I think of the children who will never know, intuitively, that a flower is a plant’s way of making love, or what silence sounds like, or that trees breathe out what we breathe in.
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Shortly after Noah Davis enrolled in Indiana University’s MFA program, where I teach poetry, we discovered that we’re both pretty serious ballplayers. Noah had just finished his basketball career at Seton Hill University, and I had kept up a decent (if intermittent) basketball regimen. We began playing one-on-one together, and while warming up or shooting foul shots in between games, we would talk — about teaching, poetry, family, college sports, gardening. After a couple of months we thought it might be interesting to write letters back and forth. We could make an independent study of it, an exercise in epistolary essay writing. After the semester ended, we kept going, until now we have almost a book’s worth of these little missives. They are about basketball, and, as such, they are about gender and masculinity and race and capitalism and touch and care. And, as we’re both poets, they’re very much about language and the imagination. And, as we’re friends, they’re also about friendship.
— Ross Gay
We play full-court, one-on-one basketball. Every basket is worth one point, every airball is minus one, and every offensive rebound plus one. First to five wins.
You might have your own philosophy on this, Ross, but how are you able to sleep at night? How are you able to sit comfortably by the fire? How are you able to eat barbecue lentils with avocado in a tortilla and talk with Stephanie? How can you live in the warmth of all that when you win by intentionally missing a shot so you can grab an offensive board?
Winning on a missed shot.
It’s fundamentally wrong, like what I learned in church to call a “sin.” It rips and tears at me. It takes away the beauty of scoring.
You can say that jazz and blues have beautiful rips and tears, and they do. That similes and metaphors and line breaks and cadences and titles often have beautiful rips and tears, and they do. And I guess it’s gorgeous when you move me — twenty-years-younger-than-you me — out of the way and grab the rebound.
A Brief Glossary for the Basketball Illiterate
Airball: A missed shot that doesn’t hit the rim or backboard but hits a lot of air.
Bank shot: A shot that hits the backboard before going in the basket. It is a more forgiving shot, with more room for error. Which every player needs sometimes.
Burpee: A more vigorous version of a squat-thrust. You bring your hands to the ground, jump your feet back, complete a push-up, bring your feet beneath you, then explode into a jump. One of the most fatiguing exercises in that long catalog of fatiguing exercises.
Gamer: A person who hates practice, and who may perform poorly in practice, but once they get in a real game, they’re incredible.
Sheetz: A chain of gas stations originating in Altoona, Pennsylvania. Gourmet gas-station burritos!
Sky: To jump very high.
There’s also beauty in your caring enough about me and my game to make me suffer, endure, agonize, ache, hurt, and writhe under the fact that I have lost games in which you have scored only one bucket.
And there’s a beautiful struggle in putting the ball in the basket. It’s hard to put the ball in the basket. It’s infinitely easier not to put the ball in the basket. That’s why even pros usually miss more shots than they make.
I see a miss as a failure.
Maybe you’re better at failure than I am. But how can you miss on purpose? If I’m late getting back on defense, you’ll bounce the ball off the bottom of the rim and catch the “rebound” for a point. Alone under the basket. Missing.
When I was in a shooting slump in college, I’d visualize the ball going in, and you’re out here missing on purpose. What the hell, Ross!
Why do you mock the skill of making the shot?
What is lost when you miss on purpose?
What is it, Dr. Gay? Professor Gay? Mr. Gay? Ross?
My mother says I was like a little old man when I was a kid. She doesn’t mean it the way parents do when they talk about their kids being “old souls,” some way of bragging about the wisdom those kids were born with, which never seems to be quite accurate. My mother is not complimentary in that way. She is from the Lutheran-inflected, Calvinist-inspired regions where, when you leave the country for two years, your parents might not hug you and weep and beg you to stay; they might simply shake your hand goodbye. Regions where compliments are bestowed sparingly, where the word love is bequeathed rarely. Which is to say, I think she is being more descriptive than complimentary. She is saying that when I looked at a caterpillar crawling on my finger (there is a photograph of this, from the days before the perpetual photographing of everything, though now I can’t recall if the photograph is of my brother or me), I looked at it like an old man would. I believe my mother on this — and I do not always believe my mother — in part because her observation has been verified elsewhere, including, alas, on the basketball court.
