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Jamming
John Edgar Wideman Connects Life and Sport

John Edgar Wideman Listen as Scott Simon shoots hoops and talks with John Edgar Wideman

Nov. 3, 2001 -- Any attempt to link basketball and jazz runs the risk of sounding contrived. But John Edgar Wideman does his best to pull it off in his new book Hoop Roots.

Wideman playing for Penn
Mr. Wideman was an All-Ivy forward for the University of Pennsylvania.
Photo: Houghton Mifflin

He compares basketball not only with jazz, but with writing, art, and life itself. The novelist's memoir of the game, according to the book's sleeve notes, "is equally, inevitably, the story of the roots of black basketball in America -- a story inextricable from race, culture, love, and home."

Weekend Edition Saturday's Scott Simon caught up with Mr. Wideman recently to talk about the intersection of basketball and everything else. They met, appropriately enough, on the hard court of a gym on New York's Lexington Avenue.

"What basketball expresses is what jazz expresses," Mr. Wideman says. "Certain cultural predispositions to make art. All African-American art has a substratum, or baseline, of improvisation and spontaneity. You find that in both basketball and jazz."

If the comparison seems a bit facile, consider the case of Larry Bird, formerly of the Boston Celtics, and Magic Johnson, formerly of the Los Angeles Lakers. Their famous rivalry always evoked what Mr. Simon called "dime store sociological premises" about race, because Mr. Bird is white and Mr. Johnson is black.
John Edgar Wideman
Mr. Wideman was the first author ever to win the PEN/Faulkner Award twice.
Photo: Houghton Mifflin

Mr. Wideman makes a more interesting comparison: that Bird and Johnson were like rival musicians sharing the stage, trading riffs. Musicians "who complemented each other, who challenged each other, who imitated each other."

As with jazz, only a true aficionado could see all the subtleties of their play -- the way they imitated each other's games at times, or the way they signaled their appreciation for each other's moves. "I could see what the French call sous conversation, or 'the conversation under the conversation'," says Mr. Wideman.

After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania in 1963, Mr. Wideman, who was an All-Ivy forward on Penn's basketball team, went on to Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar. He became the first writer to win the PEN/Faulkner Award twice -- in 1984 for his novel Sent for You Yesterday and in 1990 for Philadelphia Fire.

Growing up in West Philadelphia, Wideman early on saw the connections between basketball, race, and culture. His observations grew into interests, then into obsessions. On the playground courts, he says, it is "crucially important not just to win or lose, not to score more points, but to do it with a particular style. There had to be room for self-expression."


Other Resources

A 1996 Salon interview with Mr. Wideman.

In 1998, The New York Times put together a huge package of Wideman-related material.