Hometown Heroes

What if the goal is not to make it out of the neighborhood?

TJ Dragotta/Unsplash
TJ Dragotta/Unsplash

There’s Always This Year: On Basketball and Ascension by Hanif Abdurraqib; Random House, 352 pp., $32

Growing up in the Greenbrier Houses of East Columbus, Ohio, a part of the city that the cops once dubbed “Uzi Alley,” Hanif Abdurraqib knew how to work an angle. “I came up around hustlers,” he writes in his latest book, There’s Always This Year: On Basketball and Ascension. “I know what it takes to keep the lights on.” And yet, he doesn’t consider himself to be particularly adept at the art of deception: “I am not the best hustler.”

Perhaps, but that’s not true of his work on the page. That’s because There’s Always This Year is, in a sense, an elaborate hustle: a beneficent one, mind you, one that draws you in not by emptying your pockets but by transporting you to delicate and expansive corners of the soul. Ostensibly, Abdurraqib—an essayist, poet, and music critic, whose previous books include A Little Devil in America and They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us—has written his latest about basketball. His life loosely parallels that of hoops legend Lebron James. Both came of age in the late 1990s–early aughts in Ohio; both left in early adulthood, James forsaking his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers for the Miami Heat, Abdurraqib decamping to Connecticut to live with his then partner. Both returned home, James winning an NBA championship with the Cavaliers in 2016, Abdurraqib ascending to literary superstardom after his return to Columbus, winning a MacArthur “Genius Grant” in 2021.

One might expect an elegiac ode to James’s supremacy, a studied reflection on the nature of sporting redemption, a lyrical love letter to hooping. And though basketball does provide a throughline, an organizing framework, this is less a sports book than a memoir, an ode to grief, a love letter to East Columbus, a place, one assumes, from which everyone is trying to escape, especially if you happen to be a basketball phenom. “White journalists salivate over it,” Abdurraqib writes. “The singular, once-in-a-generation black athlete who is born into struggle, playing to make a better life for themselves or their loved ones. Someone who had to traverse a bad neighborhood somewhere to arrive.”

But what if you love your “bad” neighborhood? What if you grew up with the “Michael Jordan of East Columbus just four doors down” from your house, as Abdurraqib did? His name was Kenny Gregory—just one of a collection of basketball legends from Ohio who attained mythical status. Maybe they didn’t all “make it out,” but as Abdurraqib contends, maybe leaving shouldn’t be the benchmark: “Let it be known that some of us have never once dreamed of leaving. Never thought about making it out of a place as glorious as this. Tell me if you have ever built a heaven out of nothing.”

When you’re evicted from your apartment, as Abdurraqib was after losing his first job, in the music section at a Borders bookstore, you learn the intimate rhythms of your neighborhood, its underground economies. You might sleep in church pews where some benevolent soul has left blankets, or land two free months of rent on a storage locker thanks to one woman’s kindness (she ensured that Abdurraqib didn’t get caught when he slept there). He committed various petty crimes—stealing sandwiches from Kroger, driving with an expired license—and got locked up. “I don’t remember the exact reason I ended up handcuffed in the back of a cop car in the fall of 2004,” he writes—the officers ran his plates and reportedly discovered a warrant for his arrest. His relationship with his family had by then deteriorated. His mother had died when he was 13; he had run “afoul” of the rest of his clan “too many times to rely on them for help.” He never reveals the particulars of his familial undoing, but grief and regret haunt his account, dense subcurrents that bubble to the surface even as their true depths remain obscured.

Abdurraqib never thought he’d make it to 40, and hyperawareness of his mortality informs There’s Always This Year. The book is structured like a basketball game, broken down into 12-minute quarters, the clock ticking down in each section until it hits zero, habitual reminders that the end grows ever nigh. Spotting the gray that has recently sprouted in Lebron’s beard affirmed for Abdurraqib that even the basketball legend isn’t immortal. They were still just kids when he first watched Lebron play high school ball at St. Vincent-St. Mary outside Cleveland: “There is something about witnessing greatness before the rest of the world fully arrives to it. The witnessing can make you feel like you, too, have access to anything and everything. For a moment, it feels like no horror will ever befall you.”

