Conversations

Game Is Life

Basketball, poetry, and the NBA playoffs

Kaveh Akbar, Vivian Lee, Ben Purkert, Nabila Lovelace
Graphic of basketball players Julius Randle and Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Illustration by Antonio Losada

The 2021 NBA playoffs, delayed but not canceled by the coronavirus, started on May 22. We decided to celebrate by checking in with some TYR authors who share a love of the sport. A week before the playoffs started, we gathered Kaveh Akbar, author of Pilgrim Bell and Calling a Wolf a Wolf and hardcore Milwaukee Bucks fan; Nabila Lovelace, author of Sons of Achilles and former high school basketball player; Ben Purkert, author of For the Love of Endings and editor at Guernica; and Vivian Lee, senior editor at Little, Brown and long-time Los Angeles Clippers fan. The four have been playing pickup games and fantasy basketball together for years. With David M. de León, a TYR senior editor, they talked online about their relationship to sports, what it means to be a writer and a basketball fan, and, of course, their playoff predictions. What they share isn’t just a love of hoops, stats, and words. It’s more like a common language, which Lovelace describes as a “shorthand”: an idiom based in movement and community, with roots in childhood. Their conversation has been edited and condensed.
– The Editors


david m de león Do you think there’s a difference between being a writer and being a person who loves basketball?

nabila lovelace What compels me about basketball is what also brought me to poetry, which is the process, the work. I still am interested in the process of basketball. In that same way I am not in poetry for the poem, I’m in poetry for the process.

I am grateful for the play and experimentation that comes with my practice. To be in practice of poetry, I have to be in a practice of unflinching observation, radical seeing, and listening to the people and world around me. When I feel in sync with my own poetic practice the writing feels fluid and unforced.

kaveh akbar For me, talking about basketball feels like code switching. I think people’s immediate first perception of me is as an ambiguously ethnic artiste type, and then we start chopping it up about Malcolm Brogdon or LeBron James or whatever. It helps build a bedrock of communication. It’s like a lingua franca for strangers, and also for, like, my dad, my spouse’s uncle, etc.

vivian lee Kaveh, do you feel like you bring the subject of basketball up to break that wall?

KA Yeah, if I’m in a situation where I’m set to talk to someone, and we know nothing about each other, but they’re wearing a Grizzlies hoodie, that gives us a place to start. Anyone who’s watched Ja Morant play can (wants to!) soliloquize about it for hours

"Words whispered to the late-game free-throw shooter" is quite possibly my favorite literary genre.

ben purkert I feel like my passion for basketball is also partly generational. Not to sound like a curmudgeon, but there was something special about ’90s hoops. And those of us who grew up with it really felt it. So we might be talking with someone about Ja and the Grizz, but actually we’re talking about our shared youth, in this very deflected way.

KA That’s a sweet way to think about it.

BP What’s that Louise Glück quote? “We look at the world once, in childhood. The rest is memory.” I definitely feel that with basketball.

VL90s hoops is absolutely so special. It does immediately evoke sun-baked, black concrete, that kind of unbridled sweatiness for me.

BP Some of us still sweat, Vivian.

NL My passion has less to do with watching and more to do with playing, which is why I’m trying to get back into it this summer. There is something so incredibly connecting and ubiquitous: I can show up to a court anywhere to play, and all of a sudden I can bond with strangers. I can be in community with strangers, speaking in a language that is almost code. There aren’t many full sentences involved with playing; there’s much shorthand, which translates beyond region too.

BP Hoops is a great way to learn people. Some people are really into astrology as a way of understanding others, and that’s just not my thing; but if we go to the park and play pickup, I’ll know everything I need to know about you in a couple minutes. Even on that first possession, if you’re hanging out in the corner or demanding the ball in the low post, it tells me everything, right?

VL The hoops are back up in our local park, and I’ve been seeing groups of friends (every age range!) come together again; it feels good to see that shorthand after not being able to see it for so long, even if I’m not playing.

BP There’s just more character to pickup games. If I’m being completely honest, I sometimes enjoy watching pickup as much as NBA. The marketing of the NBA is such that the networks are constantly telling you who the best players are. You must watch James Harden; he’s the best. When you’re walking past a game of pickup, it’s so fun to try and suss out like, OK, who is the alpha on this team?

I also—and not to get wild with the takes—enjoy watching bad teams as much as good.

NL I remember one time I was walking by the cages on West 4th and this dude was playin’ ball in 90-degree weather in polo boots. Full-on polo boots.

BP With fur????

NL With fur. It was incredible. And he was KILLIN IT.

VL I propose an All-Star event where players have to wear boots for a round of HORSE.

BP Imagine the marketing opportunities.

KA I feel like when you’re playing pickup at the playground, it’s never the guy with a shooting sleeve and new sneakers you need to worry about. It’s the dude in jeans and Timbs waiting to pick up his little brother who “just hops in for a quick game.”

