Friday, March 1, 2019

Chris Wiewiora: From Defense to Offense


Before my buddy Andrew and I earned our MFAs at Iowa State, I sent him your proem “Hoop—a hymn” from The American Scholar. We shared lit mags like passes. By then, we were at the pinnacle of our games and at the trough of our writing, but we had started going to courts a year before that.

Recently, I got a copy of your last book, also named Hoop, and read it, but I didn’t know how I could write about it and about you, since you’re dead. I thought I should write you a letter despite you not being able to read it, because open letters aren’t really written to one person, but to a team, either one you played for or against. I want to revel in the play back in Ames with Andrew. Your book reminded me of all those outdoor and indoor courts, our outfits, players, and games, and the fun of it all, and affirm your question, “Could it possibly be that sport is more than sport?”

Andrew and I wanted to do something instead of sit at home and write; work on our theses that we called manuscripts and thought of as books. We were probably as delusional as college ballers thinking they’d go pro. In your chapter, “My College Basketball Career,” you recalled the humbling fact that you weren’t going on because you were already at your pinnacle of your game and “there is some blunt straightforward admirable integrity about this that says something subtle and true about the sport, and about those who play it.”

For us, our first game was at Meeker Elementary School—an outside, cracked and sloped asphalt court with hoops facing east and west so that we had to play half-court with our backs to the afternoon sun. Everyone who we rounded up at Meeker had played ball before as kids. They had probably played in suburban driveways against siblings or cousins in neighborhoods like mine. My daily uniform to middle school during the mid-90s in Central Florida was an extra-large T-shirt, mesh gym shorts, and high top Jordan’s. I wasn’t any fanatic, except that my paternal grandmother lived in Chicago and who else was I going to root for except M.J. and the championship-winning Bulls?

Nonetheless, I didn’t grow up as a winning shooter, an offender. Instead, I followed the ball and knew what your brother had told you that, “You don’t have to steal the ball; all you have to do is get a hand on it, deflect it, distract the shooter.” However, that ethos wasn’t good enough to get on my middle school’s team, when I tried out, but it didn’t stop me from playing in driveways, scrapping for the ball. That’s how I played as a kid and that’s how I played when I was back on the court as an adult.

After that first game at Meeker a pain pulsed in my sides too used to sitting. A cramp from running, from hustling, from defending on the court. Nobody had brought water and there were no water fountains. I heaved, but smiled, thirsty to play more.

Andrew and I were so relieved to find an escape from the tyranny of our theses. Andrew with a novel that everyone thought would be the novel our program would be known for. During summer before our final year, we roadtripped from Iowa to West Virginia. Andrew would research mountain top removal and Appalachian families. I was going to attend a nonfiction conference in Ohio. I was hoping to use it as a retreat and figure out the second half of my memoir. We stopped in Kentucky and Andrew fielded e-mails from agents. Plural. A bunch of literary scouts who seemed to want him. They were reading fifty pages of his manuscript and that was one step closer to readers reading a book by him, except that the agents all turned his manuscript down. They wanted him to do a bit more with it, like a baller going abroad to play in a European league before coming back to go pro. His manuscript’s title sounded his frustration: Blasting at Big Ugly.

Andrew and I didn’t know if we would find answers to our manuscripts’ questions: What happened? Both our theses featured intergenerational family sagas. Andrew’s more expansive in scope about a family rooted in mining the mountains and then protesting the practice, while mine followed my perspective of growing up as a son of overseas Christian missionaries who served behind the “Iron Curtain,” before moving back to the States. I had written about my childhood memories in a foreign country, but I didn’t have much to write about my family’s faith except my abandoning it like an air ball. I couldn’t find a way to pass the narrative from growing up as a non-Polish speaking American Pole in Poland to becoming a teenager in Florida with my Evangelical family. The title of my thesis gaped at the space between heritage and memory: The distance is more than an ocean.

Off the page, we knew our roles on the court: Defense or Offense. I don’t mean that we were trying to escape all language. I’m sure Andrew would know how to read every line of body language in your chapter “Getting the Nod” : “pats chest, pointing of a finger, raises his hand, curt nod, touching of hands, wink,” because we did all that when we arrived in a small town of West Virginia and walked down to the city park and played one-on-one.

My orange ball gleamed off the metal backboard like the reflecting sun. We had to aim our shots to skim across the sheen and into the rim or plop a swish straight into the net. The net, too, might have been metal like chain-link, or mail, a connecting fence or a protecting armor, and I imagine it metallically tinkled instead of whooshed through nylon. It’s hard to remember since even the air looked distorted, boiling. It was humid in the trough of the city’s hill. Our sweat clung to our skin, unable to evaporate. Salt sparkled on top. And we had just driven two back-to-back days. Andrew probably wasn’t down for a game so soon, but it all added up to me winning.

