Skip to main content

Breaking Fast to High Scores

ISSUE:  Summer 1997
Passing Off. By Tom LeClair. Permanent Press. $22. 00.

Among the criteria by which baseball was judged “America’s pastime” for the better part of a century were 1) the fact that almost every American boy played it; 2) that more mature Americans followed it as fans during that century than any other activity except, eventually, the movies; 3) that it had the largest number of spectators (for team sports, second overall only to thoroughbred racing); 4) that its World Series was the premier sporting event on the calendar; 5) that it attracted the bulk of gambling action outside of the ponies; 6) that it was a sport/game that seemed to be invested with a host of characteristics and significances emblematic of the culture at large—not least of which was its affinity for numbers (totals, averages, statistics, geometry), 7) that more attention was paid to it in the media than to all other sports combined; and 8) that it had a continuity from season to season that drew attention to its qualities, features, and personalities far beyond the game itself. I would add a ninth criterion: that it evoked a significant literature, legitimized in academic curricula that might include the fiction of Philip Roth, Robert Coover, Don DeLillo, Bernard Malamud, Jerome Charyn, Irwin Shaw, Dick Dillard, Jerry Klinkowitz, Eric Rolfe Greenberg, Mark Harris, W.P.Kinsella, Ring Lardner, John Sayles, Lamar Herrin, and David Carkeet, to name some of its all-star lineup.

For those whose sensibilities are still rendered in Thomas Boswell’s wonderful titles (Why Time Begins on Opening Day and How Life Imitates the World Series), it is sad to say that baseball is not —has not been for a long time—America’s pastime. The first eight of those criteria no longer apply, and we have a new measuring stick—TV ratings/televisability. Far more kids play basketball; far more people follow football and basketball (and TV); audiences—at home and in the stands (measured either by total attendance orpercentage of capacity)—rank baseball down the list; the Super Bowl is clearly the premier event (at least in the years between the Olympiad), virtually a national holiday; football gets the lion’s share of the illegal betting handle, with basketball second—and the NCAA tournament is closing the gap as the premier (pooled, handicapped, bettable) event; only a fast-fading Reaganesque nostalgia for a pastoral past survives of baseball’s cultural icons, its oft-praised quality of timelessness having become a drag on contemporary fans’ patience; the media’s attention span is limited, diffuse, and splintered; and even the cherished continuity has been obliterated by the evolving events and behaviors of baseball’s workplace realities.

If America has a sporting pastime now, it has been argued that it is football or stock-car racing (both arguments deriving some strength from the influence of geographical factors on the criteria listed above). But as Peter C.Bjarkman has pointed out, in Hoopla: A Century of College Basketball (1996), basketball dwarfs all others in both participation and attendance, when every level of play is included; moreover, two other criteria may be applied: the proliferation of this genuinely American game throughout the world and the value attached to the image of basketball players in commercial endorsements and public service messages. And yet, in one respect, baseball continues to hold sway for those who would understand the hearts and minds of America (to paraphrase Jacques Barzun’s famous assertion): there is no literature associated with any other sport to rival that of baseball.

If basketball is the heir to the title of America’s pastime, where is its literature? Is it simply late in coming, like Dickens lamenting social ills that had already been remedied? Is literature so insignificant a part of the culture now that a literature of basketball is not essential to establish its claim? Does the nature of the game itself preclude serious literary rendering? Yes, no, and no to the last three; I look to Tom LeClair’s new Passing Off to support those answers and to begin an answer to the first.

John Updike’s Harry Angstrom, the eponymous Rabbit of a sequence of four novels, achieved his greatest distinction as a high-school basketball player. But that part of his life has already passed when we meet him in the first book, Rabbit, Run (1960) and though he scrimmages in the street with some boys, his moment of athletic epiphany, his achievement of “it,” occurs on the occasion of a perfect tee-shot on the golf course. His subsequent one-on-one with Skeeter in Rabbit Redux (1971) is less a basketball episode than a cultural confrontation as well as a dramatic demonstration that the game—not to mention the evolving society at large—has left Rabbit far behind.

