A Body of Athletics
A different version of this essay first appeared in the winter 2015 issue of Prairie Schooner.
Before every basketball game, from rec league to high school, my mother told me, Knock ’em dead, as I walked out the door. She never said, Good luck.
At this point in my life, I have played basketball for longer than I have not.
This summer, I spent six weeks in the Civitella Ranieri castle in Umbria, Italy, for a writing residency. While I was there the 2015 NBA Finals were on back home: the Cleveland Cavs versus the Golden State Warriors. In the castle, I woke up at 3am to stream the games live. Poet and one-time baller Terrence Hayes was also at the castle. The day before Game 3, I told Terrence that instead of watching in the dark by myself, I’d record the game and wait to watch with him before lunch—I’d share Game 3 with him. When I went to bed that night, I believed what I had told Terrence. But something woke me at 2 am, maybe a headache from all the wine I drank, maybe jetlag, maybe one of those dreams where I get a call to play and know I’m not in shape but I get out there anyway, because they need me, because I need the game, because my body is not the same body now as it was when I was playing but for a moment it seems like it could be. Whatever woke me wouldn’t let me go back to sleep. In the reflection of the mirror on the dresser, I glowed in the tip-off light of Game 3 on my computer screen.
That afternoon, I thought about lying to Terrence and saying I hadn’t watched it yet. I didn’t need to lie. Terrence saw it on my face—what he saw was not that the Cavs had won Game 3. Instead, he saw that I knew in Game 3 Stephen Curry had figured out the Cavs’ defense. Curry was a kind of fire that is hard to put out. Though I continued to watch the rest of the series, I already knew the ending.
I didn’t learn how to read poetry until my basketball career was over, although writing and basketball have always made a dynamic team.
The poet Tupac starred in Above the Rim and Poetic Justice. In his own white way of poetic justice, Charles Bukowski complained in a letter to the New York Quarterly editor that heterosexual males were easy targets—he cried: “White men can’t dance,” “White men can’t jump,” “White men have no sense of rhythm”, etc. …This was long before the hoop movie White Men Can’t Jump came out.
In the basketball flick Finding Forrester, Sean Connery plays Forrester, a writer who mentors a young black basketball star, a role almost given to Bill Murray who, in the movie Space Jam, joined Michael Jordan’s team as the fifth man (so referee Marvin the Martian could not forfeit the game for having too few players).
Poet Jim Carroll wrote what became the movie Basketball Diaries.
And Ray Allen, as Jesus Shuttlesworth of He Got Game, said: Basketball is like poetry in motion, cross the guy to the left, take him back to the right, he’s fallin’ back, then just J right in his face. Then you look at him and say, “What?”
My mother had 11 kids. If we’d all survived, we’d have been a soccer team. We are 9 now, enough for a baseball team.
Albert Camus was on a soccer team, the Racing Universitaire Algerios junior team. He was their goalkeeper. He said, After many years during which I saw many things, what I know most surely about morality and the duty of man I owe to sport…
I lived years on a court, in the driveway, at a park, in a gym, on a bus or plane to or from a game, in an ice bath, in a season—pre-season, in-season, off-season, post-season, next season. My brain, my muscles, my emotions—the way each triggers, fires, and responds—have been shaped by my life as an athlete. It’s hard to understand sport as game when you’ve been built by its rules, triumphs, and failures as I’ve been built.
I dream of basketball all the time. In a recurring dream, my college coach, Wendy Larry, calls me back to play for her. She and I didn’t get along—she thought I was wild and I was—but I respected her and loved the game and played through many injuries for her.
During my NCAA career, inner-city student-athletes were discouraged from going home over holiday and semester breaks, to keep us out of trouble. Their inner-city and my rez meant trouble to our coaches (they apparently meant good basketball too since we were all on scholarship). So when my grandfather died, I couldn’t go home to the funeral.
For the record: trouble happened. The cops came to my sister’s house the night before the funeral. One brother went to jail, the others went to church the next day with black eyes and busted lips—my family mourned while I ran a new offense in a gym 3,000 miles away.
A few weeks after the funeral I wasn’t allowed to attend, I caught an elbow in practice that severed the infraorbital artery beneath my orbital bone. I grabbed my face and fell to my knees. My team crowded around me. As I lifted my head, one teammate screamed. It was an ugly, painful injury—I had a concussion, and my bloodied black eye lasted the entire season. I didn’t cry when it happened but my tear duct was injured and wept on its own. That year, basketball was the way I mourned.
