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Friday, November 9, 2001
Updated: November 27, 3:34 PM ET

John Edgar Wideman


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John Edgar Wideman is the first writer ever to win the distinguished PEN/Faulkner fiction award twice. In the early 1960s, he was an All-Big Five and All-Ivy League basketball player for the University of Pennsylvania. He currently teaches at Amherst.

John Edgar Wideman
Author John Edgar Wideman was an All-Ivy League player at Penn in the early 1960s.
Wideman's latest book, "Hoop Roots" is the story of his lifelong fascination with playground basketball. So, Page 2 began its Burning Questions with Wideman at a most logical place -- the intersection of basketball and writing.

1. Page 2: How are writing and playing basketball similar?
John Edgar Wideman: Writing "Hoop Roots" was a substitute or a surrogate activity. I can't play any more -- my body won't cooperate -- so in the writing of the book I was looking to tell a good story about my life and about basketball, but I was also looking to entertain myself the way that I entertain myself when I play.

The primary thing writing and basketball share is the sense that each time you go out, each time you play or begin a piece, it's a new day. You can score 40 points one game, but the next game, those points don't count. You can win the Nobel Literature Prize, but that doesn't make the next sentence of the next book appear. With both writing and basketball, it really is a question of starting fresh each time out -- you have a chance, but you're also tested each time.

1a. How is basketball a way of telling stories?
Wideman: For me, the game was the spine of my book, the excuse to organize my memories and experiences.

It's a way of telling stories in a more general sense, too. Say there's a guy who works, I don't know, at the post office. He works all day and goes home. Doesn't make a lot of money. Now, he isn't worth much, according to some measures. But say he plays in a regular game, and he can really play. The other players down at the playground call him "Sky." Now that, too, is the story of his life. It becomes something he takes home with him. It's another story of who he is.

2. You once said that you write to "release the spiritual force" of simple acts and simple objects. What is the spiritual force of basketball?
Wideman: That's a hard question. In some ways, the whole book is my attempt to at least organize a feeling for that, if not to answer it.

I'm pretty sure one thing playground hoop does is remind us that we have, in small portions -- small in terms of durational time, but very large in terms of how we can affect our total sense of ourselves -- those little moments in games when we feel in synch, when we feel that time has kind of stopped and we're on stage and we're in control of our lives. That's a very rare feeling. Most of us don't feel that way most of the time. Basketball can give us a kind of mystical awareness. Everything seems focused and in balance.

It may be something as simple as focusing on whether a shot is going in or not, or whether I'm going to make the pass to my teammate. The awareness that takes, for the seconds that it's going on, for that moment, what you're doing is the most important thing in the world.

3. You've dealt with a lot of loss in your life and you suggest in your work that writing helps you deal with that loss. Is playing ball also a way to cope with pain for you?
Wideman: I wish it was that easy. I try to cope by doing what I do, what I find purpose and joy in. For me, that has been writing and playing ball. It doesn't make the pain go away, but what else can I do?

World Trade Center
Wideman says Americans shouldn't use sports to avoid dealing with what happened on Sept. 11.
I've been writing about what happened at the World Trade Center lately, not because I can change things, but because it's all I know to do. These things are overwhelming, but you do something that gives you strength. You know you can't change the world, but you imagine yourself, for the time that you're writing or the time that you're playing, as changing the world. That's what writing is, it's imagining that you can make a world. That's what basketball is, too, it's imagining the game as a world.

It was important for us to return to sports after what happened on Sept. 11. But I think we have to be really careful, too, particularly in America, about how we think about sports. Sports are an opiate for us, like Marx talked about religion as the opiate of the masses. I've heard a lot about getting back to normal lately, but to me, the idea that watching football all day Sunday is getting back to normal is dangerous. A lot of Americans could choose to just disappear that way, to avoid dealing with what's happened. Thanks to television, football is just violence and commercials now. I love the game. I played it. But what we've made of it & we've turned it into a bread and circuses kind of thing. We need to participate. With so much of sports we've let ourselves become spectators first.

What I wanted to do in talking about basketball in "Hoop Roots" was retrieve the game as something to participate in, not to watch.

