No Pressure No Diamonds: Hazel Meyer, Ross Gay, and Shooting out of the Phone Booth
by Ross Gay
Today it’s Selection Sunday, the day in March (March 16 this year) when teams are chosen to be, or not to be, in the NCAA basketball tournament so famously called “March Madness.” Although a number of teams will gain automatic bids—all those teams that win their conference championships—a good number of teams will be waiting on the decision of the selection committee. And the teams who know they’re going to make it—and the fans of those teams—watch to see what their seeds will be, which will determine who they play. If you’re a one seed, you’re going to play a sixteen, and I don’t know if a sixteen has ever beat a one. But if you’re a two seed, some fifteen might sneak in and beat you. It happens every year, unknown fifteens and fourteens and thirteens beating higher seeded teams. Those teams become known as Cinderellas, for what reason I’ve never figured out. And the sportscasters have never been kind enough to tell us: “People, the reason we are using this metaphor about the low-ranked team beating the high-ranked one is….” Clark Kellogg, Verne Lundquist, please?1 Anyhow, as you can imagine or know, this has become high stakes drama, probably televised on four or five ESPNs and CBS and Disney and Nickelodeon.
Not to mention the zillion pools in which people wager—small stakes and high—on the tournament, filling in the little brackets that will begin circulating about five minutes after the selections are made. This is, these days, called “bracketology,” a term coined by a guy named Joe Lunardi who teaches a class at St. Joseph’s in Philadelphia, a class on, you guessed it, bracketology. (Incidentally, one of the best men’s tournament teams to watch in recent years was St. Joe’s, driven by that year’s NCAA player of the year Jameer Nelson and the silky Delonte West, both of whom made nice NBA players.) I have learned from Wikipedia that bracketology is being applied to other things as well, and that a couple guys even wrote a book called The Final Four of Everything, published by Simon & Schuster. (Note to self: write a book with either “Bracketology” or “Final Four” in the title.)
I’ve been invited to join two pools (two pools is not a sign of popularity; it’s a sign of unpopularity), one of which is going to reward its winner not with cold hard cash but with a book by every one of the pool’s participants, all of whom are poets. When I mentioned this to my partner, with whom I’ve filled out a pool for the past handful of years, that if we won we’d earn a box of thirty or forty or fifty books of poetry, she shouted, “Hell No!” Truth is, I kind of hate filling the things out, hate having a stake in the outcome of the games, which is not, I’m sorry to say, a comment on my competitiveness, or lack thereof. My face, particularly the faintly lined ridges above my eyebrows, is a kind of map of my competitiveness, drawn by the twin cartographers of sharp elbows and my love of a fight—winning a fight—in the post. That’s a ridiculous metaphor I know! But you get it.
I don’t like filling the brackets out because what I love about watching those games is precisely not wanting any team to win. If you’ve filled out a bracket, you kinda want to win. I prefer having no stake, just falling into the games, the subtle beauties, the movements, the personalities. The best game of the tournament last year—maybe of the last few—was when Louisville’s women topped Baylor and Brittany Griner, one of the most dominant college basketball players ever. My partner and I were streaming the game on my office computer and about midway through the second half, when Baylor was making an incredible comeback, we got kicked offline. We thought fast and ran to the basement of the student center where a television was free, watching the rest of the game, holding our breath for most of it. Of course, if Temple’s in the mix, I’m always a sucker for them. Last year Temple’s Khalif Wyatt was my favorite player in the tournament, and when I told my students at Indiana, the team that was supposed to win the whole thing, who squeaked by Temple before being handled by Syracuse, they didn’t smile. Not even a little.
But this year for the month of March I’m at the Vermont Studio Center, a writing retreat in the little town of Johnson, Vermont, and I’ve been able to sneak into the lounge to watch a few games. My partner in this has been a Mexican guy named Americo, and he only speaks a little English and I only a little Spanish, so mostly our conversation has been the little gasps or whooo’s, the raised eyebrows or quick smiles at something beautiful by whoever and whocares.
