Essays

Sports and Narrative: Looking for the Great Basketball Novel

By posted at 6:00 am on May 30, 2017 13

During this hoops-rich period, the frenetic Madness of March having transitioned into the more austere months-long slog of the NBA Playoffs, I found myself fruitlessly poking around for a good basketball novel.  I’m both a writer and great fan of the game — my podcast, Fan’s Notes, pairs the discussion of a novel with a discussion of basketball, usually the NBA.  My podcasting partner and I tend to find no shortage of cultural and metaphorical linkage between the two art forms, yet modern literary fiction seems to harbor no special love for this great game.

covercovercoverFootball has A Fan’s Notes, End Zone, The Throwback Special, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.  Baseball has The Natural, Shoeless Joe, Underworld, and more recently The Art of Fielding.  For Christ’s sake, hockey yet has another Don DeLillo tome, the pseudonymously written Amazons.  Where, I find myself wondering, is the great basketball novel?
 

covercoverFirst of all, no, The Basketball Diaries is not a basketball novel. It is a memoir, and it is about heroin — it features precious little actual basketball.  John Updike’s Rabbit and Richard Ford’s Bascombe books both involve hoops to varying degrees, but not as a central concern or dramatic focus.  Under the Frog, by Tibor Fischer, is a very good book about basketball players, but it concerns 1950s Hungary, the titular frog being the regime of Marshal Tito.  What else is there?  Walter Dean Myers wrote several young adult books that revolved around basketball; there’s also Sherman Alexie’s YA novel Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and The Crossover by Kwame Alexander and the Blacktop series by my friend L. J. Alonge — interestingly, most books about basketball that come to mind seem to be YA written by men of color, while Big Sports Lit is very, very white.

There is not, as far as I can tell, a big work of literary fiction for adults that is “about” basketball, in the same sense that Chad Harbach’s Art of Fielding is “about” baseball.

Perhaps this has to do with the particular character of these sports. Baseball, with its mano-a-mano pitcher-hitter duels, is perfectly congenial to narrative — is itself comprised of a series of mini-narratives involving protagonists and antagonists (one way or the other depending on your rooting interests).  There is really no moment of solo heroism in any other major sport comparable to the walk-off home run (or strike out) to end a game; there is likewise no greater sporting scapegoat than Bill Buckner and his ilk.  In less dramatic terms, a baseball game is comprised of hundreds of discrete individual plays:  someone throws a ball, someone hits it, someone fields and throws it, and it is caught again by the first baseman for an out.  This is how traditional narrative is structured, a series of explicable interactions between a cast of characters that mount in importance and conflict until a crucial, deciding act that resolves the plot.  Even the structure of baseball’s gameplay is writerly, with its nine innings constituting nine tidy chapters inside the larger dramatic arc.

Football, too, though tritely metaphorized as violent, armed combat — marching up the field, a war of attrition, a massacre, etc. –is constituted by many clean moments of contest, various plot points interspersed between the interminable commercial breaks.  American football is American in character, pairing a love of mayhem with an equal love of bureaucratic fussiness.  The game’s horrifying ultraviolence is committed within the parameters of a rulebook thicker than a Cheesecake Factory menu, meted out in orderly skirmishes, and broken up by five minute replays to determine the spotting of the ball within a nanometer or two.  We want war, but we want a safe war, a manageable war in which the actors stay within their prescribed roles — in which no one, in effect, goes rogue (few things are more pleasurably disconcerting than a broken play and the ensuing spectacle of a four-hundred-pound lineman hurtling toward the end zone).  Again, this is very compatible with traditional storytelling, placing maximum visceral conflict and chaos within neat scene and a hyperrationalized narrative structure.

In contrast, the narrative possibilities of basketball seem somehow European in character, closer to futból than football (or as a British student of mine liked to call it, handegg).  Inbounds are approximate, as are jump balls.  Except in certain key situations, there are no replays and refereeing occurs on the fly.  Mistakes are routinely made, lamented, forgotten.