It seems that from a fairly young age — probably middle school, though maybe toward the end of elementary — I have had what is called an “old man’s game.” I don’t have to tell you, the phrase “old man’s game” implies playing as though you are a step slower, with less bounce than the fleet kangaroos who have so graciously permitted you to join them on the court.
Let me make a point here that should be glaringly evident to all who have played the beautiful game of basketball, which is that it is a young person’s game. A game that affords no particular benefit to youths would not produce the phrase “old man’s game,” and with it the anxiety, the looming sense of mortality, that basketball so plainly does. But let me also make a point here that when I visited my pal Jay in Menlo Park, California, a couple of years back, I saw a half-court game consisting of women who all looked to be in their seventies.
The quality of the old person’s game, then, includes what some might call “cheating.” By “cheating” I mean techniques like tugging on an opponent’s shorts or jersey to negate the lost step. (Where did the step go, you ask? That’s a good question!) Or, my favorite, a simple spin move in close quarters with a touch — more like a thud — of elbow to your man’s chest, so he can’t sky and block your shot. Or, of course, all the things you can do to get a rebound: hold someone’s wrist; pin someone’s arm beneath yours; and, beloved standby, grab someone’s shorts. In a pickup game the consequences of cheating are, at worst, someone threatening blows. It seems mean to threaten an old man, though, even if the old man in question is only forty-four and four months (and three days).
Now, I’m not saying that I’m smarter than you, Noah, Baby Noah, Big Baby Noah, Sweet Noey. (I have so many names for you that you’ve not heard me use, which is among the many indications of my love for you, along with the elbows.) But I am kind of saying that. Bouncing the ball off the bottom of the rim is, as you say, a poorly missed shot, but also a perfectly missed one, because it results in a point in our game, which means it’s a way for me to stay on the court. If there were a way I could stay on the court without cheating — without those perfectly, beautifully missed shots — believe me, I would do it.
I ’ve been ruminating on today’s intramural game, particularly on the discussion I had with the other team’s big kid on the line after he was sort of draping himself on me, and I swung the ball quickly by his face, without the least intention of hitting him (which, naturally, I have done to others by accident, and have had done to me; I have several mostly invisible scars through my eyebrows as evidence). I was trying just to get a little space and to stop his hanging on me, which was not, in this game, a foul. When there was a stoppage in play shortly after, I tugged his jersey and said, quietly, soothingly, amicably, in the spirit of reconciliation, “I wasn’t trying to hurt you. I want you to know.” First he told me to let go of his jersey. He then told me that I’d had bad intentions, a pouty argument that I debated to little effect. Finally he told me not to smack his ass. I think that was the order. And then, in conflict with what I was actually feeling, which was something along the lines of Oh, shut the fuck up, I said, “Sorry.” And then, stumblingly, “I thought this was an adult game.”
I felt myself withdraw somewhat from the game after that, in part because I didn’t want this kid to feel attacked, which, evidently, he had. I could not quite tell if he was angry at me for my, shall we say, contact-y play or because, after we would tussle on the court, I would say something to the effect of Good fight, or Good work, and, shamefully, I would smack him on the ass. When he did not smile at me once, I wondered, flickeringly, Is he displeased? Which didn’t make sense to me, because we were having fun. Weren’t we?
When I feebly suggested, more to myself than to him, that this was an adult game, I was in some way talking about the way basketball (especially the best games, which include, for me, our one-on-ones) elicits or even requires a kind of consent. The consent is to many things, and many of those things might fall under a larger umbrella of touch. When you walk onto the court, you are consenting to touch, to being touched. That’s basketball. None of which suggests that the nature of the touching is not to be negotiated, as evidenced by the occasional long, high-volume debates that ensue at all the best courts I’ve ever played on, which sometimes woefully devolve into courtrooms. But usually it’s just players working out how to touch one another so that beauty might flourish.