Thabo Sefolosha plays for the Atlanta Hawks and is known to guard LeBron James during matchups with the Cavs. There is a video on YouTube of LeBron crossing-up Sefolosha in a game from 2014—he dribbles once to the right, then crosses and loses him left. The cross-up was so brutal, it tripped up Sefolosha, and he fell to the ground. The highlight reels all said LeBron “broke Sefolosha’s ankles” with that nasty crossover move.
Before going on to meet the Warriors, the Cavs met the Hawks in the 2015 Eastern Conference Finals. Sefolosha probably would have guarded LeBron but was on the bench instead, out with a season-ending injury sustained a month before.
In this series, LeBron never got a chance to break Sefolosha’s ankles—the NYPD did.
On the morning of April 8, Thabo Sefolosha had his right fibula (ankle) broken when a white police officer came up behind him and swept his leg out from under him. He required surgery and missed the rest of the post-season and playoffs. The Cavs swept the series. Or, the NYPD swept Sefolosha.
In The Stranger, Camus wrote: “It was as if that great rush of anger had washed me clean, emptied me of hope, and, gazing up at the dark sky spangled with its signs and stars, for the first time, the first, I laid my heart open to the benign indifference of the universe…To feel it so like myself, indeed, so brotherly, made me realize that I’d been happy, and that I was happy still. For all to be accomplished, for me to feel less lonely, all that remained to hope was that on the day of my execution there should be a huge crowd of spectators and that they should greet me with howls of execration.”
Isn’t Camus describing the game in its purest form? Isn’t this what fills your chest when you’re at a park after dark shooting elbow jumper after elbow jumper with only the stars keeping score, and more and more appear because you can’t miss, and nothing exists outside the concrete court, not your shut-off electricity or rifle reports or coyotes crying at the edge of the rez or your friend’s dad stumbling the alleyway with a needle dangling from his arm or the fact that your cousin will overdose soon, it’s just you, you triumphant and teammates hoisting you on their shoulders, carrying you out into the parking lot, down the high school hill, over the railroad tracks, along the Colorado River, off into the bright dunes of your desert, while the fans of the opposing team jeer and curse your jump shot?
I met Grace Thorpe at a nuclear waste dump protest in my desert (reservations are attractive places for white people to hide poisonous things). My Elders told Grace I was going to play basketball in college, and she began telling me stories about her father, Jim Thorpe. I’d never heard of him. He was a Sac and Fox native and attended Carlisle Industrial Indian School like some of my relatives had. He played professional baseball for the NY Giants and Boston Braves. He also played in the NFL. He was the greatest athlete. Ever.
In the dreams, I always say yes to Coach Larry, and the dreams usually end the way my real-life basketball career ended—tearing my left anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), medial collateral ligament (MCL), and my meniscus.
NFL quarterback Sam Bradford is Cherokee. He tore his left ACL, twice. He began his career with the Rams but now plays for the Eagles, which are sacred to natives. In the movie Love & Basketball, Quincy, played by Omar Epps, tears his ACL too. Epps looks like Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin who was born in Hampton, Virginia, which is close to Old Dominion University, where I played. Tomlin went to school at William & Mary, whose mascot was The Tribe. The Tribe was in my conference at ODU. They were once called the Indians, but changed their name to The Tribe…because that is a better name.
According to Wikipedia, “Tribe” refers to the unity and camaraderie students feel at William & Mary.
Robert Griffith III, or RGIII, plays for the Redskins and has knee injuries.
It’s a disastrous equation: a black body wearing a representation of a fragmented native body in the form of a Redskins’ helmet. It’s a historical problem or a long division problem. Both bodies divided/broken by X. X = rich white man.
In a game where RGIII suffered a concussion, the Redskins reported that he was “shaken up.” After a week off, he returned to play—many thought it was too soon. His coach Mike Shanahan formerly coached the Denver Broncos. At Denver, Shanahan had sent running back Terrell Davis back onto the field after Davis had been kneed in the helmet, suffered a migraine, and lost his vision, even after Davis told him, I can’t see.
Shanahan knows what all white coaches know—there is value in a brown body, the way it endures, endures, takes, takes, and takes what it is given.
I’ve existed in a separate space of gender, not masculine or feminine, not even queer. I was athlete, 1-2-3 guard, wing, scorer, defender, back of the 1-3-1, ball handler on the break, cutter in the triangle, expected to be strong, to take up space, to lean forward.
Today, I get called, Sir, all the time, especially in airports. At a gas station in Searchlight, Nevada, on my way to McCarran airport, a man grabbed my arm as I walked into the women’s bathroom and said, Dude, you almost went into the ladies’ toilet, ours is over there. My mother was waiting in the car, and when I told her, she said, It’s just the way you hold yourself. And how exactly do I hold myself? I asked. Like you belong there, like you know how to take care of yourself in a way that will let you stay there, she answered. Yeah, I replied, but you don’t have to be a man to do that.
