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Callaloo 24.4 (2001) 1198-1209
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John Edgar Wideman
We went to the playground court to find our missing fathers. We didn't find them but we found a game and the game served us as a daddy of sorts. We formed families of men and boys, male clans ruled and disciplined by the game's demands, its hard, distant, implacable gaze, its rare, maybe loving embrace of us: the game taught us to respect it and respect ourselves and other players. Playing the game provided sanctuary, refuge from a hostile world, and also toughened us by instructing us in styles for coping with that world. Only trouble was, to reach the court we had left our women behind. Even though we'd found the game and it allowed us, if not to become our own fathers, at least to glimpse their faces, hear their voices, the family we'd run away from home to restore would remain broken until we returned to share the tales of our wandering, listen to the women tell theirs.
No book. Only a wish I can make something like a book about a game I've played for most of my life, the game of playground basketball I love and now must stop playing. At fifty-nine I'm well past the age most people would consider the natural, inevitable time to give up what's clearly a young person's sport. According to this conventional wisdom I've been stealing for years, decades, stretching unreasonably my time on the court, lacing on sneakers, abusing my body, running up and down as if it never has to end. My three kids are grown and I have a granddaughter in North Carolina old enough to chatter with me on the phone and as I write these words a horrifically bloody century has just ended, my marriage of thirty-plus years has unraveled, and each morning my body requires more coaxing, more warming up to maneuver through the thicket of old aches and pains that settle in during sleep. Still, for some reason basketball feels important. I'm not giving it up willingly. I dream about it. I'm devoting passion and energy to writing a basketball book. Writing something like a book, anyway, because for me what's more important than any product this project achieves is for the process to feel something like playing the game I can't let go.
So this writing is for me, first. A way of holding on. Letting go. Starting a story so a story can end. Telling playground basketball stories, and if I tell them well they will be more about basketball than about me. Because the game rules. The game will assert its primacy. I need the game more than it needs me. You learn that simple truth as a [End Page 1198] neophyte, an unskilled beginner enthralled, intimidated by the unlikely prospect that you'll ever become as good as those you watch. Learn this truth again, differently, the same truth and a different truth as a veteran observing the action you can barely keep up with anymore and shouldn't even be trying to keep up with anymore. You play for yourself, but the game's never for you or about you. Even at your best, in those charmed instants when the ball leaves your hand and you know that what's going to happen next will be exactly what you want to happen, not maybe or wishing or hoping, just the thrill coursing through your body of being in the flow, in synch, no fear of missing or losing or falling out of time--even in those split seconds which are one form of grace the game delivers, the game is larger than you, it's simply permitting you to experience a glimmer, a shimmer of how large it is, how just a smidgen of it can fill you almost to bursting. When you were born the game was here waiting, and the beat will go on without you.
I think of this game and see my first son, Dan, best...