And while the selections are being made today, and all kinds of teams and their dorky fans will be glued to the television, some of them even filling out their blank brackets over beers at the pub, some of them cursing at the television about a seed (“Bullshit! Wichita State plays a bunch of grampas on roller skates! They can NOT get a one seed, Vitale be damned, the whole unbearably long and flat state of Kansas be damned!!!” or “All he does is recruit! Gino couldn’t coach his way out of paper bag, a wet paper bag for Chrissakes!”), I will be dorking out with my new friend, Hazel Meyer, an artist I met here in Vermont when I started sniffing out a basketball court and folks to shoot with. Someone pointed me to Hazel in the dining room, in a bright yellow sweatshirt, bright yellow pants, and bright yellow boots. When I introduced myself, told her I heard she might be into playing some ball, she kind of clutched her heart and made a dreamy face, then said, “If nothing else, I was hoping to go home from this residency with a better left-handed dribble,” and made the motion of dribbling, low to the ground, with her left hand, back and forth. When she said that—when she did that—I thought, Ok, this should be fun.
Hazel Meyer is my favorite kind of artist: she makes all kinds of shit. By that I mean she has a weirdly capacious sensibility: she writes and draws comic books; she choreographs performances; she builds installations; she does letterpress and screen-prints, she offers trainings and workshops; she works with kids. When she gave her quick, 10-minute slide presentation with the other artists in residence here, pretty much every project she referenced was, well, cool as hell. Made me think, whoa, really? As she would say to me by way of enthusiasm for a project I have in mind, “Yes, yes, that’s the reason to be an artist, isn’t it? To make art out of what we want to do and think about?” But she also makes art about all kinds of shit.
The first day we went to the gym at the little college up the hill, which was the first day we’d had a conversation, walking from my rental car across the icy parking lot I asked Hazel what she’s working on. “I’m working on a graphic novel about the time I got real sick and shat on the floor of the Sistine Chapel.” “Shit?” I asked? “Shit,” she said.
Hazel has Crohn’s disease, and her work emerges at least in part from thinking about (and living with) a body that’s had a mind of its own. In one installation, called Intestinal Anarchy, she meticulously paints the entirety of the gallery’s walls as intestines, so that to be in the space is to move through another person’s innards.
In another edition called “Messy Porcelain” Hazel made a number of porcelain plates with text scrawled on them: “diarrhea” and “enema” and “wet loud loose smelly urgent,” “bloody,” or “turd.” Over dinner one day Hazel pulled up her sweatshirt to show me the t-shirt she was wearing, also with the word “Diarrhea” scrawled on it, in a loose and sloppy and beautiful script, over and over on down the shirt. “It’s a beautiful word, isn’t it? If you just say it?”
Not everyone would be so taken, but when it comes to bodies, I’m interested. I had a period of about two years when I threw up almost every day, if not twice a day. No one could figure it out—not the neurologists, not the gastroenterologists: no one. During one test they slid probes way up my nose to see if I had epilepsy. I remember picturing the probes as little steel hands swimming into the goopy folds of my brain. I remember drinking the chalky barium milkshake, gagging as it went down, and accidentally shitting in the shower that evening. I remember the neurologist’s tool scraping the bottom of my foot. It only mostly subsided—the vomiting, not the almost-vomiting—when I tried on a whim to eat something sweet when the salivating, my 30 second warning bell, came on. Sure enough, it worked. After I told Hazel this story, rolling out my IT band and grimacing for a while before tossing the foam torturer over to her, she told me about shitting the floor, literally, at her high school sweetheart’s parents’ house. Then we talked about the Utah Jazz.
