Upon Further Review: Sports in American Literature

By Michael Cocchiarale; Scott D. Emmert | Go to book overview

Basketball’s Demands in Paul Beatty’s
The White Boy Shuffle

Tracy Curtis

The vigorous pace of basketball makes describing its action while also including a sense of the game’s historical and social aspects challenging. Unlike baseball or football, basketball has a pace that requires broadcast commentators to delay observations on players’ history or past games until official breaks in the action. Conversely, descriptions of basketball in literary or historical settings often feel too ponderous to convey the game’s dynamism. In his memoir Hoop Roots, John Edgar Wideman remarks that writing in general focuses on “the alienating disconnect among competing selves,” leading to writing about basketball that often “describes ball games the reader can never be sure anybody has ever played” (Wideman 10). Even in his tale about basketball’s role in his life, he argues that the game’s speed makes it antithetical to traditional reflection. Commenting on the place history has in basketball he says, “[t]he past is not forgotten when you walk onto the court to play. It lives in the Great Time of the game’s flow, incorporating past present and future a past that’s irrelevant baggage unless you can access it instantaneously” (Wideman 9–10). He sets up a tension between the history that is useful in playing basketball and that which provides material for narrative.

If history is to be used in the game, the player must recall and react almost simultaneously. A split second later, the next play will have a different story. In contrast to this practical history, the written version is often linear, formal, and driven by cause and effect. Within a game, linear narrative is neither present nor relevant. Written history requires pause and reflection. Narration of these reflections typically follows familiar patterns. Yet writing about basketball by nonplayers indicates the inefficacy of explorations of the sport through traditional narrative. Players often frustrate reporters’ attempts to explain trends within a season. Questioners ask whether an incident in a previous game will affect the next game with that team. The players’ cliché

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