It Was Easier to Say, “I’m a Basketball Player” Than It Is to Say, “I’m a Poet.”

–to be published in Fastbreak to Linebreak, edited by Todd Davis

“How’d it go out there today? Did you work on your left hand? Shoot fifty free throws? Tap a hundred off the backboard? Work the key?” Those were the words I’d hear, often hear, daily hear from my father. He was a basketball coach. I was the coach’s kid. I practiced. I practiced a lot.

My father was infinitely patient. I really wasn’t that good. But how I worked. And how I imagined. The clock was always ticking as I took jump shot after jump shot at the hoop fastened to the back of the garage. The “court” was assembled from five by five squares of poured concrete, the cracks about a quarter of an inch between each slab. I knew without looking down where they lurked and could dribble left/right/back/left without hitting a one. When I stepped to the foul line, time had run out, we were behind by a point, and I was shooting a one-and-one. When tapping the ball off the board, I backed my opponent out and stood my ground. And along the sidelines, the fans were cheering or booing, and the cheerleaders were screaming and pushing back their long hair.

It wasn’t until my dreams of playing the point for my father and taking his team to the Big Dance, the Final Four, the NCAA championship had faded along with my jump shot that I realized how much my imagination had kept me going. Like I said, I wasn’t all that good, good enough for high school ball, starting from grade nine on, but never the star and never good enough to play in college and always all-but-terrified. It was my imagination that got me through. I could pretend. I could pretend that I was better than I was, pretend that the cheerleaders wanted to go with me to the dance after the game, pretend that one day I’d be at that foul line with the clock at zero and sink the winning two foul shots, pretend that one day I’d come back and everyone would point and whisper, “See that guy? He was the best guard this school has ever seen.”

But poetry? When Curry Kirkpatrick, then of Sports Illustrated, wrote a piece about my father, he said to my dad, “Something that intrigues me is that your son is a poet. That’s pretty weird, isn’t it? A coach having a poet for a son?” I always wished that my father didn’t have to be asked that question, that the question would have been, “How’s it feel to have your son playing for the Celtics?”

In the late 60’s my father became the head basketball coach at The University of Pittsburgh. When I first thought the crazy thought that maybe I could write poems, I sought out poet Paul Zimmer to help me. He said he would. I had about 50 profoundly sensitive pieces, bad news from the heart. I showed him a couple. He said, very gently, “Let’s start over.” I asked Paul what he would charge for looking at my stuff. He said, “You know what I would really like? I’d love to be able to go to the Pitt locker room after games. Do you think that you could arrange that?” I was floored. Ever since I was a child, I’d all but lived in the locker rooms of my father’s teams. It was time to put away childish things, buy a cape and a pipe and be deep. Zimmer wanted to see the chalk board and listen to post-game talks, watch the sports writers interview my father and the players, see guys celebrate or mope? This was definitely not deep. “Ok. Sure,” I said. Zimmer then added, “I have one little thing about the way I’ll work with you: I’ll tell you when I think you’ve written a poem.” That was fine by me. I’d already spent about a year writing songs, trying to push Paul Simon off the charts, and I already had the 50-some poems, even though Zimmer said we’d start over. This “one little thing” seemed only right to me. Why wouldn’t he tell me if I’d written a poem?

Four years later, he told me I’d written a poem.

Several times I asked Paul if he thought I should quit. He always answered, “That’s up to you. If you want to, you can.” Why didn’t I quit? I really think it was because I was and still am and always will be a coach’s kid. You practice. For years, you practice. And you practice without ever knowing you’ll get there. But you practice dreaming that you will. And you take it from the coach. You take it and you take it and you take it. And you keep coming back. And you slam the locker door, and you curse the coach and the cosmos, and you stop. But you don’t quit. You stop and wonder and doubt, and you think this is not only a waste of time but a waste of your life, and you think about all the people out there making money or having good times while you’re staring at a lame image. You think you must be insane. And then you keep going because the word quit cannot ever become part of your life. Your jump shot may have faded, but you didn’t quit. Your jump shot quit you.

And you learn not how to win but what to do when you lose. You never learn how to win. You just work the key and hit the boards and hope like hell and pick up the pen and listen to the words, the words, the words. And sometimes you feel that shake and bake, and the rhythms shake and bake, and the words fake left and go right, and you drive the lane and pull up or shoot a floater or break away for a slam dunk. And you get down and watch your opponent’s belly and wait for that slip-up and steal the ball and hit the open man. Sometimes. And when the mailbox brings another loss, you convince yourself that it was an upset and that you’ll win the next one.

Today I practiced again. Tomorrow I’ll practice again. The game never ends. The rhythms I learned on that backyard court are in me and in my language. The images are precise because there’s so little room for error between ball and hoop, between ball and opponent’s outstretched hand. And there is no such thing as getting it down, mastering it so you can do it all again the same way the next time. You can only prepare for the next game. You are always preparing for the next poem.

After I wrote the poem that Zimmer called a poem, he said, “You know you haven’t learned to write poetry, don’t you? You don’t learn to write poetry. No one learns to write poetry. You always have to learn how to write the next poem.” Practice.

5 thoughts on “It Was Easier to Say, “I’m a Basketball Player” Than It Is to Say, “I’m a Poet.”

  1. This is interesting. How many poems did you have to write in that four years before Zimmer said you had written one. And do you still remember that poem?

  2. You know Jack, I come to your site to “hear” your wise words and to click-on the “Good Reads” you have created for us. Many thanks. You are always a teacher and good teachers love their students.

  3. I think this is the speech you gave at the Final Four dinner and I just wanted to let you know how much I enjoyed listening to you speak.

  4. Oh Jack,

    I’m the coach’s kid too. And I know exactly what you mean. These ideas might explain a whole lot about my life. Thanks for the ideas. They touch me deeply.

    Dalin

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