As you mentioned after the game, it’s tricky, when we play with other people, figuring out how to dial it back from our game, which includes lots of touching, pushing, scratching, hugging, diving, screaming, sprinting, laughing, ass-smacking, shoving, hurting, cheering, and sometimes bleeding. All of which falls under the umbrella, to be more precise, of affection.
When you dunked on me the other day, it was affection. When I drop my shoulder into your sternum to make a little room for myself, it’s affection. When it heats up and we’re not laughing and an orbital bone might bust or a tooth loosen, it is, and always will be, affection. When you recover the loose ball I poked from your dribble and drop that thing through the rim and smack me in the ass running back; and when I hit a runner in the game after missing them all during warm-up and I smack my forearm into your back and holler, Gamer! Affection. Which, I’m discovering as I write this, is why I even play basketball: to consent to this ramshackle garden of affection.
I saw you withdraw during today’s game.
I feel like some of the problem was me. I let my man score twice early on, their team went up 8 to 4, and they thought they could hang with us, which they couldn’t. This early success might have caused an inflated self-image in the big man, who was then deflated by one of your affectionate but, I’ll admit, sharp elbows, which I have consented to taking.
I was hurt that you withdrew. You left some boards for others to chase, there wasn’t as much talking on defense, and your arms didn’t flail with the measured recklessness I’ve come to expect. This hurt the team, but, as your friend, I was angry that their big man couldn’t see what a seven o’clock game on a Monday night meant for his growth as an individual. He couldn’t see the sweetness in the competition. He was used to a game centered on violence and domination, and the dissonance of Good work and Good fight after the bumping and shoving on the court knocked him so off-kilter that he slapped your arm away and ordered you to curb your body movement.
I, too, didn’t take this seven o’clock Monday-night game as an opportunity to mature. I had some young-male issue with the fact that you weren’t receiving the respect you deserved. I knew that you, a professor, couldn’t give this player a less-affectionate touch — not that you should have, because we’re trying to spread intense, competitive sweetness and affection. So I trotted to the opposite side of the court and put my shoulder into the big man’s chest as he ran back on offense. I wanted him to feel me. I asked him with my eyes, as I backpedaled, if he felt me, if he knew there was another big body he had to recognize.
Big man, if you’re reading this, I hope you and I have grown since Monday night. I hope you’ve found affection in many different places. I hope I can learn to give affection to those who actively reject sweetness. I hope I don’t search out other people who offend me and make them recognize my body. I hope you’ve forgiven my bump.
Ross, the next day a young man playing with us slammed his elbow into your eyebrow while going for a rebound, splitting it open, and I affectionately asked you to go bleed off the court, so we wouldn’t have to stop the game. You tried to stop the flow with a band-aid, but blood ran down your nose and into your mouth. Damn, damn, damn. I should’ve brought you more paper towels.
But you didn’t ask for that.
You asked me to keep playing. Not to shy away from this kind of affection.
The other day I was heading to Cincinnati to hole up and knock out this poem about Dr. J I’ve been working on since April 4, 2015. Actually I’ve been working on it since December 3, 2013. More accurately I have been working on it since the 1980 NBA Finals, when the shot I want to meditate on — the best layup in the history of the NBA — actually transpired. Though when does anything actually transpire? Maybe I’ve been working on it my whole life.
I pulled up near a coffee shop that I’d visited once before, and a block or so away was a nice city ball court, well maintained, right next to a busy playground. There might have been a sprinkler for the kids to enjoy. It was hot. I think the date was May 25. The mulberries in Cincinnati were coming on, the smells of spring hustling toward summer, people out and about in the sun. And on the court I could see that a game was petering out. When a guy walked off dribbling his ball, I asked if this was a regular game on weekend mornings, and he said it was, but there was also one about to start up on 8th Street, or maybe 6th; I can’t remember. I made my way toward the street he’d mentioned, which was five blocks away. When I got there, people were laughing, getting loud, shooting around, finding their touch — the good milling about that happens before the work. Another young guy walking down the street asked me, “Are they starting?” I said I thought so, and he took off running — I’m sure to get his gear so he could join. The sun was every bit of out. I looked from across the street beneath a bar’s awning because I was shy about standing on the sideline and being asked to play, which I so badly wanted to do. I knew I wouldn’t be able to say no, though I needed to say no, because my wrist still hurt from when you’d landed on it. (Don’t worry; you’re forgiven.) Just picking up my backpack that morning had been a wincing ordeal. I watched for a while as people gathered like they were going to water, which, of course, they were. God, I was thirsty.