Taking and holding space was natural to me—boxing out, setting screens, showing big on the baseline, knocking down cutters, flashing the lane, finishing a layup through a foul. I suppose I learned spacing the way most brown and red people do, by being defensive. I learned defense on the rez.
When we played Smear-the-Queer, the cousins and friends we played with intentionally threw the football to my little brother John or me. We were mixed, and lighter complexioned, and this was our penance. This was also one of the ways we learned to be fast.
When John’s legs slowed, when I heard him sucking air, when the pack began to catch him, I raced to the front and let him pitch me the ball. The pack then chased me instead. They didn’t catch me often—their pudgy boy bodies hadn’t hardened yet, and I was more agile, even stronger. There were times I wasn’t fast enough—knees, elbows, and fists crashed down on me. At the bottom of the heap of our bodies, they pressed my face into the yellowed grass and dirt, the way I would learn to press their faces into the grass and dirt when they had the ball, hollering out, Smear-the-Fucking-Queer.
The body’s demise happens in many ways. I’ve pushed my body beyond what I thought were my limits, and I’ve had my body pushed beyond where most bodies can go.
Unhappy Triad is a term of endearment for the type of knee injury I sustained. I was raised Catholic—my ACL became the Father; my MCL, the Son; and my meniscus was the Holy Ghost.
Today, if I run more than three miles, my meniscus feels like a holey ghost, something shot and gone a long time ago.
Spike Lee knows basketball is holy—he created Jesus Shuttlesworth in He Got Game.
My friend and mentor, Diane Wakoski, believes the way I know my body, the way I exist in it and use it is a different kind of intimacy than what a non-athlete can know. I think Diane is right. I know my body differently, trust it differently. It’s the way I make sense of the world, a lover, a book, the earth—I touch them, put my hands in them, see how I can open them to find the rhythm of them.
There is nothing I am more confident in or vulnerable in than my own body. One knows the body differently when they break it, whether one’s own or someone else’s.
RGIII went back on the field without a doctor checking his knee. Only a real body needs a doctor, and he is not a real body. He is a dark machine. A body of dusk and sinew must go and go until it cannot.
The patellar tendon functioning as my ACL is called an autograft because it came from my own body. Harvest is the word doctors use—my patellar tendon was harvested from my body. Harvesting is associated with natives, maybe because of corn and cornucopias, or Thanksgiving and Indian summers, or Leinenkugel’s wheat beer. My casino has a Native Harvest Buffet. But harvest also means sword and cut—I wish these were the words that linked us to it.
Some missing or deceased persons’ bodies or body parts can only be identified by the serial numbers of the surgical “hardware” implanted in their bodies from reconstructions and replacements.
Coach Larry taught us, Defense is the best offense. If memory is passed down in DNA, I learned defense long ago, from my ancestors, from all they had to defend themselves and our people against.
From a CNN article, “Who’s More Likely to Be Killed by Police”: In fact, despite the available statistical evidence, most people don’t know that Native Americans are most likely to be killed by police, compared with other racial groups. Native Americans make up about 0.8% of the population, yet account for 1.9% of police killings.
What will my DNA give to my children? Poetry? My long arms and relentless defense? My sadness? Will their bodies know to sweat when they are pulled over, to be still?
Coach Norman Dale, played by Gene Hackman in Hoosiers, told his team, I’ve seen you guys can shoot but there’s more to the game than shooting. There’s fundamentals and defense. I agree: Defense is the best offense, unless offense is the best offense. I am tired of defending. I’ve got a lot of offense in me—this page is a kind of offense.
Bodies are being broken all over the country. Native and African American women killed in jail cells. Native women disappearing and reappearing as fragmented body parts washing up on shores of rivers across the Americas. Black men and boys, native men and boys catching all the bullets a cop can throw.
At Denver, Shanahan coached John Elway, who played his entire career without an ACL. Possibly, Shanahan equally disrespects black and white bodies—but I don’t buy it.
All season, I watched Shanahan try to break RGIII. Finally, I watched him succeed. I watched the black body fall.
At the 1912 Stockholm Olympics, Jim Thorpe’s shoes were stolen. He won one of two gold medals competing in a borrowed shoe and a shoe he found in the trashcan. In the photo taken after the race, he is wearing two different shoes—one is too big so he has extra socks on that leg.
My siblings and I shared shoes as kids. Five of us are within six years of each other—John, Desirae, Gabrielle, Belarmino, me—we played in different divisions for the city rec league up on the hill, took turns with a single pair of shoes. It was embarrassing.