These pieces and several others of Hazel’s are meditations on the body and its fallibility, which is everybody’s experience (if it’s not been yours yet, consider this a friendly warning, a little kiss on your brow, even), and which may be the fundamental experience, whether or not we think of it that way. As we miss our foul shots or notice gray hairs or tear a muscle. Our white blood cells blooming. Our bones getting brittle. Our guts going nuts. But because it’s a fundamental experience and story, the opposite is also: the glimmers, sustained or fleet, of the body’s magic and shine. We’re in this together, I mean. This falling apart. In a kind of study Hazel made of Menace/Intestinal Anarchy, a room-sized sketchbook, at the Banff Center, she wrote all kinds of lovely aphorisms, mini-poems, that speak to this commonality:
“ALONE WE COULD NOT HAVE FUCKED THINGS UP WITH SUCH SKILL AND GRACE”
“OUR COLLECTIVE FLATULENCE WAS ENVIABLE OUR STRENGTH THE STENCH”
“THE UNBELIEVABLE SMELL WE WERE ABLE TO CREATE TOGETHER”
The first workout Hazel and I did together was on the third day of our residency here, a Wednesday evening. We had both already played some ball, by ourselves, Monday and Tuesday. Because the varsity team was using the main gym, we went downstairs into the racquetball court. When we walked in, it was dark and I was acutely aware of this, making sure the door to the hallway didn’t close. “Hmm, you see the lights?” I asked her. She found them just outside the door, and they slowly warmed up, blinking all the way on.
I also came to residency thinking I’d work on my game—that and finish a book-length essay about not wanting to write a novel in which all the black men disappear. Vermont, the whitest state in the union, is an interesting place to do this. It’s been a long time since I’ve had a sustained basketball game, and a sustaining basketball game. Before I left Philly for Indiana, I was in a number of very good, competitive men’s leagues. By this I mean probably half or two thirds of the guys played college ball and were fit. We could run screens and, imagine, backscreens, without a whole lot of hoopla. People moved without the ball. People knew what help defense was, and what boxing out was. There was little worry of someone tripping over the line into your knee and tearing your medial collateral ligament (yes, this happened to me in the YMCA men’s league in Bloomington). Or if I was playing pick up at the courts on 10th and Lombard, one of the better courts in Philly, the same. Serious basketball, serious knowhow.
The Indiana basketball has been a little less satisfying (I know, I know: Indiana? Isn’t that like basketball heaven? No.), and if it weren’t for my dear friend Dave, with whom I do shooting drills and ball handling drills and play a three quarter speed full court one-on-one to warm up, with whom I occasionally kick the shit out of a couple young guys who see we grizzled grandpas but haven’t yet learned how to defend the handoff at the high post when one person (Dave) can make his fifteen footer something like eighty percent of the time, I’d be pretty blue. During my favorite recent beating the two college juniors with their taut skin and big swaggy virtuous nubile gaudy testicles eventually started yelling at each other, then screaming (“Could you defend him please! He’s like my fucking Dad’s age!” and me saying, gently, my hand on the screamer’s lower back, “No he’s not. He’s older than your dad,” to the kid’s chagrin, then after Dave’s corner jumper, patting the screamer’s ass, “He was actually vasectomized before you were even born,” and then, after his reverse lay-up, yelling, “Spank em’ Grampy!” and miming walking with a cane and shaking and smacking my own ass, at which gesture Dave, on the next hand-off whispered, “I think you’ve made your point.”), then punting the ball, as Dave and I just do the same thing over and over again: entry pass to my high post, Dave runs off it, takes the hand-off or peels off, flares or cuts or slips, I roll and follow him or dive to the basket or give him the lob—oh you get the idea. Of the three games to eleven they might have gotten to six once.
I didn’t know Hazel at all, but figured I’d just dive into the workout I’d been doing the previous two nights in the racquetball court: smack the ball with both hands, like you’re trying to pop it, to get your hands warm; then finger tip touches, hand to hand, in front of your face, overhead, down at your chest and waist; then circle the ball around your waist, first one way then the other, fast as you can about 30 seconds (body circles); then your head, then your ankles; finish by the wrapping the ball around your body head to waist to ankles fast as you can. Then with the left hand, pound the ball high and hard, then get real low and soft, then pound it high and hard, then low and soft; switch to the right and do the same. Then with the left, dribble the ball side to side in front of your body, as low and fast as you can, turning your wrist, your palm, every time; same with the right. Do the same, but at your side, back and forth, low and fast, left hand, then right. Then one-handed figure eights through the legs, starting with the left. I figured if Hazel was going to bail out on me, this might be the drill that made her do it. But she just did it, growling a little every time she lost the dribble or the ball bounced off her foot. Looking up and smiling, shaking her head before going back at it. When I would fuck up and curse or chirp like I do (fuck up, curse and chirp), she’d smile and pound the ball. After another twenty or so drills we took a break, about a half hour later, both of us sweating and breathing hard, smiling, nodding. “Good?” I asked? “Great,” she said. And after we drank a little water, we were back at it, a little faster, for about another half hour before we ran through shooting drills for 45 minutes or so.
