Being A 'Hot Poet' And A 'Hot Basketball Player

Read Stephen Dunn's Sports Blog Nation piece "Against All Odds."

In an essay for Sports Blog Nation, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Stephen Dunn reflects on his path from college basketball player to poet. "What basketball and poetry have in common," he writes, "is that they each provide opportunities to be better than yourself — opportunities for transcendence."

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NEAL CONAN, HOST:

Last night, the men's collegiate basketball season ended with Louisville as the new champs. Louisville's women team faces off against Connecticut as the women's tournament winds up tonight as the long season wound down. Stephen Dunn published a piece on a blog called SB Nation about his basketball career at Hofstra University and the links between his time on the court, his time on the bench and eventual career as a poet. Almost everyone who plays in high school or college learns that they will never make a living in professional sports.

What did that realization teach you? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website, that's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Stephen Dunn is a Pulitzer Prize winning poet and author, most recently, of "Here and Now: Poems." He joins us from his home in Frostburg, Maryland. Thanks very much for being with us today.

STEPHEN DUNN: Happy to be with you.

CONAN: And in your sophomore year, you write that you are best shooter on the team, second highest scorer. You nickname was Radar, but that you learned more, your junior year, when, in fact, you rode the bench.

DUNN: Mostly rode the bench, yeah. I did. There was a guy on the team who I played against in practice. And he was a freshmen, and at that time, freshmen couldn't play varsity ball. So I knew that the following year. He'll be playing and probably in place of me. And he did. He was better than I, and I hadn't developed an inner-life, I think, do deal with it all.

CONAN: And inner-life. So you did read on the bench surely.

(LAUGHTER)

DUNN: No. But one thought on the bench, one realized where one was in relation to certain excellence; and he had the real excellence, and I was pretty good. This is the difference, and the coach needed the difference, of course.

CONAN: You had an interesting coach too.

DUNN: Yes, Butch van Breda Kolff.

CONAN: He would later go on, from Hofstra, to coach at Princeton, where he had a player by the name of Bill Bradley.

DUNN: Yes, and then onto the Lakers, as well. Yeah. He was quite interesting as a man and very good coach, I think.

CONAN: And it's interesting, when you came to that realization, your relative excellence, because as you say at that level, you were pretty good. But nevertheless, what happened to you mentally?

DUNN: I think, for a while, I was depressed and got over it pretty quickly. It wasn't useful. And yeah. You - I played in schoolyards all my life against good players, and one knows where one is in relation to another in that way. And that was something to adjust to. It happened before. It was only a little humiliating at first. Because I had been a good scorer before that. And it was really a decision of van Breda Kolff's to play a little guy who is a good teammate and a good distributor of the ball in place of me. There's an argument is whether this guy I'm talking about, Richie Swartz, whether he and I should play together and many people thought so. But van Breda Kolff didn't think so. And at our reunion in 1999, he brought it up. And in fact, said, well, you know, 23 and one, which was his way of saying I made the right decision.

CONAN: And did winning, in fact, that was a very good hustler team, did winning make it easier to accept the fact that you were not playing as much as you used to?

DUNN: I suppose. I don't remember that well. It was very hard to argue with. You know, we were good, sports was terrific. And it was clear, quite clear, and you know, you just yield to it.

CONAN: What - I think you were a history student at the time.

DUNN: I was a history major, yes.

CONAN: And what did you think you were going to do with the rest of your life?

(LAUGHTER)

DUNN: Well, I think if I had kept on playing basketball when I started, I probably would have been a gym teacher. I probably would've thought I would do that. Or teach history perhaps in high school. And it's, you know, most of our paths are crooked paths, I think, and mine is a very crooked path toward being a poet.

We didn't have any books in our house, and I was a first-generation college student. It was all accommodation. And then a lot of luck, you know, getting lucky to run into good teachers. And I had one literary friend who was Sam Toperoff, a novelist, and he conferred that my work was at least doable.

(LAUGHTER)

DUNN: And that was important to me at the time. And if he had said otherwise, I don't know what I would have done. But I went to Spain to write, to see - I quit my job in New York, went to Spain to see if I could write and wrote a bad novel, full of language, all about me - you know, the way first novels could be - a real dull novel, and threw it away. But it was full of language, and I realized I should be writing poetry and started writing poetry.

CONAN: Oh, so going for the big bucks.

DUNN: Yes.

(LAUGHTER)

DUNN: Right.

CONAN: And that realization eventually led to a career as a poet. And I was making a joke there, but it's got other rewards, I suspect.

DUNN: Oh, lots of rewards. My life - one of the reasons I quit my job at Nabisco is that I didn't want to be any of those people when I grew up. It sounds a little melodramatic, but it was true. And to have been around poets, even though, you know, poets are as complicated and often as - how should I say it - disagreeable as any group of people, I'm so happy that I found most of my friends that way and through athletics too.

