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For the Love of the Game
For those devoted to basketball, the game sometimes comes alive before our very eyes, and transforms us. In such moments we fall in love with basketball all over again, and perhaps regain, for a moment, a renewed hope in the possibilities of life.
In this year’s March Madness, a relative unknown, Florida Gulf Coast University, has captured the dreams of the nation. The FGCU Eagles have done it with a high flying style of play, full of acrobatic maneuvers that reside in the stratosphere above the rim: pinpoint alley oop passes and thunderous dunks, soaring rebounds and hard boned hustle. In defeating 2-seed and Big East conference powerhouse Georgetown, as well as 7-seed San Diego State, the Eagles became the first 15-seed in tournament history to advance to the Sweet 16 (check this out for a taste of the FGCU stratosphere).
Deep discipline resides below the mystery.
When I was young I did not know how to see my father, and I thought he did not know quite how to see me. On the reservation, the game that involves a hoop, a net, and a ball, seemed to clear our clouded vision. I spent part of my childhood on the Northern Cheyenne reservation where I learned to play basketball with speed and precision passing, and a form of controlled wildness that is often hard to come by in non-reservation basketball circles. The Northern Cheyenne teams I played on played with great passion and uncommon unity.
We all love teams that play with passion.
And in this sense art, strangely enough, is not unlike basketball.
We thirst for art that shows full-bodied love.
In this world, we suffer. We are burned. We often fall. We sometimes rise.
We say basketball is only a game. We discover basketball is more than a game.
Consider the teams who have fallen in March Madness already, after only three rounds of the seven round dance: my own Gonzaga, where a malaise of discomfort has come to the campus after an early exit; this, and so many other teams whose players spent their last sweat and tears on the hardwood this past weekend: Mississippi, North Caroline State, Oklahoma State, Kansas State… teams with huge followings of people who are now a part of the basketball brokenhearted.
In life, the undertow gains significant force as we encounter the complexities of love alongside the reality of loss. Do we reach the other side refined or destroyed? The men and women in the most ultimate narratives of our age face the most ultimate questions of humanity. And this begs the question: who can console us in the great darkness we endure? The shadow of the masculine: violent, severe, and vacuous, meets the light of the feminine: affirming, intimate, inviolable. In like fashion the shadow of the feminine: entangled, cruel, and fearful, meets the light of the masculine: integral, meaningful, powerful.
Today when I go to a reservation tournament with my father—yes, he still plays ball at 70—Native American cultures honor elders and they never fail to honor him. If you invest your life in the reservations, in the people of those small towns and that open land, the returns of friendship, laughter and love are immense. My dad coached basketball in Montana for more than 30 years. Some of those years he coached the Crow players at Plenty Coups and the Northern Cheyenne players at St. Labre. When I went with him years later to the Charlie Calf Robe Memorial Tournament on the Blackfeet reservation, the Blackfeet tribe devoted an entire halftime to my dad, and he didn’t even coach on that reservation. They presented him with a beaded belt buckle and a blanket for the coaching he’d done on other reservations—a symbol that he would be welcome in the Blackfeet tribe always, and a sign of respect for him as an elder who had been a friend and strength to Native Americans throughout Montana.
I have hauntings from the reservation that still call to me, and hauntings in my own family. I remember those who didn’t make it out. My friend Blake Walks Nice was stabbed in the chest five times and died behind Jimtown Bar. Basketball star Paul Deputy was shot in the head with a high powered rifle at a party outside Crow Agency. My dad’s friend Cleveland Highwalker committed suicide. Sorrow is met with sorrow.
The reservation can be a dark corridor of grief.
And yet, on the reservation, in the community that formed around basketball, I found a sense of love more powerful than I had found anywhere else in my life.
On that weekend when I played basketball with my father in the Charlie Calf Robe Memorial, an unforeseen and wholly unique gift reminded me that where there is deep love there is deep devotion, and where there is deep devotion, our sorrow humbles us and unites us and makes us strong again. I had just returned from playing professional basketball in Germany when my father called and invited me to play on the team he put together for the tournament. Dedicated as a memorial to the high school athlete Charlie Calf Robe, a Blackfeet player who died far too young, the tournament was a form of community grieving over the loss of a beloved son. The Most Valuable Player (MVP) award was made by Charlie’s wife, Honey Davis, who spent 9 months making an entirely beaded basketball for the event. When the tribe and Honey herself presented the ball to me, and I walked through the gym with my father, an old Blackfeet man approached us. He touched my arm and smiled a big smile and said, “You can’t dribble that one, sonny.”
Honey’s exquisite artistry was an act of love.
Similarly, there is a need in the literary arts to confront death with love.
“Many waters cannot quench love. Love is stronger than death,” the proverb says.
Certain themes recur in great art, ramified under the scrutiny of vigorous attention: love and hate, violence and tenderness, justice and mercy. Writers engage what they perceive to be God or anti-God, nihilism, atheism, belief, hope, desire, despair. Dogmatics of all forms are set alongside discoveries of rare beauty. The heights of human history enjamb the abyss of human degradation. In great art we recognize all the miniscule and expansive ways we live and the essence of what gives us gratitude, what breaks us, and what makes us generous, vital, and creatively dangerous.
Is it too large a leap to say March Madness and the Eagles of Florida Gulf Coast University are a small but potent reminder of the dangerous creativity Albert Camus called us to in his novels of existential longing, violence, and overthrow?
In basketball, as in writing, the sacred is infused with a passion that can shake us from our slumber and set us forth like the dawn.
“Art is always transgressive,” painter Makoto Fujimura said. “We need to transgress in love. We have a language to celebrate waywardness. But we do not have a language, a cultural language, to bring people back home.” Great literature sets us on a journey homeward to gaze once more upon the face of the beloved.
There is a discipline formed of hours and days and years. That discipline, when approached through love, can carry us and those around us for the rest of our lives.
Honey Davis gave love in the form of a beaded basketball.
My father and I held her gift in our hands and saw each other with new eyes.
Shann Ray teaches leadership and forgiveness studies at Gonzaga University, home of the nationally #1 ranked Gonzaga Bulldogs, as of this posting. He played college basketball at Montana State University and Pepperdine, and professional basketball in Germany’s top league, the Bundesliga. His book of short stories, American Masculine (Graywolf), won the American Book Award, the High Plains Book Award, and the Bakeless Prize. His book of creative nonfiction and political theory Forgiveness and Power in the Age of Atrocity (Rowman & Littlefield/Lexington) was an Amazon Top 10 Hot New Release in War and Peace in Current Events.