VL THE JEANS.

BP Yesterday I played pickup with twelve-year-olds who hadn’t heard of Reggie Miller [former player for the Indiana Pacers and current TNT commentator].

VL Do these twelve-year-olds not watch TNT?

KA Reggie Miller isn’t in NBA 2K. My sense is twelve-year-olds are fluent in whoever is in 2K.

NL Did you win?

VL Lie and say you won.

BP Smoked ’em.

VL I’m just imagining Ben as Charles Barkley in Space Jam. Watching those kids play pickup and being like, “Can I play?”

Twelve is when I stopped playing basketball in any serious capacity. When did you all start playing?

NL I started playing organized around 10-ish.

KA Nabi, you were, like, a star, right?

NL LMAO—I wish. I played with a lot of really good girls. I worked hard as hell and wasn’t great, but I got my minutes off defense. I locked up a few good players in my time, and that’s probably the biggest brag I have.

BP Who did you model your game after? Or was there no suitable model?

NL Baron Davis for sure.

KA Baron Davis!!!! The headband-over-the-eyes dunk.

VL I do want to toss out that while I honestly cannot remember how I met you all individually, I am very grateful that writing and basketball has brought us together, because now we all do talk almost every day, and for that I am supremely grateful.

BP Viv, how did you become a Clippers fan?

VL OK, here is the very short story of it: I love an underdog. I actually wrote about it here. An editor at Medium asked if I’d be interested in writing about failures and growth. I didn’t choose the headline—because how dare (!)—but it was really fun to look back and examine and think deeply about what brought me to this sport in the first place.

DMD Has anyone else written about basketball?

BP I’ve tried to write about basketball a million different times, but I’ve never quite found my way in, if that makes sense. My high school buddy and I used to write a blog about Seton Hall basketball and that was pretty fun. But nothing remotely literary.

My favorite basketball book is probably The Last Shot by Darcy Frey. The ending still haunts me. I used to teach part of it, but then students stopped knowing who Stephon Marbury was, and I dropped it from the syllabus. Too shook.

DMD We’ve talked about community, but what do you all think about competitiveness? Trash talking?

BP The trash talking is a huge part of the appeal for me. I always dreamed of sitting courtside, not because I wanted to see the players up close (though of course I did), but because I wanted to hear them. “Words whispered to the late-game free-throw shooter” is quite possibly my favorite literary genre.

NL Loveeeee that, Ben. Shit-talking can be a part of community, the same way I think roasting can be a part of community. There are ways to shit-talk that don’t cross a line of disrespect, but actually create a kind of intimacy and information.

VL I personally am not good at trash talk.

KA Ben, I would like you to tell the story please about the time we played where you kept doing the equivalent of whispering words to me as I shot the equivalent of late-game free throws.

NL We must hear this story.

BP OK, so Kaveh has the ball, and I’m guarding him, and it’s clear that he has more hustle than I do. So I, very respectfully, encourage him to shoot a 3 over me, promising not to block it. Which, Nabi, back me up please, is standard in the NY/NJ region.

NL It is quite standard, but it’s also standard in a way that’s like, “I bet he won’t make it.”

BP Right, yes. He interpreted this as wild disrespect.

KA Haha, “He interpreted this as disrespect” is taking me out.

VL This is the new Michael Jordan, “and I took that personally.”

BP I was quite surprised when he drained it. He acted like he’d won the Super Bowl of respect.

I honestly don’t understand how he made it. Like the physics. Because Kaveh’s shot has less arc than a Thomas Bernhard novel.

KA Wow, Ben, the SLANDER.

My spouse and I built a crappy driveway hoop at the start of quarantine because I had to stop playing pickup at the gym with my students. And I am pleased to report my jumper is nice, after a long year of atrophy for every other element of my game.

DMD So, what are everyone’s thoughts on the postseason?

VL I’m excited to watch the playoffs because I’ll have the opportunity for the first time to watch a bit of it with my brother when I see him after eighteen months. I know this is less about the NBA, but basketball, to me, is always also tied in with memories of who I watch with.

I almost cried describing the three-man-weave to a friend of mine who knows nothing about basketball recently… When you run the drill right it’s almost as if humans could build the wind.

BP I think basketball is pretty special in its capacity for the dramatic. Many sports like football or hockey or even baseball to an extent obscure the player’s face, so you just can’t see a player’s facial expression and feel what they feel at a given moment. Like when LeBron was pissed at J. R. Smith in the playoffs a few years ago, we could really feel the emotion of that moment because the sport gives us access to it. Sports like boxing and tennis also showcase emotion, of course, but I think there’s something special about observing team dynamics and how they can fray. Individual sports just don’t have that.

NL If I’m being honest, I really am hoping the Knicks do something this year. More than anything because RJ Barrett, Julius Randle, and Immanuel Quickley really seem like they’re buildin’ on something, and I wanna see what they do in the playoffs.