One of the benefits of aging is having the wherewithal to hold off from playing when you’re hurt — to hang on in the parch when you know that the fun you have today might result in another month or two or more of thirst. Knowing how to sit on your ass and watch the game instead of jumping in. I did such damage to my left big toe when I was twenty-six: I sprained it and wouldn’t stop playing, because I was at the height of my flying, and giving up basketball for a few months was unfathomable. And so, for twelve or thirteen years after that, until I finally got it fixed, I had a toe that hurt to touch, was constantly inflamed, and needled me with shards and flecks of bone. I like to have no regrets, everything’s a learning experience, etc. But even though I learned something (slow your roll and recover), I kind of regret that.
All the same, it reminds me how much this game makes me think about dying. It makes me think about our precious, brief visit on earth, and how the visit to the court is even more brief, and just as precious. That’s what I was feeling, watching people tie their shoes and trot over to get their warm-up shots in and squeezing the ball in their hands. Picking teams and starting to play. God, how soon we die. How beautiful this game.
I’ve been up in northern New Hampshire catching brook trout on small mountain streams. The fish are beautiful — some of the most aesthetically beautiful life I’ve had the joy of encountering. And that list of beautiful life I’ve encountered is very long.
Like most wild things — like most living things — these trout are always on the verge of dying. Floods, drought, ice, eagles, ospreys, mink, pike, bass, other trout, and me. Even though I wish only to hold them for a moment, to meet with this other life quickly before returning it to the stream, they know my shape as one that can bring death.
Because I’m young and confident in my legs, I step quickly over slick rocks in currents strong enough to move even my big frame. My dad walks behind me, and, because he loves me, he’s told me five times this year that I’m not invincible and must be careful with my step. I’ve fallen and slammed my knee, my elbow, and my shin this spring, but there’s only been blood and bruises, no sprains or breaks.
He’s likely closer to death than me, and is preparing for his own mother’s death. I found his mother, my grandmother, on her floor in February. Her face smashed on a chair. She’s now in a memory-care unit in Wisconsin, close to my aunt. My father is making sure I don’t rush the death that will find me, and I thank him for this. I try to listen. I truly do.
I’m a better listener now than I was in high school when he told me not to force my dunks and I did force one, in the fifteenth game of my senior year, against a team we were beating by thirty. When my fingers didn’t wrap around the rim, I swung up under the basket like a bag of groceries in the hand of a child. My wrist and right ankle were beneath me when I landed. While I was on the floor, the gym was silent, and I called, “Dad! Dad!” and he came down out of the stands, and I said sorry over and over, and he said it was fine and he wasn’t angry. He and Mom took me to the hospital, where the doctor told me my left wrist was cracked and my right ankle sprained.
On the drive back from the hospital, the moon was as large as a pregnant mother’s belly, and, being young and thinking everything revolved around my basketball season, I was amazed that it was still shining when I was so sad. I told my parents this, and Dad said, “Yes, isn’t it nice that the moon will be there long after we’re all dead?” And, before I could answer, Mom said, “Yes, it is.”
The doctor at the hospital said I wouldn’t play another game that year, but my mother, who knew I was far from death and who I pray is still far from hers, got me an appointment with the orthopedist at Penn State with the help of a friend, the women’s basketball coach. That doctor sawed my cast off, and I played a few more games before we lost far earlier in the tournament than we’d ever thought we would at the beginning of the season.
Even with all the falls I’ve taken from ledges and into deep water, the closest I’ve ever felt to death was when I swung off that rim. Mom and Dad were there to see me fall from so high. I was so high, Ross.
