Uncategorized | March 15, 2005

With the NCAA Division I Basketball Tournament pairings announced, and with friends and colleagues pouring over brackets and RPIs and dreaming of finding Cinderella and great riches, I found myself thinking about literature and basketball, and why, when compared to baseball and even football, basketball seems so underrepresented in terms of quality fiction and poetry.

As a kid, I remember reading the children’s novels from the Chip Hilton series, written by hall of fame college basketball coach, Clair Bee, and it is the basketball storylines that I still most vividly recall–especially the drama of who made the team and who was cut, and the conflict between individual success (leading the city league in scoring) and team success (winning the game). Later, it was a poet and son of a basketball coach who would change my relationship to literature, who would allow me to see poetry and fiction as having something to do with the world I knew (and I knew high school basketball). The poems of Jack Ridl, professor of English at Hope College and son of Buzz Ridl, legendary coach at the University of Pittsburgh and Westminster (Pa.) College, were, in part, poems of basketball and growing up, fathers and sons, shooting free throws until dark and dreaming of sharing the court with your brother.

Hoosiers remains one of my all-time favorite movies, and basketball continues to be well-represented on the big screen and on the small screen (White Shadow anyone?). John Updike’s Rabbit Angstrom, ex-high school basketball star, stands as one of the central characters on the post-war American literary landscape, his life forever shaped and informed by the metaphor of basketball. And Swede Levov, from Philip Roth’s American Pastoral, would certainly find a place on any literary all-conference team. But in the context of American literature, basketball isn’t baseball. The author list is dominated by major newspaper and magazine columnists who turn their hands to fiction (hello, John Feinstein; hello, Mike Lupica; hello, Rick Reilly), not by Bernard Malamud and Don DeLillo, W.P. Kinsella and Mark Harris.

Still, in the spirit of the season, here are some suggestions for those of you who would rather read than watch, or who wish to do something “constructive” while waiting for your team’s next game: The Basketball Diaries, by Jim Carroll; the basketball novels of Charley Rosen, including Have Jump Shot, Will Travel; One False Move, by Harlan Coben; The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, by Sherman Alexie; and Heroes, by David Shields. And, of course, Chip Hilton. And Jack Ridl.

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