by John Edgar Wideman
A review by David L. Ulin
John Edgar Wideman's Hoop Roots is something of an extended improvisation, a memoir in which narrative is less important than feeling, and every action is amplified by the emotional associations it evokes. Spanning nearly fifty years of personal history, the book seeks to trace its author's lifelong love affair with basketball, although sometimes basketball disappears, yielding to reflections on family, racial tension, memory, and the nebulous territory of storytelling itself. In Wideman's hands basketball becomes not just a game but a folk art, with its own vernacular. "Like classic African-American jazz," he writes, "playground hoop is a one time, one more time thing. Every note, move, solo, pat of the ball happens only once. Unique. Gone as soon as it gets here. Like a river you can't enter twice in the same spot."
Wideman's expansive view of basketball allows him to link the game not only to jazz but to minstrel shows, Yoruba beading, and even Sunday services at the "Homewood African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church." Yet as in so much of his previous writing, the most vivid connections he makes here are to inner-city Pittsburgh, where he was raised in a family of strong women and largely absent men. For Wideman, this is the key to everything; as he suggests, "We went to the playground court to find our missing fathers. We didn't find them but we found a game and the game served us as a daddy of sorts." Even if he never quite sells us on this point, he does make a compelling case for the importance of family, wherever he finds it whether in the hard-edged camaraderie of the playground or in the silence of his grandmother's sickroom. In attempting to discover a balance between these opposing landscapes (outside and freedom, home and responsibility), Wideman reveals his own contradictory impulses to be accepted and to stand apart. In Hoop Roots he offers a fluid glimpse of this process, which even now continues to enlarge him and his relationship with the game.
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