Superstar players — the protagonists of the game, so to speak — are coveted, but the play itself is supremely team-oriented.  Unlike baseball and football, in which individual statistics are iron-clad and fetishized, basketball stats are the subject of endless arguments regarding context.  It is curiously difficult to disentangle the individual moments that contribute to an orange ball falling into a hole.  Yes, someone shoots it, and yes, often someone assists on the shot, but a hundred other smaller actions, essentially unquantifiable — screens, shooting gravity, secondary assists, etc. — go into it as well.  And even the countable stats are the subject of debate.  Scoring twenty-eight points in a game sounds good until you look at how they were scored, with what efficiency, and giving up how much on the defensive end.  Quants — that is, stat nerds — regularly put forth the case that a player like Andrew Bogut, a low-scoring defensive bruiser who sets vicious picks, is as valuable than a shooting threat like Isaiah Thomas.  There is no comparable ambivalence in the record books of, say, baseball:  a homerun is a homerun is a homerun.

All of which is to say that there is, inherent to basketball’s play, an indeterminacy that may not lend itself to conventional narrative.  Moby-Dick versus Heart of Darkness, to throw a strange but perhaps productive analogy at the fridge (and thereby further mix metaphors), are like baseball versus basketball.  One is about a majestic, doomed assertion of individual will; one is about ambiguous forces clashing in a mist of doubt and dread.  Occasionally a basketball player comes along who is great enough to totally clarify the terms of the game:  LeBron James, for example.  But these players are surpassingly rare, generational.

If the orderliness of baseball and football lends itself generally to narrative, it lends itself specifically to retrospective narrative.  In much the same way that we often imagine our lives as a series of cruxes (and model that imagining in our fictions), a football game can be broken down into a series of botched or successful plays, good or bad calls.  These sports are almost built to be post-mortemed, in their perfect state only when finished.  It seems consonant, then, that big literary sports novels are typically about a character looking back at former greatness and lost innocence — either personally or culturally, or both.

And this type of literary sentimentality, in turn, pervades the cultures of football and baseball, which are forever backward-looking, enshrining and nostalgiazing moments, sometimes as they still happen.  Memorable plays are almost immediately assigned names as historically pungent as World War II battles:  “The Immaculate Reception,” “The Shot Heard Round the World,” “The Catch.”  Even the bungled plays have immortal names:  “The Fail Mary,” “The Butt Fumble.”

There aren’t really similarly fetishized moments in basketball.  Its fluid and complex play does not invite the same kind of nostalgic retrospection, and indeed, it is unsentimental about its history to a degree that routinely enrages former greats.  Basketball could never serve as a good metaphor for America’s glorious past, or even its fallen present (football still serves admirably here:  see Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk) but it might be just the sport for a more skeptical and circumspect twenty-first century, an era when we need a literature of certainty less than ever.

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13 Responses to “Sports and Narrative: Looking for the Great Basketball Novel”

  1. joseph barbato
    at 10:30 am on May 30, 2017

    How about Jay Neugeboren’s “Corky’s Brother”?

  2. millions commenter
    at 11:56 am on May 30, 2017

    “Quants — that is, stat nerds — regularly put forth the case that a player like Andrew Bogut, a low-scoring defensive bruiser who sets vicious picks, is as valuable than a shooting threat like Isaiah Thomas.”

    Considering Bogut was released midseason and IT was All-NBA 2nd team, I don’t think any rational person, Quant or otherwise, would make that argument. Not saying this isn’t true, but I’d love to see a source for this assertion, because I wasn’t able to find anything.

    “…and indeed, [basketball] is unsentimental about its history to a degree that routinely enrages former greats.”

    You’re conflating that former players like to complain about players today being soft, (but that’s more a byproduct of the way the modern game is officiated than anything else) with being historically unsentimental. Basketball absolutely reveres its past greats; Jordan, Kareem, Magic, Robertson, Bird, West, Wilt, and Russell just to name a few. The notion that other sports hold their own histories in higher regard is strange and inaccurate. Current accomplishments are incessantly contextualized by the feats of those who came before (e.g. Jordan’s legacy vs. LeBron’s) and former stars find themselves roles all throughout the league, from front offices to the broadcast booth. I’ve never heard anyone characterize basketball as being “unsentimental about its history” – that’s just patently incorrect.