Which is why we watch sports, for these glimpses, every now and again, of something magical, something majestic—“Federer Moments,” as David Foster Wallace called them, in a 2006 essay he wrote for Play magazine about the exquisite Swiss tennis player: moments when Roger Federer pulled off some outlandish, surreal shot, moments that gave us a glimmer of hope that we, too, could transcend the physical limitations of our own bodies, however fleetingly, moments of reconciliation akin to a religious experience. Abdurraqib witnessed one such moment—a Lebron Moment—in 2007, when the hoopster scored Cleveland’s final 25 points in Game Five of the Eastern Conference finals, leading the Cavaliers to an overtime victory: a performance that “can be best described as the supernatural or the divine, something holy enough to trick even the nonbelievers into thinking something good might come their way if they knock loudly enough at the gates, if they kneel humbly enough at the altar, if they face the holy land and close their eyes.”

Nike seized on these religious undertones from the start: “We are all witnesses,” proclaimed an ad campaign unveiled in 2005. “It was a campaign for an entire city, with a mission statement: believe what your eyes are telling you is real,” Abdurraqib writes. “There is a church to be made here, now. A church in our arena.”

And when Lebron returned to the Cavaliers after his stint with the Miami Heat, the prodigal son looking to make good, Nike once again capitalized on the emotional backstory, producing a commercial in which Lebron huddles with his teammates on court and exhorts them to win a championship for the long-suffering fans of Cleveland, as the entire city gathers together as one. The ad, which has Lebron’s words ringing through the streets, left Abdurraqib sobbing on the floor of his Connecticut apartment, still separated from his own hometown, even as he was aware of the manipulative nature of the seduction, aware that the image of unity is a mirage. Because ours is a divided country, one in which Henry Green and Tamir Rice and other Black Ohioans have been killed by police, the same police who might dismiss a neighborhood as a warzone, as “Uzi Alley.”

On the night that Lebron finally led the Cavaliers to an NBA title, Abdurraqib once again recognized the false promise of the moment—a moment of confetti-laced ecstasy, to be sure, but one that could not last, fading like a reverse Polaroid. “I am not especially easy to fool, but I am a romantic, which I suppose means that at the right hour, I am everyone’s fool. And I allowed myself to fall into the arms of a city that was not my city but felt, in that moment, like it could be.”

This is a moment of ascension, as the book’s subtitle suggests: Michael Jordan hanging in the air as he jumps from the foul line in the 1985 NBA slam dunk contest; a Black man from Columbus named Lonnie Carmon taking to the skies in the 1920s in an airplane he built out of salvaged junk (Abdurraqib includes brief odes to Ohio aviators as section breaks); the city of Cleveland rising together at the Cavaliers’ NBA championship. The ascendance is but temporary, the return to terra firma preordained—where, as Abdurraqib notes, the true nature of things reasserts itself: “My god, the greatest lies are told in the name of sports.”

If There’s Always This Year reminds us of the seductive pull of our athletic heroes, how easy it is to freight them with a significance they can’t possibly sustain, Abdurraqib also spotlights the intensely personal nature of fandom. Because our experience of Federer Moments doesn’t unfold in a vacuum, but rather, is mediated through the context of our own personal backstories, our own station in life. If you came of age when Tiger Woods did; if you remember his first Masters victory in 1997, which signaled the start of some limitless new age, the entire world within your grasp; if you suffered through a period of profound depression in your 30s, spent years circling the abyss; if you have since started your gentle downward glide into middle age, your former potential buried in the wreckage of your past; then you grasped the full contours of the miracle that unfolded at Augusta in 2019, when Tiger won the Masters at age 43, a victory that stirred long-dormant corners of your soul, made you reconsider your own imagined trajectory.

As for Lebron: I never much liked him, not least because of “the Decision,” a public relations fiasco in which broke up with the Cleveland faithful on live TV—all but disemboweled them—and proclaimed that he was taking his “talents to South Beach.” But to read There’s Always This Year is to gain a begrudging appreciation for his cultural influence. If sports themselves are a hustle—anointing false gods, emptying our pockets, leaving us bereft; the glory fleeting, the storylines (and the players) sometimes juiced—then they are a beneficent hustle, one that offers glorious moments of ascendance, glimpses of hard-won truths, even if those truths confirm our flawed nature, our original sin.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Eric Wills has written about history, sports, and design for Smithsonian, The Washington Post, GQ, the Scholar, and other publications. He was formerly a senior editor at Architect magazine.


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