Hazel mentioned after she leaves Vermont she’s going to be heading over to Boston for a few days to teach a net-making workshop. I’d never heard of such a thing, and so asked her to fill me in a little bit. She told me that she learned the old craft of making fishing nets, which, go figure, didn’t come out of a machine but were woven, probably by fisherpeople. In a comic of her voyage to Newfoundland to study net-weaving with a fisherman (who I pictured to be gnarled and piped, although they only ended up communicating through text messages), Hazel includes some beautifully drawn instructions/diagrams for how to make these nets. It looks difficult. (You can read this whole comic on Hazel’s website. It’s funny as hell and gorgeous.) She uses nets made with this technique in a later iteration of her show, or shows, Walls to the Ball. I’ve infrequently been as taken by an artist’s work—for its wild imagination, its lucidity, its inclusivity, it playfulness and gravity, its incredible rigor, its beautiful weirdness—as I have been by all of Hazel’s work. But for obvious reasons (this magazine is called Some Call It Ballin’), I want to focus on Walls to the Ball in particular.
Hazel Meyer’s Walls to the Ball starts in language, the title of the show a playful inversion of the phrase “balls to the wall,” which, as you know, means “go hard,” or “fierce.” A common usage might be something like this: “Let’s go! 3 minutes left, we’re down six points. Keep this full-court pressure on. You can breathe after the game! Balls to the wall baby! Balls to the wall!”
I read that the phrase probably comes from aviation, from pushing the ball-like handle of the throttle to the wall of the cockpit to make the plane go as fast as it can. Maybe Amelia Earhart first went balls to the wall. I’m not sure. But I’ve never thought of aviation when hearing that phrase, or when saying it. I always thought of, you know, umm, balls umm, to the, ummm, wall? Like, you know, toughness? Which is weird, given that the actual fragility of nuts, cajones, balls, means that even saying that phrase now is terrifying! When I actually think about the phrase, which I never have before this, not really, I think of some horrific blending of J. Alfred Prufrock and the Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Thanks a lot, Hazel.
But the truth is that the linguistic play of the title, Walls to the Ball, is a smart, sharp critique. And by smart I mean that while it points to failures or shortcomings in the language and the culture by which such language occurs, it imagines this other world. Which is precisely what her show Walls to the Ball, and I think Hazel Meyer’s work generally, does.
Walls to the Ball establishes a physical space in which athletic pursuit and craftwork are joined, a space which consequently disrupts what might often be considered distant occupations or undertakings. One wall is painted in a gingham pattern; one wall as hundreds of dangling strings looped or looping into knots, what Hazel tells me is a slip-knot macramé; basketballs are suspended—and lovingly so—in hand-made nets; on another wall a bunch of basketballs are painted, piling up in such a way, linking in such a way as to make them almost weave together. The painted balls, which might be the “macho” emblem the show means to trouble, becomes a kind of woven thing, a piece of handiwork, the “anti-macho” emblem the show means to trouble. The troubling, though, is done through union, showing how they are—sport and craft; athletics and making; playing and caring—in fact, more or less, the same. One banner hanging in an early Walls to the Ball imagines Anni Albers, the most important textile artist of the 20th century, and Dirk Nowitzki, the perennial NBA all star, chatting in a bar.