Is this why we played so hard? To forget everyone saw us poor, in our bare socks, waiting for our turn to wear the shoes? I distrusted kids with fancy shoes, so I worked hard against them, ran faster, stole the ball every chance I got, until eventually I was better.
The attributes that make us lauded on the courts, fields, in rings: quickness, fight, aggressiveness, unwillingness or inability to quit, pride and shame, strength, quick thinking, fearlessness, the way we know and own and carry our bodies, the muscle of us, the beauty and shock of our brown bodies gleaming in motion.
The attributes that make us hunted and killed off the courts, fields, in rings: quickness, fight, aggressiveness, unwillingness or inability to quit, pride and shame, strength, quick thinking, fearlessness, the way we know and own and carry our bodies, the muscle of us, the beauty and shock of our brown bodies gleaming in motion.
Like bulls we are. When yoked, we are beautiful. When refusing to be yoked, we are wild and whippable, butcherable.
Thabo Sefolosha testified that the police officer who came up behind him and swept his leg out from beneath him said, With or without a badge, I’m going to fuck you up and I can fuck you up.
The middle third of my patellar tendon was used along with bone fragments from each end. A surgeon drilled tunnels in my bone to thread the tendon through, then screwed the bone fragments and tendon into my tibia and femur, where my ACL used to be.
If I’d had an allograft, it would have come from a cadaver. In Mojave, we burn our dead—transplanting tissue from a dead body into mine wasn’t an option for me. In fact, if I’d done it right, done it the Mojave way, I’d have had a small funeral pyre for my ACL and it would be waiting on the other side for me when I passed on. Now, I’ll arrive to the afterlife without an ACL—I’ll have to have this surgery all over again after I die.
Because I am a native woman born on the reservation, I am more likely to be assaulted, raped, or disappeared, and to die as a result. According to the DOJ, in 2009, when U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder was briefed by the FBI that one in three native women are physically assaulted in their lifetime and on some reservations the murder rate for women is 10 times higher than the national average, he didn’t believe the statistics were correct. He asked them to fact check the numbers.
In a UN document titled “Sport and Gender, Empowering Girls and Women,” female athletes showed increased self-esteem, self-confidence, and a sense of control over their bodies.” According to their findings, sports also foster “positive changes in gender norms, giving girls and women greater safety and control over their lives.” There are myriad articles and studies that claim I am less likely to be in an abusive relationship because I am an athlete.
If the statistics of me being assaulted, raped, and disappeared as a native woman meet head-to-head with the statistics that say I am less likely to be abused and will have greater safety because I am a female athlete, which statistics will win?
And if I lose that match-up, if my body is found the way most murdered native women’s bodies are found—discarded, decomposed, on a rarely traveled tract of land, at the bottom of a river bed, in pieces, by accident because nobody is looking—it is quite possible that my body will be difficult to identify.
If my body is difficult to identify, then the titanium screws in my knee will become significant. The authorities will interview my family and look through my and other native women’s medical records. They will see that I have had surgery on my left knee. They’ll check the left knee of the body for signs of a broken tibial chondial, for titanium screws and their serial numbers.
Basketball will not have saved my life, but it will have saved me from being added to the thousands of missing native women in the Americas.
The King of Sweden called Jim Thorpe the world’s greatest athlete the week he won two golds for the U.S. Track and Field team. The next week, Thorpe had to return his medals according to Rule 26 of the Eligibility Rules of the International Olympic Committee. (It was discovered he’d receieved a small amount of pay from two semi-pro baseball teams.)
It was about rules, they said, not about his nativeness. Twenty-six is a bad number for natives. A deck of cards has 26 red cards and 26 black cards but really all the cards are white. On the 26th day of December, 1862, Honest Abe Lincoln ordered the hanging of 38 Dakotas. He ordered them to be hanged. The periodic table is an ordering of elements. Twenty-six is the atomic number of the element iron. The word for iron or metal in the Mojave language is also the word for bullet. Because this is how iron or metal first came to us, like bullets still come to us, through our bodies.
In 26 years, I will still have played basketball for longer than I will have not played.
I had a lateral x-ray taken of my left knee, and it looked like there were two .22 caliber rounds lodged in me, except for the deep threads of the titanium screws.
I would buy a ticket to watch 6’7” Sefolosha take that 5’7” officer with or without a badge out onto the court and
work him, school him, take him to the rim, break his ankles, fuck him up.
Asked to describe his relationship with Shanahan, RGIII replied, “Heartbreaking.”
I never thought much about what my mother meant all those times, before all those games, when she told me, Knock ’em dead. Now, I think she meant, This isn’t just a game for you. Don’t let them hurt you, even if it means hurting them first. I think she meant, Live. It’s funny how a game can teach you that.