4. What do you mean when you say basketball is a democratic game?
Wideman: It's democratic in that anyone can play it. If you want to play, it's there for you. One person can play, or two, or 10 of us can agree at any time and almost anywhere to get a run going. If you want in on that, call "next" and you can get in on that. You have to want to play. The game depends on the will and the spirit of the players.

It's democratic because you can have a bunch of old, bald, hobbling guys like me play, or you can have a mix of young and old, guys and girls, people of all different races. The game is available to all of us.

That's just the ideal, of course. You don't want to call next on a court full of 6-foot-7 guys, if you can't hang with them. And these days, some of the best games are taking place in private gyms, and you have to have keys to get in. But there's an ideal, and that's what I'm interested in.

5. If basketball is a music, what kind of music is it?
Wideman: It's in the ear of the beholder, of course, but I'd say it's classic African-American music, improvisatory, spontaneous, invented on the spot. Each time it's played, it's something new. Like most African-American arts, it comes from a traditional emphasis on invention and creativity.

5a. What kind of music are you listening to these days?
Wideman: I wish I had time to listen to music more. I'm busy chasing this book all over the country right now. But I'd say my listening is very eclectic. Two nights ago I settled down and listened to Chopin and listened to some nocturnes, and it just went right through me. Then the next day, I put on WAMO in Pittsburgh and listened to some hip-hop and was into that. I don't know bands, but I know what I like.

6. What was your best move as a player?
Wideman: To shoot (laughs). My worst move was to try to go left. I had a terrible left hand. I was a hustler, a dabbler. I was a scorer, I guess. I could put it in from a lot of different angles. If I was on a team, we were going to get some points.

6a. What's your best move as a writer?
Wideman: Listening, to what's around me, to myself.

Jamila Wideman
Jamila Wideman was a standout point guard at Stanford and later for the WNBA's L.A. Sparks.
7. Your daughter Jamila was a star at Stanford and also played in the WNBA. What's the greatest thing you've ever seen her do on the court?
Wideman: There are so many things about her game that I love. She has amazing determination. I can't remember a time when somebody beat her to the ball. I saw her play against Marion Jones, and Jones was faster than Jamila, but she didn't beat her to the loose ball.

I love her coolness, too. She is so smooth under pressure. That really makes me proud. You know, 14,000 people in the stands at Stanford, and Jamila was fine. If there was a decision to be made, a play to be called, a move to be pulled off, she was always there.

8. Who is your favorite old-school player?
Wideman: I loved Elgin Baylor. I used to wait outside Convention Hall in Philadelphia when the Lakers would come to town. I was going to Penn at the time, and one of the perks of playing for Penn was we got passes to Convention Hall. So I'd wait for him. I never met him, but it was enough to see him come in. I can still see him plain as day. He glided in like he glided on the court. Watching him come in, that was enough for me.

8a. Who is your favorite new-school player?
Wideman: Well, I followed Jordan, of course. I was a big fan of the Bulls and I wrote about him when he played. I guess he's playing again -- that's what I hear anyway.

Allen Iverson
Watching Allen Iverson was a real joy for Wideman last year.
Last year, I really enjoyed watching Allen Iverson.

8b. What does the mainstream media fail to understand about Iverson?
Wideman: What they fail to understand about race in general -- that there is no either/or in this life, that we're a complicated people. You're not either an undisciplined playground player or a disciplined professional. There's a whole lot of middle ground. That's the ground of creativity and identity. That's where the action is. That's where Iverson is and that's where the media fails to go.

The picture that's painted is that Iverson should shape up and become a good citizen, but that picture doesn't account for how he's already teaching a lot of so-called good citizens about how the world really works, about how it has changed and is changing. Look, young people shouldn't grow up to be like their parents. I mean, we didn't make such a great world, really. We should learn from the youngbloods, from the light their lives puts on ours.

9. If you could have super-human powers, would you choose to be invisible, to fly, or to have the strength of 100 men?
Wideman: (Laughs) You know, I would hold onto what I have. My imagination allows me to do all those things. I don't want to choose just one.

10. If you could invite any three people from throughout history to a dinner party, who would you invite and why?
Wideman: Easy. One very good cook and two people who didn't eat a lot.