Among the things I love about the piece are the ways it reiterates to me something I know about sport, which is its profound tenderness, even its gender play: play that exists in locker rooms, in huddles, on benches, on fields and courts and beyond. What do I mean? The hairy dudes on the team Nairing each other’s backs. Shaving my legs the night before the game in the hotel right next to the teammate I bunk with on road games, our legs propped up on the tub, both of us admiring the silky skin. Both of us weighing about 260 lbs. I mean the profound care that to this day I can recall at the end of what felt like a sort of brutal game at Holy Cross, rainy and cold, standing up slowly from a pile-up, and a teammate helping me up, putting his hand on my lower back, around my waist, holding me, asking if I was ok. When we weren’t smashing into each other, we were holding each other, asking if the other was ok. The beautiful macramé knots in Walls to the Ball both critique the normative separation of the athletic from the tender while also illuminating, for me, the macramé knots that already exist at least in the men’s locker rooms I’ve been in, places where “balls to the wall” and far less savory things are said.
When Hazel gave her residency talk she said something very quickly (she only had ten minutes, so everything she said she said quickly) that kind of rocked me. I think she was talking about the ways that she inhabits spaces—gallery spaces, residencies—that she likes “to take up space when it’s offered to me.” I loved that idea for how efficiently it articulated a kind of creative or productive resistance. In the English department where I teach, during faculty meetings and the like, I am constantly struggling with “taking up space.” I don’t feel smart enough or accomplished enough. I don’t feel old enough or, maybe especially, white enough. It’s no wonder that in basketball, when someone is settling into the post, you want to get as big as you can, you want to “take up space,” to give your teammate a good sturdy target. When you take up space, especially if you’re inventing the space—queer, black, female, Latino, American Indian, etc—you might have to use your elbows. You might have to break someone’s lip.
It wasn’t exactly a lip-breaking—though I’m sure to some it felt like it was—when Hazel and some of her friends requested of the local YMCA a time slot in the gym dedicated to women and trans players. Making space. So every Friday they get the gym for two hours, the first hour being led through some drills by a coach there at the Y, and the second when they play games. Plenty of times when they come to take the floor, when it’s 7:30pm and the gym is theirs, the dudes on the court take their sweet time leaving. They wrap up their games leisurely, sounds like: yeah yeah, we’ll be done soon. She told of a time when one of these dudes came up to the coach—a white dude who looked like Win Butler2—and asked, when Hazel and a few others of her crew were standing right there, “What do they want?” They want to take up their space, motherfucker, they’ve more or less had to tell the dudes, so get the fuck out of the way.
Of course as Hazel told me this story, I thought of the privileges of my own hetero-ish body, my big normative-ish body on the basketball court, and in other spaces, athletic and otherwise. Yesterday in the weight room after the basketball workout I hopped on a bench and started doing some dumbbell presses, and realized, after I had already left my buckets of sweat on it, that a young woman had been working there, and was quietly moving to the next bench over. I start to hear my own voice clearer, my own dude’s discourse, as we’re moving through drills and I keep saying, “When your man does this, you do that….” I correct myself, awkwardly, tripping in my head, woman, person, defender. About the same time I become acutely aware of the mostly white folks in this gym, and I become acutely aware of my own body, and Hazel’s body, in space. The music blasting over the speakers, nigga this, bitch that. That goddamned “Versace” song to which the white kids on the other end of the court bob their heads, one of them making his hand into a gun in his dance. I shudder and pray he doesn’t become a cop. We shrug and agree Erykah Badu would be more nourishing.
All this weaving together until we get back to our drills, something called Cuedos, named after the coach who invented it. One person passes the ball from beneath the basket out to a player who’s standing near the three-point line. The passer then runs toward the person who’s received the ball like an airplane, arms extended. The offensive player ball fakes then goes hard to the basket with only one dribble by going directly under the airplane’s arms. The drill teaches you to get low as you go to the basket, to be fast and powerful and explosive on your way to score. Left, then right. If you get tired or lazy, you’ll stand up, and your face will ram into the airplane’s arms, which mine did, whacking into Hazel’s outstretched wing, saying “urhhmnff,” before putting my lay-up in, Hazel saying, “Good job.”
Today we warmed up with about twenty minutes of jump rope. We’d talked about jumping rope the night before. Hazel called it “skipping,” which made me squint and think she was probably going to be good at this. And well, put it like this: I used to be the best jump-roper I know (I don’t hang out at boxing gyms, granted). Hazel jumps rope faster backward than I do forward. She does the arm-crossing thing boxers do going backward way better than I do it going forward. We throw this into the warm-up: one person jumping rope while the other person dribbles across the court, practicing a variety of exchanges (front cross-over, through the legs cross-over, behind the back, double cross-overs), up and back five times. Now I’ve added a third goal to the previous two of finishing my book and getting my handle together: backward skip like Hazel.