Perhaps the greatest character in our literature ever to play the game, Rabbit and his novels afford only brief scenes of play along with failed reminiscences shared with a former teammate and their coach. Nevertheless, Michael Oriard, in his authoritative, comprehensive survey of American sports fiction (Dreaming of Heroes, 1982) calls it our “most distinguished” basketball novel, arguing that it “impressively” uses the game “as a central metaphor” —by which he apparently means that Rabbit’s frame of reference allows him to understand his impressions, emotions, and experiences by associations to the game.

Oriard calls basketball “the most artistic of our national games, the one allowing the most creativity and spontaneity by the players. . . “and a game that” exemplifies the life of the individual ill-suited to regimentation and control.” And yet, after Rabbit, Run, he can find only five novels worthy of mention: Jeremy Larner’s Drive, He Said(1964), Jay Neugeboren’s Big Man (1966), Lawrence Shainberg’s One on One (1975), and Charles Rosen’s Have Jump Shot Will Travel(1975) and A Mile Above the Rim (1976). I would certainly add Todd Walton’s Inside Moves (1978) and Jim Carroll’s Basketball Diaries(1980) to the list, but still the relative paucity is striking.(For many reasons—and not including false modesty—I omit from this discussion two novels based on the career of the notorious basketball all-star and corrupter Jack Molinas: Phil Berger’s Big Time “1990” and my own The Great Molinas “1992”).

As a group these novels are characterized by what might be identified as conventions of basketball fiction, including thematic concerns with urbanization, race and racism, individual identity and creativity within systems, corruption and corruptibility, and premature fulfillment (the “athlete dying young” motif). Most prominently, each one indulges in literary attempts to characterize the rhythm, the feel, the touch, the flow, the permeable patterns of the game itself.

No discussion of basketball fiction should fail to include the work of Don DeLillo. David Bell, the narrator/protagonist of his first novel, Americana (1971), is a former pre-school high-scorer, who says,

Basketball has always seemed to me the most American of sports, more than baseball with its essentially Japanese classicism, both tea ceremony and No drama, more than football without the halftime pageants; a smalltown thing, two kids in a driveway and a daddy-built backboard.

Later in the novel, having given up his TV network job, where he pleasured himself shooting solitary hoops with crumpled paper and a wastebasket, Bell is shooting an autobiographical movie. In a scene reminiscent of the opening sequence of Rabbit, Run, Bell shoots a long sequence of a teenager named Bud Yost working out alone on the court of a gymnasium in mid-America. Then he shuts off the camera and plays Bud one-on-one for perhaps an hour, a sequence that becomes remarkably reminiscent of a long sequence early in John Cassavetes’ Husbands (which had been shot but not yet released at the time the novel appeared), particularly in the way that a vibrant spirit of play is evoked in the spontaneity of the game, only to give way to an almost maudlin acknowledgment of mortality.

DeLillo’s early masterpiece, Ratner’s Star (1976), includes a highlight reel involving Raymond (Nose Cone) Odle, a legendary 7’2” phenom with a “zero-gravity double-pump fadeaway jumper,” whose career we follow from Bronx high school to an unaccredited junior college in Antarctica. The game and its cultural significance, as well as the evolving conventions of a literary basketball-of-the-mind, are here both demonstrated and parodied in DeLillo’s satirical approximation of an “encyclopedic novel.”

It is DeLillo, after all, who shows in an exemplary way in End Zone(1972) how a sport can provide both structure and linguistic texture for a novel. That the book is about war and violence, not football, is demonstrated when the climactic football game of the narrative is played out as the novel’s halftime entertainment (a structure DeLillo revisits in White Noise (1985), when the narrative’s climactic “airborne toxic event” is played out as halftime pageant).

