I kept watching alone, on my small computer screen, texting my mother about no-look passes and deep threes. Sometimes women or non-binary friends who knew nothing about the game would watch with me, but most of them weren’t bred with sports, so they did it for me and not the game. I watched women’s college soccer, the NWSL, men’s college basketball, and women’s college basketball alone in my four-hundred-square-foot casita. I yelled at the screen, clapped so hard my hands turned pink, and sometimes, when we lost, I cried. I loved sports too much to do without them, but I missed sitting with friends who understood what the body felt when it arced a stepover, when it pump-faked then shot, when it dug into, against, through another body.
Over Christmas, I went to a USC women’s basketball game with my mother and my high school friend Caitlin. Mom goes to every home game by herself (find her behind the visitor’s bench on TV), and Caitlin once envisioned playing in college before she tore her ACL. When we watched that game, we fell into one another when a three-pointer swished, we pushed each other’s shoulders when a block shot into the stands, we hollered so loud for a “Woman Up!” T-shirt; we felt love. As we walked to our cars we talked about the bronze statue of A’ja that would be built soon. We went to a mostly white high school, where white girls won prom queen and homecoming queen, but on the court, it was Caitlin, Chelsea, and A’ja. On the court, Black girls won. As we walked to our cars, past the spot where A’ja would soon be cast in metal, Caitlin said, “I love all these folks bowing down to a woman, and not just a woman, but… a tall woman.” We laughed, but it was true: a Black woman was the pride of South Carolina. The complicating factor is that it was the body of the Black woman that was the pride of SC, not necessarily the woman herself.
The next day, as I considered the beauty and violence of sports, I started reading Bodies Built for Game. Before I finished Natalie Diaz’s introduction, I knew the book was something special. Diaz weaves between the reality of the sport that made her and the sport that breaks so many. As I write this, trying to summarize her introduction to a 300+ page anthology, I realize I’m doing it a disservice. There is no way to piece apart the way Diaz writes about race, gender, community, and violence. There is no way to watch sports without touching the strings that weave together the whole net.
Still, I want to watch the highlight reel.
A yellow transistor radio tucked into a windbreaker, “the carved canyon of the Bighorn River like a vein on the land,” a mid-air switch from a right-handed shot to a left-handed one. In “Takes Enemy,” Shann Ray immerses us in the tradition of exceptional Native high school basketball players from Montana. We see the details, the particulars of the game. We feel systemic racism pour over everything. We understand this is an elegy for the greats, for Tim Falls Down, Marty Round Face, and Max and Luke Spotted Bear, for Joe Pretty Paint, Juneau Plenty Hawk, and Willie Gardner, for Fred and Paul Deputee, and for Jonathan Takes Enemy, among others. “All I loved,” writes Ray, “all I watched with wonder—and few got free.”
In “After Simone Manuel’s Olympic Victory in the Women’s 100m Freestyle,” the speaker’s swim coach calls Manuel’s win a “beast.” The medal ceremony isn’t aired on NBC. The commentators don’t mention how historic a moment it is. And Lauren Espinoza asks Don’t you see what it means when you call that accomplishment beast-like? Don’t you know how many Black and Brown people have been drowned by white people? Don’t you know white people threw acid on Black men and women to get them out of swimming pools? We see the violence that undergirds the win, that is inherent in that single word: beast.
Saretta Morgan talks with Christina Olivares, a queer Cuban American poet, about boxing. Olivares explains the many ways she inhabits in-between spaces as a mixed, bilingual woman who grew up poor and attended Amherst. This in-betweenness can allow for communities in different places, but it can also lead to a wariness from those rooted in a single-specific identity. Boxing, on the other hand, is all about connection, about community. The in-betweenness can contribute to a feeling of disorientation relating to the body, but the sport ties the self to the body, forging a reconnection between the mental and the physical. In the ring, there is a stable reality between two fighters; there’s antagonism, sure, two people wanting to dominate the other, but it is “rich, complicated, and useful.” It’s two people pushing each other, exposing the other’s faults, leading to the growth of both fighters.
Anson Dorrance, head coach of UNC women’s soccer, calls his reserves game-changers; it’s a rare team that merits the term, but the squad earned it. Here, in this anthology, every piece is a game-changer. They can stand alone, each poem, essay, and short story strong, breath-taking, illuminating, but they are clearly a part of the larger team. I mentioned the length of the anthology earlier because it strikes me that every single page is one worth reading. Every piece is vital. It feels silly, futile to try to summarize the magic of the anthology. The score says little of the game; ask the players, the coach, the fans instead.
So maybe this is the true review: after I finished Diaz’s introduction, I sent the pdf to Caitlin. “Maddie,” she said, “this broke me…I literally needed this. Right now. In this moment.” I think we all do.
Maddie Norris, the recipient of Ninth Letter's Literary Award in Creative Nonfiction, was the Thomas Wolfe Scholar at UNC-Chapel Hill and is an MFA candidate at the University of Arizona in creative nonfiction. Her work can be found in Territory, Essay Daily, and Opossum, among others. She is currently at work on a collection of essays about the death of her father, niche medical history, and the pitfalls of romantic love.