Then we move to shooting. Today, we’re spending some time getting our shooting form right. I’ve never been a particularly good shooter, and like to spend ten to fifteen minutes getting my mechanics right: elbow bent at a right angle; wrist cocked, like it’s ready to hold a tray; ball up onto the fingertips, so you can see some space between the ball and your palm; guide hand doing just what it says, guiding, and nothing else. We shoot 100 shots nice and gentle, taking our time, getting the mechanics right, wrist cocked, elbow in, good follow-through. When I keep skipping the ball in, kissing over the front rim, I remember, “Oh yeah. Imagine shooting the ball out of a phone booth.” After I say that we both start splashing swishes. We close the drill having to make five consecutive swishes. We’ll get to four then I’ll mess up. We’ll get to four then she’ll mess up. It takes us a little while, but we get there. Then we move on to the Kansas Drill, which more or less means tossing the ball to yourself, facing away from the basket, then using a pivot to face up, and shooting jumpers. We slowly expand our range, from eight footers to twelve to fifteen or a little more. We add variations: ball fake; ball fake one dribble pull-up; ball fake one dribble hard crossover lay-up, alternating one footed jumps with two-footed. Finally we just improvise the moves—figuring out ways to get to the basket, imagining defenders coming at us, using the crossover or whirl, going softly, low behind our back, pulling up or bouncing all the way to the rim with a real hard jump stop, and if the defender stayed with us, getting that person up in the air with a hard head fake, to the chin, quick, imagining the defender sailing by, and finishing the shot. We then throw a couple chairs into the mix, one at the elbow and one in the lane, and make any combination of moves on these imaginary defenders. It’s usually ugly before it’s pretty. Which it becomes.
It’s precisely this kind of improvisation, this kind of impromptu imaginative work, that makes basketball a black game. Relax, relax! I’m not saying it doesn’t belong to everyone, no no no! I do my goddamned Mikan drills every workout, for chrissakes! Pat Summit was the wizard, no duh. God bless Larry Bird, I know. Diana Taurasi. Steve Nash, I’m totally with you. Elena Delle Donne (best name in the game!). Dirk Nowitzki (and Anni Albers). White people abound! Oh, and Jeremy Lin, yes! The game has its arms thrown wide ‘round the multi-racial, trans-cultural world!!!
What I’m saying is that basketball is in the tradition of black art—music, dance, etc— which value—are made by—improvisation, differently than is much European derived dance or music. And if you’re thinking James Naismith invented basketball…no he didn’t, not really. Basketball was invented in the famous game no one saw, when in March, 1944, Duke secretly played North Carolina College for Negroes. They had to play on a Sunday morning, when everyone was at church, in a locked and empty gym. No one could know about this game—it was illegal—for fear of violence to the black kids. Story goes, after being a little timid for the first few minutes, the North Carolina College for Negroes beat the Dukies 88-44.
I’m currently writing a book about football, a game I played as a kid and that paid my way through college. Football, despite the fact that it necessarily has constantly occurring moments of improvisation, is adamantly not in its heart improvisational. Even playing sandlot or pickup football, the quarterback draws invisible patterns on his or her hand: “Sugar, you go deep; Walt you hook over the middle; Biz, you run across the middle; break!” Which is why Randall Cunningham, one of my favorite players ever, was so exciting to watch. As was Steve Young, for that matter. They played football more like excellent basketball players than, say, Joe Montana or Doug Williams, who played football like excellent football players.