DeLillo also keeps calling our attention to the “narrowing gap between journalism and fiction” that is often bridged by “factoidal data” (as, most recently, in “The Black-and-White Ball,” in the December 23 & 30, 1996 New Yorker}.The dimensions of basketball fiction, then, might well have to be extended to include such works as John McPhee’s A Sense of Where You Are (1965, a portrait of Bill Bradley as exemplar of the game and its meanings), David Wolfs Foul! (1972, a life story of Connie Hawkins), Jack Russell’s memoir/ tribute Honey Russell: Between Games, Between Halves (1986), Pete Axthelm’s The City Game (1970, arguably the best of all basketball books), Stanley Cohen’s The Game They Played (1977, a dramatic account of the City College Cinderella champions—and point-shavers), and even Ben Joravsky’s “novelization” of the “documentary” movie Hoop Dreams (1996). All these, with their artful arrangements of material and deft use of storytelling techniques, add structural design to the textural detail of DeLillo’s reminder and so may well qualify as non-fiction novels in a major league with Norman Mailer’s The Fight (1975) and Daniel Okrent’s Nine Innings (1985).

Now, with the appearance of Tom LeClair’s Passing Off, the concept of basketball fiction has been re(de)fined. LeClair had already been enshrined in a special pantheon by sports-minded academics for two reasons: that he’d spend half a year teaching and the other half playing professional point guard in Greece, and that he’d achieved what was, until recently, the only substantive interview with Don DeLillo. No wonder, then, that a major part of the action in his novel takes place on and around basketball courts and in the shadow of the Parthenon, and that the book will inevitably be compared—unfortunately and unfairly, in my view—with End Zone.

The book purports to be a chronicle of a season in the Greek Basketball Association (thus evoking comparisons with Coover that are even less appropriate than those with DeLillo) by an American point guard, Michael (Key) Keever. His Prologue gives us a capsule history of his basketball career, with important attention to style of play, to achieving idiosyncratic identity, to relationships with fans in the stands, and to the tensive perspectives and philosophies of coaches vis-a-vis players. In other words, postmodern notions of projective identification, “performativity,” and responses to the voyeuristic “gaze” are inscribed on the pre-game basketball chalkboard.

Each team in the Greek league, by rule, is allowed one American player on its roster plus another American of Greek descent. Since Panathinaikos already has African American James Henderson from Michigan as power forward, Keever (Irish, shortened from McKeever) must pass for Greek-American to be the needed point guard—a hypocritical deal routinely worked out by management and Keever’s agent. The name that greets him at the airport in Athens is KYBEPNOS, and it helps the transition game that “Key” in Greek is “Klethei” so that his teammates can call him “Klee” even while his new fans, responding to his ballhandling and “high-li” moves, call him “lefkos magos,” Greek for “white Magic.”

Onomastics give way to broader concerns with language, as Keever, his wife, and their young daughter maneuver their way through the zone defenses of a new culture, establishing linguistic connections as well as distinctions. At the same time as the text focuses on the way things are said (another aspect of the novel’s self-reflexivity), the narration focuses on the way things are seen.What is most important is LeClair’s achievement of integrity by having both the language and the visual perception appropriate to the game of basketball and especially with a built-in structure of pennant race, playofis, and climactic championship. Schedules provide for road trips with obligatory contrasts of settings and crowds. Players, other team personnel, media personages, and other hangers-on provide both stereotypical characterizations (by role in the sport and even by position on the team) and readerly satisfaction of recognizing significant variations from stereotypical norms. All this is a part of the aesthetic prescience that functions for readers of genre fiction.