BP I kinda think the Knicks are the story of the season. Even though I think the journey may end early, nobody really picked them to do anything. Randle proved he’s worth the max and then some.

NL Exactly, I think Randle and the Knicks put on a performance folks didn’t expect.

VL It has been fun to watch; and even more fun seeing the city get excited again.

KA Randle is on my All-NBA second team, if anyone’s asking. I have been high on him for years. I sent [poet and professor] John Murillo a few Randle rookie cards a couple years ago when they were worth pennies and told him to sit on them.

VL What’s interesting, on a personal level, to me about this Knicks run is that the last time I was really following the Knicks was during Jeremy Lin’s run, and that one felt very personal obviously.

NL Lin’s run was such a historic time in NYC.

The city was just different all around.

VL I was living in Chinatown during that time and people were on the streets watching it.

BP Maybe the most interesting team that nobody really talks much about is the Suns. I feel like there’s sort of this unspoken assumption that there are some regular season teams that will accumulate a ton of wins and then fizzle out in the playoffs, and that’s kind of the Suns this year. Are any of you believers?

VL Maybe it’s controversial because I also like CP3 [Chris Paul] so I’m excited for them.

KA They’re one of the most fun teams to watch in the league. CP3 just makes so many little things happen. One of my favorite things to track is how, if Šarić or someone gets a big board or Ayton makes a defensive play on one end, CP3 always makes sure to feed them on the next play. That’s something so rare anymore with analytics, and every touch in the league being scripted before the game, etc. But CP3 is such a pro at getting guys involved and keeping them interested, intense, etc.

BP I love the idea of CP3 rewarding guys with a touch—that truly feels like something from a different era.

KA Once you start watching for it, you’ll see it a dozen times every Suns game.

Viv, my spicy take, with all love for your team, is that it’s goofy the Clippers have been on this, “We’re the kings of LA now” stuff for the past two years, and then purposely threw the final game to avoid playing the Lakers.

VL I feel like, if you’re playing at this level (or honestly, any competitive level), a loss—even on purpose—is still a loss. Emotionally.

NL Gonna echo Kav here and say I felt it was hella goofy.

VL I get that they feel more confident playing against the Mavericks, but also, yeah.

BP Kaveh, putting your Milwaukee allegiance aside (or not), do you actually see them going far this year? Or will it be like, um, every other year.

KA Oof, Ben.

It’s very likely their path to the finals could be Heat, Nets, Sixers. And that’s a pretty historically Herculean path. I’m very pessimist-is-never-disappointed about these kinds of things. But I will say, Giannis [Antetokounmpo] is the greatest player that will likely ever play for my favorite team in sports in my lifetime, and he’s in his prime. Every game is a treasure, and I’m profoundly grateful that I’m able to fully apprehend that in this moment—while it’s happening—versus only once looking back on it.

Having said that: yes, of course they’ll win it all, Bucks in six.

DMD What do you think basketball has brought to your life or your career?

NL Though I enjoy watching basketball (shoutout to the Dwyane Wade and Ja Morant clips I keep in rotation), my love really is in the process of playing. I mourn sometimes the younger me who could go for two practices and three games on a regular summer day. I almost cried describing the three-man-weave to a friend of mine who knows nothing about basketball recently. What it means to move as parts of a whole rather than individually. Fluidity. When you run the drill right it’s almost as if humans could build the wind.

Basketball taught me practice, study, craft. Just as I read books and read plays, I close-read Baron Davis’s crossover my freshman year of high school to mimic his drive to the basket. It was also something I had to work hard at, I wasn't naturally good at it. Every minute I played on my Amateur Athletic Union team I earned in practice, on the defensive end of the court. I jumped to the floor after loose balls, I boxed out on rebounds, I taught myself to run faster so I could make the eight-second sprint. So when I really started to give poetry the time it demands, I leaned into the craft from this same sensibility. This space of work, creativity, patience, and persistence, and a lot of luck. They both require a lot of luck.

Kaveh Akbar is the author of Calling a Wolf a Wolf and the collection Pilgrim Bell. The poetry editor at The Nation, he teaches at Purdue University and in the low-residency MFA programs at Randolph College and Warren Wilson College.
Vivian Lee Vivian Lee is a writer and senior editor at Little, Brown. Her writing can be found at The Los Angeles Times, Eater, ELLE.com, and more. @vivianwmlee
Ben Purkert is the author of For the Love of Endings. His work appears or is forthcoming in The New Yorker, The Nation, Poetry, Kenyon Review, Ploughshares, and elsewhere. An editor at Guernica, he teaches at Rutgers. @BenPurkert
Nabila Lovelace is a first-generation Queens-born poet and author of Sons of Achilles. Her people hail from Trinidad and Nigeria. You can find her kicking it in Tuscaloosa.
Originally published:
May 27, 2021

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