Monty Python showed Greece upset Germany in the Philosophers’ Football Match of 1972. It’s a must see. Google it. Now. I won’t spoil it, but there’s some late game action that’s spectacular…and heady. If the world’s philosophers favored football, I’ll wager the basketball gods must be poets at heart. Or maybe all great poets reincarnate to be great basketball players. Who’s your top five?
I got Walt Whitman at point guard: a visionary, stoic and firm, wise. At the 2-3 (shooting guard-small forward positions), I’ll take Langston Hughes and Dylan Thomas. Talk about a force to be reckoned with. Hughes, so versatile and smooth (“Mother to Son”, “Theme for English B”, “Harlem [Dream Deferred]”), will break many-a-ankle while scoring with ease, and Thomas, so cold and true with his words, will hit a jumper in your face while reciting, “Do not go gentle into that good night,” son! At the 4-5 (power forward-center positions), I got Emily Dickinson and Sylvia Plath. Honestly, who wants to drive to the paint against “A Coffin—is a Small Domain” and “Lady Lazarus”? If we stretch this to an 8-poet team, I’ll take Ginsberg as my sixth man, because I’m sure he’s good for about 17 points and at least 3 steals off the bench. Seventh and eighth man, but just as valuable, I got Maya Angelou and Miguel de Unamuno. Finally, my pick for Player-Coach: Lao-Tzu.
I write, but I’m no poet. I’m into prose, but prose writers are more like long distance runners or swimmers, and that’s not all that entertaining to watch. Poets have style, poise, and natural swagger. A few weeks ago, a good friend and colleague of mine made a profound comment about, as he put it, “the dynamic character that is basketball.” Darren’s a broad shouldered Aussie who looks more like a rugby chap, but he’s a baller. A 3-4 forward. He was making his end-of-season speech about his Junior Varsity Girls’ bball team at our school sports award night. Darren spoke first for a bit about how the girls had improved both individually and as a team – typical end-of-season talk – but then he took a turn for the tangential. He said that to really understand basketball, to know basketball, you have to walk it, talk it, and live it. He said there’s a flow to the game that morphs into your day-to-day: the way you actually walk and talk – your voice, tone, pace, rhythm, volume. The way you actually interact with the world. I got chills. I looked around the room and wondered if anyone was feeling like me. My boy Darren nailed it. Basketball is a game, sure, but great basketball, like great poetry, is fluid and graceful, purposeful and adventurous, fundamentally simple, but also layered with intricacies. Style, poise, and natural swagger.
Growing up along Tobacco Road in the late 80s and early 90s, every day I was shooting hoops on my raggedy but cozy cold-a-sac court, challenging my cousin at one-on-one, playing catch-and-shoot with my mom, rehearsing crossovers under a dimly-lit street light, preparing for that last second shot or that behind-the-back pass or that celebratory fist pump. My friends and I were living and breathing hoops in the middle of the Golden Era of Atlantic Coast Conference basketball.
Each week from December until March there were three or four games that would keep me up well past my bed time, and the next morning I was reading the stat lines and coaches’ quotes in Raleigh’s The N&O. There was Horace Grant and Dale Davis, Danny Ferry and Alaa Abdelnaby, Dennis Scott and Kenny Anderson, Rodney Rogers, Grant Hill, Vinny Del Negro, J.R. Reid, Bobby Hurley and Christian Laettner, King Rice, and Walt Williams. Dave Odom, Dean Smith, Terry Holland, Gary Williams, Coach K, and Cliff Ellis. The greats. They were living legends. The league was ripe with brilliant players, huge personalities, inspiring coaches, unbelievable games and moments. Rhythm and flow.
My 9-year old self was convinced that every point mattered, and while my mom never condoned pulling for Duke or Carolina ever, when the two played you’d pull for Duke, because you lived by your ABCs – Anybody But Carolina. You see, my mom’s house is built with red brick, and everyone who lives under the roof bleeds red. Wolfpack red. Jimmy V red, baby! Tommy Burleson, Monte Towe, David Thompson-touch-the-top-of-the-backboard red. Dereck Whittenberg to Lorenzo Charles alley-oop dunk red. Fire and Ice – Chris Corchiani and Rodney Monroe – red. Anything else was sacrilege.
The ACC has since changed – as has college basketball – and maybe it’s lost some of its greatness. The level of athleticism seems higher, but then kids leave early with unrealistic NBA dreams. Conferences move and shift more than bandwagon fans. Players more concerned about posturing – too much Swaggy P syndrome. I’ll take a hustling Wojo over a flashy Tyus Jones any day. The poetry has changed. Perhaps I’m a bit of an ACC purist, but these days there’s, like, twenty teams in the conference, and in 2017 the ACC tourney will move to Brooklyn.
What does Brooklyn know about the ACC?
Keep it on Tobacco Road, please.
Great poets move the masses, start revolutions, and challenge mortals to consider something more. Sure, maybe the great poets couldn’t care less about hoops, but one can wonder. The game, too, teaches and challenges and moves. There’s growth and failure and learning and inspiration. Rhythm and flow. I moved away to college and then kept moving further and further away from my Wolfpack red roots. Since, I’ve fallen hard for literature, and now, I watch way more NBA than NCAA. It’s just better, more rhythmic, more transcendent basketball. I’m hopeful though. There are poets out there ready to play. I’m proudly a product of the Golden Era of ACC bball (even though my real playing days never went past high school hoops). The game has taught me as much as great literature has, and, in my world, they have to go together. Bball and poetry, bball and lit. This is the best time of year for fans. March Madness spills into the NBA playoffs. My boy Darren got it right: hoops, like poetry, affects how we interact with the world. It’s March Madness, baby. Pray to the bball gods for greatness and in between games, read some poetry. Who’s your top five?