That game was before Andrew figured out that I favored the right wing for jumpers and left for hooks. This was before Andrew closed the space in games so I couldn’t dart to the basket for an attempt at a quick lay up and then make-it-take-it again. Before he would turn around, like your brother, with his back to my chest and dribble down the lane, not needing to unlock a shot from the top of the key, and instead he would shuffle against me until he was close enough to easily turn and shoot—mostly making it—while I could only dance with him and then try for a rebound.

When I left Andrew for the conference in Ohio I felt a foreshadowing loneliness. I sped past buggies rolling along the shoulder of Amish country. I went to a craft discussion on art-i-fact in nonfiction, skipped my manuscript review, and stopped correcting the awed other participants who gushed about me being at Iowa. It took too much to explain that, No, I didn’t go to the Writers’ Workshop in Iowa City, and that the Nonfiction Program was separate, anyway, but I was at Iowa State’s multi-genre, place-based Creative Writing and Environment Program in Ames.

From my single room in the dorms, I walked over to a court. A jagged net barely hung from several rungs around the rim. Cracks split the court’s cement. Nobody else from the conference was there and I had my ball, a still sticky new rubber Spalding. I took shots for less than an hour; self-conscious of my ball careening off the double rim or rolling away after a miss, and either way retrieving it myself.

I spent the rest of the conference back in my room. I drafted an essay about skateboarding when I used to do it alone until I found a friend to ride with. I should’ve known my thesis was doomed to not become a book if I didn’t care to write it.

After summer we started playing nearly exclusively at Brookside Park. Its court was closest to Andrew’s duplex downtown. He didn’t own a car. He had biked 20 blocks up to Meeker with a basketball tucked under his T-shirt, but at Brookside he could dribble over the bridge above the train tracks and I could drive.

In fall, we wanted to go outside and play, get out of our offices of grading and co-workers’ conversations about composition, which really wasn’t writing. Or conversations about what we would do after grad school. Or meetings with students. I taught in the mornings and held all my office hours only on Friday afternoons so the students who really cared would show up. I had any other weekday afternoon open and free to receive a text from Andrew: Brookside?

I wouldn’t answer, “Brookside,” to your chapter title’s question of “What Was the Worst Gym You Ever Played In?” Brookside wasn’t like your worst gym, the dusty Saint William the Abbot’s gym where you could “slide through the dust leaving long runnels behind you and contrails raised by your passage.” Brookside was this bucolic, but quirky, skinny court between several full-sized tennis courts and an ultimate Frisbee field. I don’t know why the city of Ames hadn’t made the court professional width, or at least sunken in only one hoop lengthwise to make a regulation half-court. Instead it was another east and west poled court. We mostly played facing east and not just because of the sun but the west side ended just as the park sloped down to the park’s namesake: a brook.

In addition to Andrew and my afternoon one-on-one games, we would meet up with a rotating cast of ballers. We knew them from other cohort’s writers, or guys in relationships with gals in the program, or folks around town or the university. We mostly used their last names since some shared the same first names. They sounded like ballers or writers. The Nicks: Bognavich and Brennick. The Wills: Bonfiglio and Osterholtz. Also: Gran and Kolbe. I wonder if you and the rest of your brothers all just went by first names on the court, or if you were counted off as Doyle One, Doyle Two, Doyle Three…. If we had another Andrew, then it would’ve sounded right to say my friend’s sportsy last name. I had seen it on jerseys and I could imagine it on a book jacket: Payton.

As you wrote, “Names are fluid things on basketball courts.” But we never called any big guy “Meat” like you did after your buddy Tommy Crotty whose “mother called [him] husky, which is another word for unsculpted.” We didn’t say anything like that aloud, even if we thought some of those big guys we later played in State Gym were jerks or the high schoolers at City Gym were ball-hoggers. We didn’t name them, we just didn’t play with them again.

Still, there is a language—a verbal language—of the game. Nobody needs to see any movement for knowing play: “We got next! My bad. Little help! Shoot that! Pick left. Pick right. Yo! Ball! I’m open! Who’s got that guy? Good game.” As I read Hoop I wrote down all the words of the game that you used, that we used, that every baller uses; and the list is a list of mostly action, a chain of movements in the moment, a list attempting to relive them: pick, roll, drive, D, pass, pump, box, pass, stutter, screen, pass, sink. But there are other phrases and words that recall memories. The joy of play. The frustration of injury.