LeClair takes at least one sports-fiction convention to a new level. Allusions to the mythology of the sport range from gods like Michael, Dr. J, Magic, and the Mailman, through legends like Chris Mullin, Reggie Miller, and John Stockton, to such lesser heroes as Muggsy Bogues, John Bagley, and Brad Daugherty. And the frame of reference includes contemporary icons like Gorbachev, Batman, Bill Cosby, and Anthony Quinn. But because the setting is Greece and the circuit takes Keever to Delphi, Corinth, and Mykonos, the texture is inevitably enriched with allusions to Achilles, Epimenides, Ariadne, and the bull-jumpers; the basketball cliche of “all the moves” inevitably becomes “all the kineses” of the plot-twists; the agon of the contest becomes the agony of trial and ordeal of the hero; and Keever’s odyssey takes his point-guard embodiment of “i metavivasi” as “the pass” through its intermediate meaning of pass as “feint” or “device” to its alternate sense as “the passage”—a labyrinthine journey there and back home again.

Roth had parodied the elevation of sports material to the level of heroic mythology in The Great American Novel (1973, perhaps a necessary antidote to Malamud’s tendentious treatment in The Natural “1952”, dependent in turn on Eliot’s tedious exercise in The Waste Land of squeezing Jessie L.Weston’s Arthurian exegesis dry). In The Seventh Babe (1979) Charyn productively reintegrated the material of myth, sports legend, and baseball fiction. LeClair’s accomplishment is similar here, though where Charyn spirals outward toward a magic realism of baseball, LeClair retains the integrity of basketball’s own realistic magic. Similarly, where DeLillo’s knowledge of football renders the game’s language and structure as viable metaphors, LeClair’s knowledge of basketball provides central focus on the game’s own patterns. And where Coover’s detailed accounts of baseball transform Henry Waugh’s game into a metaphor for art itself, LeClair’s game is in part a presentation of the art of basketball itself.

All that authenticity, of course, does not guarantee a successful novel, but in at least three other ways LeClair demonstrates the viability of basketball for literary purposes. For one thing, he understands that basketball is the most readily corrupted of our sports. At least since 1951 we have recognized that sad fact. Issues of social class, provenience, and venue attach to this acknowledgment, but it is primarily the structure and nature of the game that make it so. Because it has by far the most scoring of our major sports, because the fluctuations in scores are so dramatic, because the distinctions among performances are so subtle (and the decisions of players, coaches, and especially officials are so subjective), because the gambling action depends not on who wins or who loses but on who covers the point spread, and because there is so much involved in terms of money and other forms of currency, the game readily leads to conspiracies, crises of conscience, and tests of loyalty and morality that grow in severity as levels of skill and remuneration rise (above the rim, where baskets and coffers overflow). That is, the plotting associated with the game imposes plot conventions on the fiction, and Passing Off has its component of betting, point-shaving, and ethical relativism.

Second, that basketball has become an international game makes it convenient for a plotline to embrace international intrigue. And so Passing Off plausibly involves international relations and the threat of terrorism, as Keever is chosen for the Greek national team playing in Egypt for a chance to move on to the Atlanta Olympics.

Third, the prominence of basketball stars—and more significantly at present than other sports heroes (Michael Jordan and Dennis Rodman, for example, having achieved greater iconic recognition than Joe DiMaggio or Joe Montana ever claimed)—as public personas off the court extends far beyond the sponsorship of athletic shoes or breakfast food. So when Keever is persuaded to lend his image to a public service environmental message, becoming a vehicle in contests and moves beyond his court-savvy or control, the basketball player becomes a character playing in an arena of more significant plotting.

Although Passing Off is a short novel (and remember that a basketball game, even attenuated for TV, is much shorter than a football or baseball game), it points the way toward a literature of basketball that will validate its current eminence as America’s favorite athletic pastime. It is LeClair’s profound understanding of the game that makes this possible, along with his sure grasp of the potential of the analytical, penetrating, and peripheral vision that enriches the point of view of his point-guard narrator. Keever and LeClair know that contemporary basketball is essentially both spectacle and circus, ballet and freak-show, that it is arguably the sport most cerebral in preparation and most spontaneous in execution, that it is a near perfect test of individual skills in a team framework, an agon of one against one, of group against group, of concept against concept, and of heroic individual against repressive, obstructive, confining systems. And thereby hangs the enormous potential for tales.


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading