MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
There's another book we'd like to tell you about - timely, because we're in the midst of the NBA finals. And if you follow the sport at all, then you too have been celebrating the grace and verve, the mental toughness, the strategic genius of stars like Steph Curry and LeBron James. Onaje X. O. Woodbine grew up in inner-city Boston and was on the path to his own NBA dreams.
As a sophomore at Yale, he was the team's highest scorer and was voted one of the top-10 Ivy League players. But in a move that provoked the ire of his coach and a stir among Yale alumni, he quit to devote more time to his studies - to become, as he wrote in his letter to his coach (reading) the person I was meant to be. And that journey led to Boston University to study religion and psychology. And now a new book, "Black Gods Of The Asphalt," in which he invites us to look at basketball differently - not just as a distraction from racism or as a path out of poverty, but as a sacred space where young black boys and men go to reclaim their humanity. And he is with us now in our studios in Washington.
Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.
ONAJE X O WOODBINE: Thank you so much.
MARTIN: Now, you know, this is a provocative and interesting book, but your central idea might take a little bit of time to absorb. So I just want to walk us first through your own relationship with basketball. So when did you first pick up a ball?
WOODBINE: Sure. I was about 7 years old. And I remember walking down this hill with a friend of mine into a gang territory. And I looked below, and I saw a lot of gang members having a fight. I realized later on that they were playing, but to a 7-year-old - I was terrified.
And I got down to the court and, you know, one of the gang member said my friend, does he have any game? And my friend said, yeah, he's got some game. And so I got out there and I really played like my life depended on that game. And, you know - so from a very early age I realized that there were just a few choices for young black men in the streets of inner-city Boston. You could be a gang member, a ballplayer, or a rapper. And luckily, you know, I was pretty good at the sport, and I carved out an identity very early on.
MARTIN: And you became, what you call, a known player because you had skills. And those skills eventually - what? - took you to Yale and you found yourself playing - and it was a very different experience than the streetball experience that you grew up with. You write about how the coaches really had no interest in you as a person apart from your skills on the court. It was almost like a - it was - it wasn't almost like - it was like a job. And you punched a timeclock. That's you experienced it.
WOODBINE: Yeah. I mean, you know, growing up in the inner-city, the word coach was sacred. You know, that was the person who took you to school sometimes, you know, spent time with your family at home. And really basketball was an extended family. So it was a huge shock to get to Yale and to be treated like a commodity. My body was important, but not necessarily my story or my mind.
MARTIN: The letter that you wrote to your coach - eventually - and you wrote a piece for the Yale Daily News about it, which later kind of causes, as I said, quite a stir...
MARTIN: ...Among the alumni. An assistant coach tried to guilt trip you into staying...
MARTIN: ...Where he basically says that you're being selfish and you're going to make it hard for other minorities to get an opportunity. What do you make of that?
WOODBINE: I thought he had had my side. He'd been by my side the whole year. And then to realize that he saw me through the lens of race the whole time, it was shocking. It was hurtful. And I realized at that moment that I had made the right decision.
MARTIN: So let's wheel it around though.
MARTIN: But you have a very different view of the street basketball environment that you grew up in. You say in the book - and this is, I think, an argument that a lot of people will be familiar with...
MARTIN: ...That - you said that a lot of social scientists suggest that blacks play ball to avoid feeling inferior in the classroom - that it's a strategy of avoidance and a coping mechanism for their inadequacy at other social (unintelligible). Other people argue that white institutions and local poverty, not black low self-esteem, account for black participation in basketball in disproportionate numbers. That's the age-old argument...
MARTIN: ...That this is your pathway out - that this is your route out of poverty.
MARTIN: You're suggesting something else entirely.
MARTIN: And what is that?
WOODBINE: So social scientists tend to argue that black men, particularly black athletes, are determined by their external environments - right? - that race and poverty push these young men to play sports in disproportionate numbers. And what gets missed is the level of meaning and feeling that is experienced in the game itself.
And the sense of freedom and transcendence can't be really captured in social scientific language. You need religious studies. You need poetry, right? You need music to really understand how these young men are creating meaning in this space. So while economics play a role, these are human beings asking human questions about life.
MARTIN: You say it is, in effect, a transcendent experience akin to a religious experience - that, in fact, the court itself becomes a sacred space. Talk a little bit about that.
WOODBINE: You know, I'll tell you this story. The first person I interviewed was a young man named CJ, and he told me a story about his cousin who was shot and killed. He was murdered. And the next day, CJ had a basketball game in the city. He went to the basketball game.
He had this sad face on, as he said, but every shot went in. He said, normally I play - someone steals the ball. No one could take the ball from me. And he knew, right then and there, that his cousin was with him. And so he was experiencing the spiritual presence of this young man who passed away. And I found this pattern over and over and over again - that this became a sort of ritual of grief for young African-American men who were trying to understand and rework the trauma of death and violence in the streets.
MARTIN: One of the things that you pointed out is that in Boston, where you grew up, that there are numerous summer tournaments and almost every one of them...
MARTIN: ...Every one of them, actually...
MARTIN: ...Is named, or is held in honor of, someone who's been killed.
WOODBINE: Yes, exactly. So they're not named after NBA teams or college athletic teams. In fact, you can't wear any of those insignia on the - in streetball. They'll kick you out. You would think if this was all about social mobility that they would be naming the tournaments - but, in fact, they were named after existential issues right in the streets. So you have Save R Streets Summer Classic, Community Awareness Tournament, See Murder Tournament (ph) - all of these tournaments dealing with the real issues that these young men face in the streets.
MARTIN: But there are still people who would argue that young black men, in particular, are just overly invested in basketball. It's too much. It's just too important. What would you say to that?
WOODBINE: Yeah, certainly. So the myth - you know, the myth of black masculinity is that we are sound in body but not in mind. And I think that that does play a role. I'm not trying to sugarcoat the game. They carry that racial history, the gendered history in their bodies on the street every day, and it does push them to the court.
But my argument is that once they get on the court, the process of moving, of hearing the music, of rubbing their bodies next to their brothers and sisters in the context of community, breaks open something very human in them, right? And they're asking questions. What happens after you die? What is my purpose, all right?
And the game becomes a sort of vocabulary to express that. And it's amazing that the community outside of the court can read it, almost like a living scripture or a text. It's amazing. I had one guy say, I know when somebody went through something in the streets when they score 40 points. I have to ask them after the game, what did you go through today, all right? So this is street-level storytelling, and these are human beings.
MARTIN: Onaje X. O. Woodbine teaches philosophy and religious studies at Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass. He's author of the new book "Black Gods Of The Asphalt: Religion, Hip-Hop, And Street Basketball." And he was kind enough to join us in our studios in Washington, D.C. Onaje Woodbine, thank you so much for speaking with us.
WOODBINE: Thank you for having me. It was a privilege.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.