On one of those one-on-one afternoons, Andrew and I met at Brookside and someone had cranked the adjustable hoop down to a dunkable level. How could we not resist recording each other on our cell phones doing what we couldn’t normally do? Recently, I watched one of those videos I took of Andrew. I’m kneeling, but holding the cell’s camera above the court. There is no frame of reference for the viewer. Only blue sky in the background, the hoop in the fore until I say, “Watch him fly,” and Andrew jumps in and he does as I say, “Dunkin’ it.”

On another afternoon, Andrew yelled, “Fuck!” He sprawled on the ground with his hand clasped around his leg. I thought he might have tweaked his knee or maybe hurt his back, because he had bent his knee and he laid on his back, but then he probably wouldn’t have bent his knee or laid on his back if either were hurt. Andrew leaned on me while I got him up to my car and took him home.

I cursed the same as Andrew did when my injury happened, but it was entirely different circumstances. I cursed at a person not at the situation. My left forefinger hardly bent 10 degrees. The skin—initially blackened with dead blood—turned purple, blue, and then lightened to a swamp green.

I believe the finger’s knuckle had been cracked. To this day I can’t curl it as fully as my right. Thankfully I’m right-handed. The next time in class I set my left hand on the podium and one of my students glimpsed the monstrous appendage and dry heaved. All my other students wanted to know what had happened.

It happened during a shifting from gloaming to nighttime at Brookside. During an over-populated, full-court, one-last-game game. During some fast break with some hot shot on my team. During a blind pass across the court. I raised my left hand to shield my face and the ball smashed my finger.

These were your “Common Colds of Basketball Injuries,” but that doesn’t mean they didn’t hurt us. We remembered them because they took us out of the game, took us away from fun, took us back to the page, to our grad work. I can’t remember how long it took for us to return to the court tentatively and tenderly. We were still up for a good game to go down, but it had to happen indoors with the onset of winter since snow and ice began to cover the outdoor courts.

We could’ve quit. Taken our injuries and nursed them at home past recovery. We could’ve said we needed to keep working on our theses. Stayed at our desks and wrote away. But our hands still curled with the sphere of a ball, even if they held a crumpled wad of another draft. Our eyes still flicked to baskets, even if they looked at wastebaskets. We still made shots, arced into the air.

That winter, I felt like I needed to be invited to a new court. I wasn’t one to search alone. Andrew ran offense, the go-get-’em. I supported defense, the stay and stop. Then, Brennick told us that there were hoops around Lied Gym’s recreational track where his girlfriend played indoor soccer.

And so, we practiced on rubber courts that left our feet blistered from friction heat for an ill-fated 3-on-3 intramural league. We had to wear a set of gym-provided mesh tanks. Our first and only uniforms other than shirts and skins.

During the tournament, you would’ve been glad to know that I almost drew enough fouls to bench me when I tired to reach around our opposing corn-fed undergrad boys, but they beat us before that. Despite losing, I didn’t care. I was playing with my friends on our hastily named team: Just-for-Fun.

Maybe it was Brennick, too, who told us the usual on-campus parking meters didn’t count for Sundays at State Gym, where we had lost in intramurals. However, in spring, we soon figured out that in the mornings we wouldn’t be up against corn-fed or ball-hogging boys, but fellow grad students and a few young instructors who understood a good game wasn’t about winning, but having fun. I don’t want you to think that we didn’t play our best just because we played for fun. We played so that our team played its best, because next game we might be playing with someone who we manned up against would be who set down a screen for us.

Now, I want to call you out on writing about your lack of team play. You blew off the idea of manning-up or zone coverage in the glib “In My Defense,” because you got bored. Bored? You believed that basketball was geometry and calculus and small-not-small moments and other metaphors that don’t connect to the game’s only two plays: offense and defense. You missed out on half the game!

You loved to offend—I mean play offense—like I loved to defend. I can only understand your desire to score with my desire to block when I had manned up on Andrew at State Gym. As we came down from a rebound his elbow knocked my eyebrow. I don’t know who took possession, but I was ready to keep playing, but everyone else had stopped. There wasn’t the scuffle and squeak of dusty or dry rubber on glossed wood. Someone must have held the ball, because there wasn’t any bouncing echo. Only laborious breathing. Then, the sliding drip off my nose thicker than sweat.

Someone got a gym attendant who ushered me to the bathroom. He tried to block the view of me bloodied while asking me loaded questions: “You alright, right? You don’t want to call an ambulance? Won’t some super glue work better than stitches?”

I agreed.

I washed my face. The cut looked clean, popped open from pressure. It would leave a scab and then a Monday story to tell my speechless students and finally a scar that I see in every mirror and reminds me of the worth—not the cost—of play. No apologies necessary, because it wasn’t a jerk play, just ball.