Today I saw the year’s first crocuses — purple and gold — tipping their chins to the early-morning light. And the light, too, has a slightly different drape this morning, something beckoning. The daffodils are about to come out, and don’t you know they look about to burst, not unlike a baby bird just tapped out of its fragile cell, not quite knowing how to open its eyes.
When I was about your age, my buddy’s father collapsed on the court, all six feet nine inches of him. My friend sprinted over to his dad and put his hand immediately to his father’s neck and, listening to his breathing, knew he had to start chest compressions, and he did, alternating with the breaths, while his father stared into the lights above, his body rocking with his son’s love. The father’s body a boat his son was trying to steer. His son was steering. We all were standing there watching this son take his father home.
All the while I was watching this dying, this loving and dying and living, I heard basketballs bouncing, an almost rain-patter of them, though they do not make the sound of rain, unless it is rain on the biggest corrugated-steel roof you’ve ever seen, and, Lord, I want to play on the court that protects. I want to dance around those puddles.
One day soon the trees I planted with my own father’s ashes will have to come down. In the past few years they’ve been taken over with black rot, a quick-moving disease that will eventually girdle the branches and cut off nutrients to the leaves. It looks like tumors, little knotty growths crawling all over the bark. My father died of a large, knotty growth in his liver, but I don’t, I won’t, connect my father’s death to the death of the trees. It’s just the humidity and the spores of fungus riding the winds. It’s just that life sometimes requires a little death.
During a summer-league game, a boy on the sideline slipped away from his mother and stuck his toy into an electrical socket. Sparks the color and shape of the tiger lilies on the east side of my family’s house bloomed around his arm.
I was guarding a man who hadn’t hit a shot all night, and the boy and the socket were behind him. I saw the blossoming.
The other team’s point guard, the boy’s father, ran to his son, who wasn’t crying, and told him there was nothing to worry about. The man I was guarding said, “It’s not OK, though.” The father said, “I know, but, God damn, shut the hell up.” The burns on the boy’s skin followed his muscles like roots.
In spring, before the leaves are out, birds would careen into the glass backboard of our driveway basketball hoop, and my brother, Nathan, and I would pick them up and lay them between the exposed roots of the tulip poplar behind the basket.
I would hear them thump against the glass.
Sometimes they would still be warm. They filled my palm like a dinner roll.
Give us this day our daily bread.
Dear Lord, songbirds died so I could learn to shoot a bank shot.
I’ve never pictured Nathan and me doing that before, but now that’s all I can see: both of us bending down to the driveway’s black surface, brown ball beneath an arm, to pick up a yellow goldfinch, neither of us afraid of this death on the court where we hoped to map our future lives with jump shots and rebounds.
Boys gathering dead birds before they play basketball.
After we played, we would take the birds to the woods, where a skunk or fox might find them and live another day.
Did anyone keep shooting after your friend’s father died on the court?
We finished the game while the point guard took his son to the hospital.
Nathan and I believed we had to keep shooting.
There’s still laughter, though. When you and I worked out on Thursday, there was some explicit, and explicitly fun, holding or grabbing or tackling. I think you were keeping me from scoring, or from one of my (many) offensive rebounds, and you were like That’s enough of that! (Since we have stopped counting offensive rebounds as points, I have gleefully been forced to become a better ball-in-basket scorer — a good thing to learn at forty-five!) Anyway, you wrapped me up or near tackled me or shoved me, which made me laugh hard. Other times you got a long rebound and were off to the races, and I hacked you like eight times between the three-point line and the rim (and sometimes you still scored, despite those hacks; ah, youth), and we laughed. Last time it happened, I laughed so hard I had to take a breather, hands on my shorts, the whole deal — not from the three quick full-court points, nor from the sweet fighting we were doing, but from the goofy hold or hapless hack, and the laughter that followed. (An aside: try to write about laughter — not cruel or vicious laughter but joyful, reaching-toward laughter — and see if you don’t smile; see if the pelicans don’t start lifting off inside your chest.) It occurred to me, and I think I said so, that cracking up is like doing five wind sprints or, better yet, ten burpees in the middle of a point, and that is hard!
