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Poets on the Art of Basketball

Todd Davis

Publication Year: 2012

If baseball is the sport of nostalgic prose, basketball’s movement, myths, and culture are truly at home in verse. In this extraordinary collection of essays, poets meditate on what basketball means to them: how it has changed their perspective on the craft of poetry; how it informs their sense of language, the body, and human connectedness; how their love of the sport made a difference in the creation of their poems and in the lives they live beyond the margins. Walt Whitman saw the origins of poetry as communal, oral myth making. The same could be said of basketball, which is the beating heart of so many neighborhoods and communities in this country and around the world. On the court and on the page, this “poetry in motion” can be a force of change and inspiration, leaving devoted fans wonderstruck.

Published by: Michigan State University Press

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. vii-ix


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pp. 1-5

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Basketball, Poetry, and All Things Beautiful

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pp. 3-5

In December 1891, just three months before the death of Walt Whitman, Dr. James Naismith nailed two peach baskets to the wall of the gymnasium at the YMCA International Training School in Springfield, Massachusetts. Taking up the challenge of his department chair to create...

First Quarter

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pp. 7-58

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Hidden Talents Fail to Materialize

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pp. 9-17

Some poets talk about baseball as the most poetic of sports because there is no clock, but I think sometimes poetry needs a clock— that sense of urgency created by the seconds ticking down. For my money, basketball is the most poetic of the major sports. The problem is that my...

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Basketball and Poetry: The Two Richies

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pp. 19-24

Basketball was my first love. Or perhaps it was my religion, if religion can be defined as that which most governs your life. As a teenager, I played almost every day, sometimes shoveling snow off the schoolyard court in order to do so. Sometimes I played in the dark, a distant streetlight...

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Two Things You Need Balls to Do: A Miscellany from a Former Professional Basketball Player Turned Poet

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pp. 25-29

Buzzer beaters and miracle shots are nonexistent in poetry— every poem I’ve heaved into the mail with more prayer than craft or confidence has been off the mark...

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The Simple Rhymes of Defense

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pp. 31-37

Lee Pierce looked like he knew his way around. When he stopped to speak to the guard at the initial Western Penitentiary checkpoint, Pierce told him who we were instead of requesting directions. “The Scared Straight basketball team,” my office mate voice- overed, citing a show that...

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Basketball and Poetry: Strange Bedfellows

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pp. 39-52

MARGARET: David McKain and I met at Yaddo in the summer of 1975. I lived in Washington, D.C., and taught at George Mason University, where I had come up for tenure a year early but hadn’t received it. In fact, I didn’t really feel I had tenure anywhere. My first marriage had ended...

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Basketball and the Immigrant Faith

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pp. 53-58

In 1986, when our bodies could do such things, four of us would contort into a Pontiac Fiero, a matchbox two- seater loaned to us by one of the gambling regulars. Our parents could play mah- jongg all night, the plastic tiles like the feet of a small flock of birds clacking on a roof...

Second Quarter

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pp. 59-98

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Spinning in My Hands

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pp. 61-67

I distinctly remember, can still feel the amazement of, the first time. When I was growing, the local school system did not believe competitive sports were good for developing young girls— somehow were bad for our ovaries or, more likely, taught us to be confident and assertive. So...

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Against All Odds

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pp. 69-71

My father was quite a sports enthusiast— actually, the term “sports nut” would be more appropriate. He loved just about all of them— football, baseball, hockey, golf, even bowling. But the one sport that really got him revved- up was basketball. He never played the sport and he never...

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The Ball Goes in Clean

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pp. 73-81

Growing up in Elkhart, Indiana— factories and cornfields sprouting on acre after acre of flat earth— the only poem I wanted to write was on the basketball court where we played pickup ball. No matter the weather. No matter how hot or how dark or how many mosquitoes howled...

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pp. 83-86

I hang at the high school bike stands and lock my bike and then, pretending not to like my spot, unlock my bike and move it to another spot and lock it up again. I do this a couple of more times to come to homeroom with her already in her seat up front so that I can pretty much stare...

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In Praise of Bad Boys and the Evolutionary Leap

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pp. 87-92

Today, as I drive through my suburb on my way to the market, I notice how almost every home has a basketball net either above the garage or adjacent to the driveway. I smile as I think how it’s just one more change in the landscape we now take for granted. I remember the Detroit...

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Why I Wrote the “Magic” Johnson Poem

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pp. 93-98

As a young man, I was a basketball player, a point guard, who was also the coach out on the floor. Point guards are good passers, dribblers, and they run the offense. I could pass and dribble, and I was a scorer, too. I wanted to win, to be a champion, and I always played on championship...


