The 'lived religion' of street basketball

Onajé X.O. Woodbine, author of Black Gods of the Asphalt

By Onajé X.O. Woodbine
Published by Columbia University Press, 224 pages, $30

What is the significance of street basketball for young black men trapped in the decaying cores of the major cities of the United States? What do these games, played with ferocious intensity, accompanied by the throbbing beats of hip-hop rhythms, say about their hopes and dreams, the possible futures they might have, the lives they may be able to lead or dream of living?

In his compelling and well-researched book, Black Gods of the Asphalt, Onajé X.O. Woodbine seeks to reveal the humanity behind these games by showing how "African-American men are pushed toward basketball by poverty, by predominantly white institutions, by racism," he told The New York Times. However, he said, "once they get on the basketball court itself, the experience of playing becomes a mode of resistance to their dehumanization. And this happens on the level of religious consciousness."

Woodbine, who was born and raised in Roxbury, in inner-city Boston, provides us with an insider's perspective on not just street basketball, but on the thoughts and dreams of the young black men who play the game with grace and dignity, with anger and pain, with memories of those teammates who are now gone, killed or otherwise damaged by street violence and drug addiction.

Woodbine seeks to take us beyond the accepted views of the game as merely a way for young men to hone their skills so as to be able to cross over from poverty and gang life to the hallowed halls of major universities or an NBA position. He argues that there is more to understand than the typical story of seeking the American dream of wealth and status. For most of these young men, that dream seems more like a nightmare or at best an unattainable goal.

Woodbine asserts instead that these games have meaning in and of themselves, meaning that goes beyond money or fame and is critical to their very existence.

This work, based on Woodbine's doctoral dissertation, is more than an academic treatise. It is the result of a four-year personal and professional journey back to the streets of Roxbury, Mattapan and Dorchester, the streets from which he emerged. He seeks to reveal the innermost longings, needs and desires of these young men and those who love the game. He presents an ethnographic study of their contexts, their lives, their stories, as related to him personally and individually.

As evidence of their love for and trust in him, they allow him into their hearts and souls, where they speak of the pain of seeing brothers, uncles, cousins dying on the streets or mired in addiction and gang life. They speak poignantly of their parents, too many of whom are addicts also, and how difficult it is to escape from what seems to be a prison, life on the streets. For them, playing b-ball becomes a spiritual experience, one that feeds them and enables them to forget, if only for a time, their poverty, their pain, their despair.

The game is, in Woodbine's view, a "lived religion" that allows the players to experience a transformation, an ecstasy as they leap, twirl, dribble and jump in intricate rhythms and patterns.

The author was one of those young men who, as soon as he could dribble a basketball, spent hours perfecting his game. Basketball, as for many young black men before and after him, was his life, and he ate, drank and slept it.

But he had another dream as well, of learning about the world beyond Roxbury. It was this dream that drove him even as he played a game that became more and more perfect. Recruited by Yale after attending high school at a predominantly white suburban school, he shocked many when he left the Yale team after his sophomore year to, as he stated in an open letter to the school newspaper, concentrate on his studies in philosophy and religion. He was tired of being the star basketball player wanted only for his physical rather than his intellectual abilities.

He achieved his goal, a doctorate in theology and philosophy from Boston University by coming, in a sense, full circle, back to those inner-city courts to learn from those he had left behind.

Woodbine arguably was the lucky one, but what about the friends he left behind? What of their lives, hopes and dreams?

He went back to find out the meaning of these games for those who could not and would not, for so many reasons, be able to achieve what he had achieved. He watched, he listened, he learned from his peers that the game was so much more than a game: It was a rite of passage.

This ceremonial initiation into manhood took place in a forum where a boy could compete without the threat of violence. The basketball court was a sanctuary, a place where gangs did not interfere, where they could grieve the deaths of so many and safely mourn them without fear of looking or acting weak.

Many of the tournaments in the summer season were named after young men and some women who had died at the hands of street violence. On the courts, everyone had their role and played it with grace and intensity. A dunk was more than a dunk -- it was a homage to another who had dunked with the best; a pass was an invitation to participate and share in the grieving process; a jumper rose in the air as gracefully as an angel taking off from heaven before falling back to earth.

Street basketball was not and is not just a game, it is a ritual: a bid to transcend the limitations of urban life, an effort to remember those who had gone before, and an opportunity, for some, but not most, to move up and out into a new reality.

Calling upon both Christian and African (Yoruba) traditions and values, Woodbine enables us to enter the hearts and minds of these young black men and to see them as they really are. In light of the increasing violence in our streets, the killing of young black men and women not just by the police but by their own as well, he gives us a glimpse of what could be if more of them could find other avenues of success as he did.

A powerful and deeply moving work, Black Gods of the Asphalt reveals a world of redemption and hope rarely glimpsed from the outside.

[Diana L. Hayes is professor emerita of systematic theology at Georgetown University.]

This story appeared in the Oct 7-20, 2016 print issue under the headline: The 'lived religion' of street basketball .

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