I do not know exactly how to articulate this, but I think that these moments of silliness that interrupt the game are the point of the game: when the artifice of the ball and hoop — the machinery of the play — becomes irrelevant to our bodies breathing irregularly, convulsively, our teeth glaring in peace, both of us stumbling toward some mutuality, our laughter saying, You are safe here. As am I.
Just across the street, on a grassy hill next to the post office parking lot, I can see two kids — maybe brothers, one big and one little — play-wrestling. The big one tosses the little one around but is careful. It is among the most beautiful sights, bigger children knowing how to play with smaller ones. It is a mutuality, an understanding, or an attempt to understand someone else’s body and how to care for it. They are both laughing hard, almost hugging each other to stay upright. Do you know what I’m talking about? They seem to be the point of the game. They are the point of the game.
I was a big brother who didn’t toss his little brother carefully. In high school, every time I raised my hand around Nathan, he would flinch. Even if I was only scratching my head. Even if I was reaching to hug him, which we did more than other brothers we knew. I could even kiss him on the back of his head, and all through middle school he’d ask to sleep with me in my twin bed, and I’d let him. But there were enough times in our playing when I used my hands to strike him that, once he grew big enough to strike back, he did, and I flinched, too. Both of us over six foot three and strong, we flinched from each other.
Each time the other flinched from a movement not soaked in malice, the one who’d raised a hand would bend close, cradle the head of the other, and say, “I’m sorry you’re scared.” We always meant it. Oh, Mom and Dad, we really meant it.
But, to this day, at twenty-five and twenty-two, we still sometimes strike in malice, then quickly apologize. After years of this we should know better.
Even in our worst times as brothers, we built rafts of laughter to float on together. (Nathan laid most of those planks.) And, just like you said about how the laughter in our games at the ridiculous shoving is the same as wind sprints and burpees, Nathan’s and my laughter makes us weary enough that the tension coiled in our muscles, left there by years of flinching from each other, slackens and lifts like tundra swans flying from cut cornfields. We’re so exhausted from our laughing that we cannot, will not, move quickly in malice, only slowly in tenderness.
Once, Nathan and I had been playing in the backyard for so long that our feet were green with grass stains and the fireflies had come out. We’d played until our veins had risen to our skin’s surface, and we were tired. On our way into the house, we started to grab and push, the last motions our bodies could muster, and we moved closer, torso to torso, and then Nathan said something that he knew would make me laugh, because it had made me laugh a thousand times before, and we drifted on the wave of our hooting and hollering around the side yard and the rest of the way to the garage. Laughed so loud the tundra swans high above us could hear.
Ross Gay (left) and Noah Davis
That’s exactly it, isn’t it? The tenderness is so beautiful, so precious, because we know life is so often otherwise. Because we know tenderness is something we need to be shown, and shown is good. I remember a fight with my own brother. One time, after we’d done our paper routes (I usually finished before him), I got home and straightened up the house: folded the throws, put the newspapers in their place, whatever else a nine-year-old thinks straightening up entails. My brother came home and promptly unfolded one of those blankets to snuggle into the couch as the New Zoo Revue was wrapping up and Fat Albert was about to come on. I had it in my head that he couldn’t use the blanket I’d just folded, so we fought. After I got the better of him, he retreated to our bedroom.
But I wasn’t done. I followed him upstairs to find him under the blankets, and I sat next to him on the bed and started slapping him, methodically, in the mouth, where he had just gotten braces on his teeth. I slapped him again and again until he asked, in a way that still kind of pierces me, “What are you doing?” And I left. My father must’ve heard him sniffling, because a few minutes later Dad came down in his robe to where I was lying on the couch, enjoying my cartoons, and he commenced to rebalance the scales — which is to say, he made my mouth feel like my brother’s must have felt.
You have to be taught tenderness. You have to be shown tenderness. You have to notice tenderness. You have to revere and exalt tenderness. You have to play at tenderness. You have to practice tenderness.