CONAN: Hmm. You were at Nabisco. You were not doing something interesting like baking Fig Newtons though.

DUNN: No. I was writing little notes in brochures (unintelligible) about Triscuits and things like that.

CONAN: We're talking with the...

DUNN: An easy life to improve upon.

CONAN: We're talking with Pulitzer Prize-winner Stephen Dunn about his career in basketball led eventually to poetry, principally when he understood that he was not as good as some of the other players who were on the team as well. We want to hear what you learned when you made that realization if you played sports in high school or in college. And we'll start with Edward. Edward's on the line with us from Tallahassee.

EDWARD: Hi, Neal. Thanks for taking my call. And I think I have a few things in common with your guest in that our lives generally are made up of crooked paths. I played Division 1-A football, and I thought I was pretty good at it. But around sophomore year I ended up getting married and that changed my availability for football. And so I guess I came to the realization that it was going to be more than I could handle, to juggle the two.

But I didn't want to give up this hope or the dream of playing in the NFL, so I was kind of slow to come to terms with that. Eventually, you know, and I too studied history in undergrad, and I left school and taught middle school social studies for a little while before returning. Now, ironically, now I work as a tutor in the athletic department and completing a PhD. But nevertheless, I work with a lot of students, and they have the same hopes and dreams. We all went to school knowing that it was just going to be a temporary holdover until we went to the professional ranks of whichever sport it was that we were in.

And one of my initial sermons to my students is that, you know, we're here to help to help you prepare for the day that the game ends. I'm not going to tell you when that's going to be, but it's going to end. And I think that as young guys, none of us really even considered that that there's not going to be the prospect of us going on to play in the NFL or whichever sport, you know?

CONAN: Yeah. The game will end when you're inducted in Canton.

(LAUGHTER)

EDWARD: Right, right. That's what we all believe. But again, I just - I enjoy the challenge now of trying to get student athletes to at least make that small investment in their education because, you know, being an older guy now I know that it ends. But it's hard to tell - whether it's a female athlete or otherwise, to tell these kids that, you know, the game is going to end at some point, you know, so, you know, start to kind of look forward and, you know, decide on some other things that might make you happy in life in regards to career.

CONAN: And so you're gratified with the decisions you made?

EDWARD: I am very gratified. You know, I didn't set out to become an educator. Again, I knew I, you know, I was a very good athlete in Florida. I ran track. I did a lot of sports and was highly(ph) recruited, so, you know, I never really considered anything other than playing sports. And when that ended, I had to do something, and I went into education because I enjoyed school and I enjoyed working with students. And I didn't know that that would bring me full circle back into school.

I'm pursuing a doctorate now, but I am very satisfied with those choices because it's allowed me in a sense to remain around the game because I'm having the opportunity to work with athletes, you know, in the tutoring department. And I also have some of them in some of the classes that I teach, so I'm still around the university, still around the sport, but just in another capacity, you know?

CONAN: Good luck with the Ph.D.

EDWARD: Well, thank you very much, Neal.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the phone call. I wonder, Stephen Dunn, how long did you continue playing basketball?

DUNN: Oh, well into my 50s, I think, in - I played decently I think up until 40s. I played in the Eastern League after college for a year and it ended by mutual agreement. I was the smallest guy in the league. And I was - and that was a surprise I was even by drafted by anybody, that the Eastern League was a good league then under the NBA, I think (unintelligible) team, it was the farm team for the St. Louis Hawks at the time.

CONAN: Were you one of those shooting guards that Red Auerbach used to complain about, the New York City guards always trying to adjust their shot for windage since they grew up shooting on the playground?

DUNN: I was a shooting guard. I don't know about the windage, but I was a shooting guard, yes.

CONAN: And it's interesting, in your piece you wrote that at a certain there became evident differences between the hot basketball player and the hot poet.

DUNN: Yeah. Well, you know, one of the things that was striking - remains striking to me, that if you made a shot that ends - that wins a game, everybody agrees that you did it and you get rewarded and people jump on you. If you write a wonderful poem, some people might think so, many people might think not. And there's none of that visceral feeling - well, there hasn't been for me in doing that, in writing good poems. You don't find poets giving each other high fives in their garrets, you know?

CONAN: The Pulitzer Prize must have been nice though?

DUNN: That was very nice. That was great. And that (technical difficulty) different, very different than - it was thrilling, in fact, when I get the phone call. But I still (technical difficulty) shots that won games.

CONAN: Well, Stephen Dunn, thank you very much for your time today, and we appreciate it.

DUNN: You're welcome.

CONAN: Stephen Dunn, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, author most recently of "Here and Now: Poems." And he joined us from his home in Frostburg, Maryland. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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