It’s not that you don’t get it right elsewhere in Hoop—picking the “rat baller” when choosing guys, the humiliating acceptance that there will always be a guy better than you, the funk of workout clothes, and the fact that “you cannot tie up all the loose ends” even as a father with a son’s laces—it’s that you claimed nolo contentardo. You’re not guilty and not not guilty. It’s that as a baller you weren’t accurately or fairly or honestly or sportsman-likely one to call your own fouls and outs. You were dishonest, and I don’t believe honestly confessing it all later earned you forgiveness, only told your truth: “I was a terrible defensive player from the start and never got any better.”

And in the interest of calling out, here’s a not-foul foul that I’ll call on myself:

During the too cold and gray and snowy weekdays we used our saved quarters from State Gym’s weekend free parking to pay for playing at City Gym. City Gym was a full court, indoor facility, but we usually played half-court since seniors played pickleball on the other half. We didn’t have to bring water or our own balls, because City offered both.

Andrew and I would play epic lunchtime games of one-on-one. My “ogre finger,” as I came to call it, could flex enough to palm a ball and somewhat dribble. Andrew didn’t hobble on his ankle anymore, but didn’t stomp on the gas while driving to the basket.

I circled the wings trying to find space but Andrew crouched and spread and claimed the ground and air. I dribbled clockwise around the three-point line and then broke in, getting my sneakers near the paint, pressuring Andrew to cut and try to block. Instead, his ankle gave as I released a left-handed hook that caught the rim and sank down through the net to the floor where Andrew clutched his blown ankle.

I was thrilled to make the shot, but disappointed at the cost of causing pain for the point. I used Andrew’s weakened body for the play. One basket won wasn’t worth many games lost. I didn’t do it again. And maybe that made me a lesser player, but I know it made me a better friend.

That’s where and who and what you got right: on the court and with your pals, your brothers, and, later, your sons, and with your songs. In “Laughing and Jigging and Laughing,” you recalled warming up to the Talking Head’s “This Must Be The Place (Naïve Melody)”—which I remember played at so many of the house parties in Ames—and you rhetorically asked, “Who doesn’t dig this song?”

Your song selection makes me think of “Let the Good Times Roll” by Ray Charles that I played in my car on a rainy Sunday. This was springtime when everything began to get lush on the way to State. Andrew and I were done with our theses and only needing to defend, and, of course, I was ready for that.

Somehow on this day—the day I remember as my best game, because don’t we all have our best like we have our worst, and we should call out both—I was selected to be a shooter as it happens in games. I didn’t ask. It just happened. What you called, “This Unconscious Sureness” happened. This big guy—a Meat—passed me the ball and set a pick on my man and I darted for the basket and dropped the ball in. This great defense to offense connection happened for the entire game. I felt like I was playing at the rim. Floating up there. Or sending the ball, arcing a clear trajectory from the corners for threes. Or aiming for the square and bouncing the ball off the backboard. Or plunking it right in. Nothing but net.

“No game is ever the same,” you wrote in “Hints and Intimations.” And it wasn’t. Not after that. Maybe there would have been, but I never really played for myself like that. I didn’t go to the courts to practice dribbling or shooting alone. I didn’t plunk down quarters at City when I knew Andrew wasn’t going to be there. I didn’t go to State by myself. And I only went to Brookside by myself once, long after my cohort had all graduated with me, but all of them moved away from Ames to anywhere else. I stood in that quiet and empty space with my ball on my hip and then I dribbled and shot against no one, for no rebounds, and it was so different, so lonely.

I was so conscious of playing by myself that it affected the game. I knew what I was doing instead of just doing it. I wasn’t doing it anymore with my team, or against another team. I wasn’t defending an offender.

There was no communication with anyone on the court. I had missed that language, the body language, what you called “a sort of language that sometimes is about competition and other times might be about theater, or summer, or friendship, or channeled war, or communal vibrancy, or refuge, or catharsis, or reinvention, or salvation, or lots of those things all at once.” And it was none of that anymore.



Chris Wiewiora earned an MFA in Creative Writing and Environment at Iowa State University where he played pickup basketball mostly defense as well as on an intramural team "Just for Fun." He previously contributed "My Selected Marginalia, Pulled Quotes, and Underlining from Madness, Rack, and Honey: Collected Lectures" to Essay Daily for National Poetry Month, April 2018. His nonfiction has also been published in Sport Literate and anthologized in Best American Sports Writing 2016. He has written an essay collection about his reading life tentatively titled ON THE PAGE. Read more at

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