I feel like part of becoming a grown-up person is no longer being shocked by many of the awful things we do to one another — is seeing in every awful thing something very close to something I’ve done or thought or said. Is knowing that all that is awful outside of me is also present inside of me, in some form or other. And I also know that all that is sweet and beautiful outside of me is also present inside of me, in some form or other. I see my nine-year-old self beating on my brother. I see my brother trying to turn away. I see my father trying to make it better by smacking me in the face. Poor things, every one of them. All of them hurting. All of them wanting to make the hurt stop. All of them tender. All of them needing tenderness.
All of us needing tenderness.
I think it is tenderness you and I are practicing, Noey. I’m sore and bruised and bloody sometimes, my knee sounds like a pepper grinder, and my toenail’s about to fall off again, but I think it’s tenderness we’re practicing: Some balm to the boy who would break his brother’s smile. Some balm to the dad who would do the same to his son. Some sweetness to make the malice go soft. The hands for holding. The hands for tending. Some tenderness by which we kiss the broken thing in us. Kiss and kiss the breaking thing in us that it might fly away.
When you contested my shot, putting your long arm as close to my body as you could without fouling me, so close your sweat flew into my face, and I made the shot anyway — that’s when my shot became beautiful.
People can make beautiful things alone, but that is not the effort you and I are invested in. We’re invested in the study of beautiful collaboration that needs others. The kids on the other court were there to recognize and witness the beauty of that moment. I think they even huddled together, bumping each other in excitement at the made shot, chirping like starlings, which made the shot even more beautiful. We needed their witness, just as I needed you there to create the shot. We needed them to carry the embrace and the hollering and the kiss I laid on your cheek beyond the lines of the court, beyond our joined lives.
Everyone I’ve ever stepped onto a court with has become a part of my life. I see it clearly when I recognize a familiar face on the bus and remember his behind-the-back move into a jump shot, or when I walk in the arboretum and smell the sweat that I smelled last semester when another player and I were fighting for position beneath the hoop. At home in Pennsylvania, players I haven’t seen in years will pass me at Sheetz, and I’ll remember their running form or how they called out to their teammates. This lingering is a kind of muscle memory, to know someone so physically, so intimately that their motion on the court is the first image to cross your mind’s eye. I remember their moves before I remember their names.
Yesterday morning, while I was riding my bike to go talk poetry with Adrian, I passed a group of men who were hauling ladders to the side of a rental home to work on the roof. My red basketball shoes hung off my backpack strap like a pair of giant cherries, and one of the men did a double take.
As I braked at the stop sign, he yelled to me, “Go play some ball, young man!” There was a yearning beneath his exclamation. He had a day ahead of him of nailing shingles in the hot sun. I had basketball in front of me. I couldn’t tell if my shoes had reminded him of the beauty of his former basketball life, or if he was lamenting the fact that he was missing some beauty in a gym not a mile away. But I also think he was happy that I’d taken the time to tie my basketball shoes together and would play that day.
His call was a command in the most wonderful sense.
And because of the work you and I are doing, Ross, I could hear a choir of voices harmonizing with his shout:
Go make some beauty, young man!
Go be tender, young man!
Go be sweet, young man!
What a way to begin the day: with strangers beholding the potential beauty in us, a beauty that grows as we share it.
Oh, heaven, when strangers call out asking for beauty.
Which is, Dear Noey, maybe what we’re doing when we call for the ball: calling for beauty, for the chance to make our own bit of beauty. I suspect it is, though I didn’t put it that way back when I was coaching, and I would compel my kids — I always refer to the kids I have coached as my kids — to call for the ball, to talk, to be constantly chatting and chirping like a flock of sparrows.
I wish we had said it as such: Ask for beauty! Ask for beauty, David! Open your mouth! Let Ayshon know where you are! Ask for beauty, Stanley. When you’re trailing the fast break, you gotta be asking for beauty. C’mon! Everyone knows that the team that does the most talking usually wins — and, as you’ve said, the most touching, which is, at its best, also a beckoning for beauty; and maybe here the argument, too, is that talking is touching, and now that I’ve said it, I realize I do believe it to be true: talk is touch, which makes a poem a kind of touching. The team that chatters more lets each other know where they are on the court. They know how to find one another. They know how to ask for help. They know how to help. And a quiet team refuses to ask for help, refuses to admit having lost track of who they were defending. A quiet team refuses, too, to say, I’m open. I’m here if you need me. A quiet team refuses to need and be needed. What is basketball if not the practice of being needed and needy?