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pp. 99-108

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The Art of the Cheer

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pp. 101-108

The afternoon I bought my first record, “Red Rubber Ball” by the Cyrkle, I went to my best friend Jovita Becker’s house. She plucked the single from the sleeve and dropped it onto her turntable with a crunch of the needle as the sound of the Farfisa organ rang out, and we danced the Pony on the...

Third Quarter

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pp. 109-159

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Fast Break

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pp. 111-117

I know it in my intestines & in my brain. I realize it with what Emerson called “the flower of the mind.” We are coming to the end of all poetry. Not just these word- constructs we read in books or once in a while hear...

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Tipping Off

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pp. 119-122

And what took place outside the court was that after we lost (yet another) close game to Reed City at home, the other starting post player and I left through the back doors of Manistee High and drove down to First Street Beach still in our jerseys, still with our ankles taped. We...

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Off the Rim

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pp. 123-129

When I was nineteen, the only thing that mattered as much as playing basketball was watching basketball. Indiana University in Bloomington, 1991, and the center of my campus was a monolith called the HPER. HPER is an acronym for School of Health, Physical Education, and Recreation, but for...

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Courting Risk: Thoughts on Basketball and Poetry

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pp. 131-141

It’s dark and probably rainy, the kind of soft drizzly rain Seattle did not invent but shares with Ireland, with London and Amsterdam. I have been walking north on Fifteenth Avenue Northeast from my dorm because it’s still dark out and this route is well lit. Now, almost to NE...

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Basketball, Failure, and Amateur Pleasure

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pp. 143-149

What is it about basketball? Someone once pointed out that it’s ridiculous to have a sport in which games are regularly decided by something like one one/hundredth of the total points scored. After a 106– 105 game, how can we really say that one team is better than the...

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My Two Obsessions: Basketball and Poetry

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pp. 151-159

January 16, 2007. I woke up early and, out of habit, sat at my computer— entered nba.com into my search engine to check the news for the day, to ascertain which games were to be played between which teams and when...

Fourth Quarter

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pp. 161-201

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“More Beautiful Than Words Can Tell”: A Poet’s Education in Southern Basketball

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pp. 163-171

By midseason, they’ve finally figured out the three- man weave. The slap of the ball against the gym floor obliterates the grind of city traffic outside and comes close to erasing the scream of cargo jets settling toward the FedEx hub for the evening sort. I’m coaching my son’s...

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pp. 173-178

I have been blessed by elbows. Elbows intentional and elbows incidental. Elbows brought forth in the fury of a rebounding scrum, and elbows caught flush from a seven- footer’s drop step. Elbows planted with eyes firmly set on their target and elbows flailing off balance until the face or shoulder or neck...

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It Was Easier to Say, “I’m a Basketball Player” Than It Is to Say, “I’m a Poet”

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pp. 179-182

“How’d it go out there today? Did you work on your left hand? Shoot fifty free throws? Tap a hundred off the backboard? Work the key?” Those were the words I’d hear, often hear, daily hear from my father. He was a basketball coach. I was the coach’s kid...

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Reading Sebastian Matthews

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pp. 183-188

The minute I saw the basketball on the Queen’s University campus in Charlotte, North Carolina, I should have made myself scarce. Then before I could decline, five of us were looking for a court, a game in the air like a good image in a poem suggesting possibilities...

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Going Exactly Where We Want to Go

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pp. 189-195

When I was ten, I didn’t need to see a photo to know that my mother, a lanky beauty, had been an energetic and skilled basketball player, captain of her 1944, ’45, and ’46 high school team, the Clark Bars. The name itself intrigued me. Not only was it the favorite candy bar of my...

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Squeak from Shoes

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pp. 197-201

This weekend our family will play in five basketball games. I will play in two and attend my daughter’s three select league games (plus her two soccer games), and her school’s basketball season hasn’t even started yet. One weekend we played eight games...


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Announcing My Retirement

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pp. 205-210

On New Year’s Eve my family and I were in our nation’s capital, in a hotel less than half a mile from the White House. It was the first time my two sons, ages thirteen and ten, had been to Washington. We had spent much of the previous week walking up and down the Mall, checking...

Team Roster

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pp. 211-222


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pp. 223-224

Back Cover

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E-ISBN-13: 9781609173166
Print-ISBN-13: 9781611860351

Publication Year: 2012