Basketball’s default mode, though, is improvisation. Often teams will run what’s called a continuation offense, which is simply a pattern out of which the players learn to read the defense and improvise, make plays. In this way, giving each player a degree of agency and the skills to make that agency worth something, good basketball ends up being a pretty nice model of democracy. But a great model of democracy is playground ball, pick-up, uncoached and unregulated. From the ways you get on the court (“I got next!” or “My next!” or “Who’s got last next?” or “Can I get on?” or “You need one?”), to the fouls being called by the players (“My ball,” or “Stays here,” or “And one,” or “Goddamn, check ball”), to the ways disputed calls are settled (“That’s a weak call,” or “C’mon, let’s go, you can have the ball,” or “bullshit,” or “Ok, we can play like that,” or “Nope, you’re not getting that one” or simply walking with your team to the other end of the court), to the ways teams are assembled. You might come to the court in your cute new Jordans and Blake Griffin jersey, but if no one knows you or has reason to think they should pick you up, you might be waiting around all night. The etiquette for this shifts from court to court. The sooner you know this, the better. I remember being at a good outdoor court in Hartford where I had never played before, and the woman who had next game looked me up and down (I’m 6’4” and, I thought, kind of athletically built, and if I’m new to a court, especially back then, because I’m kind of shy I might just surreptitiously dunk a few times at which point people usually ask, “You want to run?”) and asked me, without the least hint of tenderness, “Can you ball?” I must not have been convincing because she didn’t pick me. At what used to be my home court in Philly there was a dude who lost one hand who might have gotten picked up before you. Pretty braids, a fierce rebounder, and got to the rack. Might be on the same court as the division one kid starting at Coppin St. Might even sit him down. Talk about improvising.
I’m deeply interested in improvisation as an aesthetic and cultural and adaptive strategy cultivated here, in America.3 Improvisation, it seems to me, anticipates forces beyond one’s control. It might acknowledge the danger of making oneself “a big target,” which you sometimes must do, and sometimes must not. In his book Hoop Roots John Edgar Wideman recounts a guy in his neighborhood in Pittsburgh who would play a full day of ball wearing a beautiful suit stolen from the fancy men’s clothing store, where black kids could not enter. Needless to say, by the end of the day, the suit would be in tatters. This is improvisation. Get little before getting big. Don’t be fast; be quick. Don’t push; use your feet. Improvisation as resistance. No pressure, no diamonds.
But in order to improvise well one drills like hell—which might mean closing a workout with 50 swishes or playing for a few hours or dribbling in a dark room with your left hand for 30 minutes. It means fucking up again and again. It means a radical commitment to the future. It’s an enactment of Keats’s “Negative Capability,” holding really different things in one’s head at the same time without one’s head exploding (to paraphrase). The crossover into the lane with a quick stepback jumper in a small gym in Johnson, Vermont anticipates another game in another place at another point in time. The stakes are not higher for one or the other. They are, in fact, the same game.
And nets, then, get to witness, or catch, the game. They monitor your progress, your commitment, even. When Hazel and I finished today’s workout with shooting at the seven spots (baseline, in between, elbow, foul line, elbow, in between, baseline) we had to hit five swishes at each spot before moving on. We were real good until we got past the foul line, at which point the silent net started talking to us. “Shoot it out of the phone booth! Lift up on your shots!” Nylon nets or cotton, whispering to the perfect shot. Or the rusty steel ones in the playground, coughing at your swish. Or those Hazel made in the old ways of fisherfolk, moaning a little I think. Weeping even. Nets in this way are throats and mouths, but they’re eyes, too. Nets see what you’ve done, where you’ve been. They can tell—whisper or sing—what’s gone on.
In the making of America millions of Africans were thrown into the sea. That is a part of this game—even all the way up here in this little gym in Johnson, Vermont. And, maybe weirdly, I am reminded of this fact when I think of Hazel’s beautiful handmade nets in the St. John’s iteration of Walls to the Ball, nets made with the same technique as they have been for hundreds of years, the same as nets that must have pulled catch from the ocean at the same time as Africans were being thrown into it. But whereas a fishing net is used for capture, a basketball net is used to gather, slow down, and let go. A basketball net holds; it does not catch. It is used, in fact, for joy. Transforming horror—a metaphor can do this. Such transformation is one of the truest reasons to make art.