How sweet to get old enough, and lucky enough, to start carving out of oneself the old, dumb, bullshit lie of self-sufficiency; to start carving out of oneself the shame of being needy — even the word is a kind of slur. Did you read the piece Rebecca Solnit wrote about Thoreau and how he dropped his laundry off for his sisters and mom to do every week or so? He wouldn’t have written Walden without their help, just like his beans wouldn’t have come up without the rain, without the sun. And the trees gave themselves for his little cabin. And the leaves made shade and air and dirt. And the critters who nibbled his beans eventually made their ways to dying, gave their meager bodies to the good cause of soil and vittles for the littler ones. And sometimes the bigger. And the sun, can you believe it, keeps shining for now. The temperatures we can mostly tolerate, for now. None of it need be, but it is. It is needed, and we are the needy.
Which would make a good name for our intramural team: We the Needy. Imagine the T-shirts! Though, truly, how are we not on our knees kissing the beloved earth all the time in reckless gratitude? And how beautiful that this basketball game, or the final game we’re all moving steadily toward, is one of the ways to be kissing the earth in reckless gratitude. How lucky. We the needy.
My middle-aged female friends and I often discuss our disappointment with the men in our lives, who seem universally unable to engage in meaningful conversation or take an interest in anything beyond video games, their record collections, or fantasy sports teams. So I was thankful for the sensitivity, affection, and self-expression displayed in Ross Gay and Noah Davis’s “The Ramshackle Garden of Affection.”
Ross Gay and Noah Davis may not be the Michael Jordan and Larry Bird of layups and bank shots, but on paper their game is Langston Hughes and Billy Collins. Pure poetry.
Ross Gay is an absolute treasure and is quickly becoming one of my favorite writers. His ability to name the tenderness in life’s heartbreaks is exactly what I need to move through our aching world.
Noah Davis meets his friend and mentor’s words with a lovely voice of his own: a young man exploring the sweetness and affection of basketball, family, love, life. Reading their letters, I paused many times, filled with gratitude for such beauty.
Ross Gay and Noah Davis’s essay-in-letters “The Ramshackle Garden of Affection” [June 2020] hit home for me. I’ve played recreational basketball for many years with coworkers or neighbors, and reading the correspondence between these two men is like hearing again the voices of the many people I have played with: the nuance of touch, the playful banter, the knowledge of your fellow players’ habits — and the ways you let them know you know.
The essay brought back fond memories of men I have loved and lost. I will make sure my young grandsons read it; it has so many lessons for them.
I’ve had a love affair with The Sun for more than twenty years. Some issues I can’t bring myself to give away. April 1995 and July 1998 rest comfortably in my filing cabinet. Now I must add June 2020, because the series of letters between Ross Gay and his pal Noah Davis [“The Ramshackle Garden of Affection”] made me cry.
Gay writes to Davis, “You have to revere and exalt tenderness.” (In this particular letter Gay uses the word tenderness thirteen times.) He always signs his letters, “Love, Ross,” and Davis replies in kind.
This called to mind Sy Safransky’s interview with mythologist Michael Meade in the January 1994 issue, where Meade says witnessing someone crying is “another definition of what I call the water of life, when those tears come from that deep well of human sympathy, human sorrow. At that point we’re human. We’re connected.”
Being a young, tall female, I was often asked, “Do you play basketball?” This annoyed me to no end, and I never took up the game. Ross Gay and Noah Davis beautifully explain the joy of basketball, however, and how it’s about more than just scoring points [“The Ramshackle Garden of Affection,” June 2020].
Later, as an adult, I took up rowing, which has brought me great joy. There’s nothing like eight hardworking teammates surging across the sparkling water. But Gay and Davis have made me feel that I might have missed out.
Thank you for sharing their correspondence. If we all wrote each other such heartfelt letters, it would be a more empathetic world.