    This is a fun article otherwise.

  3. Adam
    at 12:50 pm on May 30, 2017

    @joseph: cool thanks I will look that up

    @millionscommenter: To both your (fair) points, I was probably exaggerating a little for effect. Most teams would rather have IT than Bogut, though I don’t think it’s a slam dunk, pun intended. IT was I believe 3rd best in ORPM and dead last in DRPM and similar advanced stats. He gives up about as much on the defensive end as he brings on offense, game three of the series with Cleveland being exhibit A. Meanwhile, players like Bogut, Gortat, Tristan Thompson do lots of non-statistical dirty work that is integral to team success.

    Regarding basketball’s unsentimentality, yes former players are revered, as they are in every sport. But not, in my view, with quite the same sacrosanct vibe as football or baseball.

    Anyway, thanks for reading and commenting, glad you otherwise enjoyed!

  4. Elliott
    at 3:50 pm on May 30, 2017

    Another great baseball book – Bang the Drum Slowly.

  5. Camilo
    at 4:35 pm on May 30, 2017

    This probably won’t hold up, but still: historic/memorable moments in football/baseball get assigned named to celebrate the moment, whereas, with a few exceptions*, historic/memorable moments in basketball​ tend to celebrate the players involved. Starks dunks on Bulls, Kobe to Shaq, Bird steals the inbound pass, Pierce calls game, Kyrie from three, etc.

    *The Shot; The Flu Game; 8 points, 9 seconds; 81; 100.

    Regardless, interesting article, especially the YA angle.

  6. Sean H
    at 11:11 pm on May 30, 2017

    Check out 2014 novel Ride Around Shining by Chris Leslie-Hynan. He’s represented by Chris Parris Lamb (the agent who got Harbach’s mega-deal for The Art of Fielding) and the novel basically dramatizes the life of a personal assistant to an NBA player that is (essentially) Rasheed Wallace. There are some scathing takes on beta males, golddigger females, the privileges that come with black stardom contextualized against the privileges that come with white wealth, and funny-as-hell satirizations of various real life NBA players. Very post-Fitzgeraldian for the millennial set, and for some reason overlooked by the critical apparatus when it came out from Harper Collins.

  7. James
    at 1:29 am on May 31, 2017

    Tom LeClair, august lit critic and novelist, has written a trilogy of basketball novels, beginning with Passing Off.

  8. Adam
    at 8:42 am on May 31, 2017

    All:

    I was hoping this article would result in some recs. Thanks a lot, looking forward to checking these out.

  9. Christopher
    at 11:07 am on May 31, 2017

    I think the best basketball novel out there is Winning The City by Theodore Weesner. The plot seems pretty thin on the surface but it is as engrossing a (sports) novel as you’ll find. Anyway, it’s out of print so you’ll have to library or used book market it.

  10. James
    at 2:53 pm on May 31, 2017

    Forgot to mention Inside Moves by Todd Walton, which Sherman Alexie calls “the greatest basketball novel ever written.”

  11. Parker
    at 11:20 am on June 1, 2017

    Was going to recommend Paul Beatty’s incredible “White Boy Shuffle” until you disqualified books that “involve hoops to varying degrees, but not as a central concern or dramatic focus.” Basketball is an important plot point in Shuffle, but I’m not sure it’d hold up against that kind of scrutiny. Such a disqualification confuses me, however, when you list a book like Underworld as satisfying your definition of a legitimate baseball novel. Beyond the first 5% of Underworld, baseball really just serves as a macguffin. With all of that in mind, Beatty’s book could still be worth your time and consideration.

  12. NSR
    at 5:58 pm on June 2, 2017

    Either “Lords of Discipline” or “Great Santini” by Pat Conroy have quite a bit of basketball content, though I would not call them “basketball novels.”

  13. Bryan
    at 3:54 pm on June 10, 2017

    While perhaps not meeting the criteria of “central concern or dramatic focus,” Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones has some great writing related to basketball.

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