Of course this piece of Hazel’s makes me think newly about the game I’ve played more or less my whole life, beginning with my brother and I chasing my father around the scraggly court at Middletown Trace Apartments, where he would dunk on the crooked rim, as I remember it (and don’t want to be corrected if I’m mis-remembering it) in his Pizza Hut uniform and running sneakers, smelling faintly of Cavatini. It makes me think about the materials of the game differently, and the metaphors inherent in those materials. It makes me want to make my own rims out of 1978 Toyota Corolla hubcaps, and backboards out of compressed and shellacked copies of Notes on the State of Virginia. I’m reminded of David Hammons’s beautiful work, in particular the impossibly tall hoops bejeweled with bottlecaps in his piece “Higher Goals.” The two things Walls to the Ball most makes me want to do—and I like when art makes me want to do something—is make my own basketball hoops and play ball. If I ever write some poems that do that, I’d be pretty damn glad.
But when I asked Hazel about Walls to the Ball, she wasn’t quite as enthusiastic about it as I was. She wasn’t dismissive, but, as might be expected of an artist who’s moving on to the next projects, she was contemplative, reserved and critical. She saw what she considered shortcomings or limitations of Walls to the Ball. I asked if she’d write a little about it, and she did: “I’ve been thinking a lot about why I was so down about Walls to the Ball, why I had a hard time talking about it without emphasizing my fraught relationship with it… what was that?! Maybe it is partly about what my friend Cait has been talking about regarding old work, and how it is difficult to sit with old work, to support it, how it is tied up with pride, with shame, with how we were and how we thought in a moment. Big feelings, heavy emotions, it isn’t always easy to be gentle with oneself!
“I’ve been thinking a lot about hyper-trophy, about how cells need to break down before they build up into muscle, how this is a sport thing, but also how it is an art thing… a thinking thing… How perhaps all five iterations of Walls to the Ball were the process of breaking down the idea, the connection between sport and craft, basketball and textiles and not the finished anything, not the resulting plump muscle… Walls to the Ball was the breaking down of the idea, an active process, a coming undone.
“What I love about basketball is more than Walls to the Ball was able to present, to communicate. Walls to the Ball treated ball as a token, as an example that provided an opposite to textiles, to craft. That relationship became the centre of the project. The actions were referred to through words and static examples, good-hearted attempts at providing a space for non-athletes to hold a ball, to throw a ball, removed from the pressure of being an ‘athlete,’ from knowing what to do and how to do it. This is important. But if I think about why I play ball, what I love about it, what I feel so strongly about, it needed to be lived, it needed to be presented out of an equation, not as an example, but as a vehicle, not something static, but rather, fluid, messy, sweaty, alive, crucial. You know. I’ve realized the necessity of sweat, sweat! Of movement beyond the gallery goer…of intentional movement…of teaching drills and having clinics as the work…the work-out.”
So maybe our workouts in Johnson—sweaty, stinky, precise, painful, painstaking, high stakes—were a drill in the larger workout, the game, of Hazel’s emerging body of work. Were a part of the hyper-trophy she speaks of. I know they were for me. In my dream I was on the sideline of a pick-up game and my old friend and teammate Brian sunk a beautiful three pointer, then looking my way, curtsied to me, and I did the same to him. Hyper-trophy. The macramé knots all soft and beautiful and tight. The big buzzing lights shining in the pools of sweat at our feet.
“Alone we could not have fucked up with such skill and grace.”
1 I asked the same question of some new friends at dinner here at the Vermont Studio Center a couple days ago, friends who don’t follow basketball, and they looked a little sadly at me and told me the story of Cinderella, the poor girl who goes to the ball and gets chosen to be queen or something. I have a feeling, from the looks of the people around the table that I’m the only person alive who didn’t get that memo.
2 “Win Butler is an American lead vocalist and songwriter of the Montreal-based indie rock-band Arcade Fire.” (Wikipedia) Who knew?!
3 Plenty of people have talked and written about this stuff, but when it comes to basketball, I don’t know if anyone says anything as well as John Edgar Wideman does in his book Hoop Roots. I happily lift a lot of his ideas here. Read that book!
ROSS GAY is an associate professor of creative writing at Indiana University, Bloomington. He is the author of two books of poems, and is a 2013 Guggenheim fellow. He's writing a book about football as we speak.