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HOOP ROOTS by John Edgar Wideman


by John Edgar Wideman

Pub Date: Oct. 10th, 2001
ISBN: 0-395-85731-7
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Novelist Wideman (The Cattle Killing, 1996, etc.) uses basketball as a doorway through which to glimpse black manhood.

Probing his memories and childhood for a larger meaning, as he did in such previous memoirs as Fatheralong (1994), Wideman focuses on basketball as a thread that ties together his past and present. It’s his present-day decision to stop playing that takes author and readers back to the summer when he first learned the game. With his father absent and his grandfather dead, the boy went to the basketball court to find what his mother and grandmother could not provide. In his interpretation (thankfully free of the hokum baseball seems to inspire in writers), playground games were rites of passage: not only did players measure their physical growth against others, they established seniority and passed on rules and etiquette that became marks of belonging. This is not a conventional memoir. Wideman also includes a paradigmatic short story entitled “Who Invented the Jump Shot (A Fable)” about a black dimwit who invents CPR only to be hung for touching a white woman; an argument for basketball as folk art; and a call to rename his childhood playground for two local legends. The latter is a particularly effective piece: Wideman makes archetypal giants of men already born large enough to excel at basketball, and in calling for a new name he looks forward to a future with black-defined meaning while evoking the past of Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, and Malcolm X. Each chapter displays Wideman’s range as a writer and gives the text a richness that the well-trod field of memoir could not provide alone. He takes a lot of risks, but not always successfully. At points the narrative is needlessly vague and staccato, and Wideman’s interpretations of basketball are sometimes clouded by his love of the game. Still, a few missed shots are acceptable in both basketball and books.

A creative, rambling blend of memoir, fiction, and essay.