The following is excerpted from What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker (Ecco/HarperCollins), the 2020 winner of the Thurber Prize for American Humor.
My point guard is a lawyer. I’m not quite sure what his specialty is, but I did once hear him say that he and several colleagues started their own practice a few years ago. He’s also a husband and a father, and up until last year, he was the owner of a burgundy Nissan Pathfinder. Now he drives a medium blue BMW X5 with a moonroof and black leather seats. It’s the type of car you’d find displayed in an indoor shopping mall somewhere, parked outside Express and reeking of new-car-smell spray.
He’s also actually more of a hybrid 1 and 4 today than a pure point. Think Boris Diaw, but if Diaw was 5-foot-11, approximately 275 pounds, middle-aged, bald, and white. He played Division II ball at a school in Jersey back in the day. I didn’t know him when he was younger (and thinner), but according to those who did, he was a “dog”—a hoop colloquialism for a tough motherfucker to guard. Still, despite his age and the vertical and horizontal limitations imposed by his weight, flashes of the dog persist. He’s a sure ball handler with long arms and disproportionately large and strong hands—his palms are the size of the Williams Sonoma mixing bowls I bought my dad for his 65th birthday. You will not strip him and he will not lose the ball. His girth also assists him here. If you dare reach, he’ll dip his shoulder and you’ll be left with a chunky blade to your thorax and a sheet of Irish man sweat on your cheek. He doesn’t have great range—you guard him toes on the line instead of heels on the line (you don’t have to venture past the three-point line to contest his shot)—but he’s a dependable and deceptively clutch shooter with his feet set. In the paint, he’s tricky and crafty and ambidextrous, using his sizable ass and his unfathomably round and hard stomach—his stomach is a fucking medicine ball dipped in plutonium—as leverage to pin and seal people off. On D he competes, conjuring every inch of guile and grown-ass-man-with-a-retirement-plan-and-a-lawn-guy strength to attempt to contain people six inches taller or three decades younger than him. He possesses a generous amount of what Mr. Seneca, my sixth grade gym teacher, would call “spunk” and what my uncle Danny likes to call “sticktoitiveness.”
The best part of his game, however, is his passing. He delivers the ball with accuracy, verve, and velocity: line-drive skip passes whizzing past eardrums and outstretched fingertips, pocket bounce passes off high ball screens and between limbs, vertical baseball hurls with arc and touch, underhanded post entry passes under intense ball pressure but in rhythm and away from too-anxious defenders, Unseldesque overhead outlet passes in perfect stride. Those who play frequently and seriously know that this is the rarest and most precious of commodities, valued by all ballplayers and even fetishized by some with indecent vigor. (This is no hyperbole, by the way. Some guys—and by some guys I mean middle-aged middle school basketball coaches—talk about pure point guards and “making the extra pass” the way cheetahs talk about fat gazelles. It’s disturbing.)
This feeling exists because a guy who makes the right pass, delivers it the right way, and does it for the right reasons has a way of permeating and eventually cultivating a team’s collective spirit. It becomes a weaponized virus, infecting even the most reluctant teammate with the disease of magnanimity and trust. This is what Magic and Larry and Isiah did; what Oscar and Cousy and Frazier did before them; what Kidd and Stockton and Nash did after them; and what LeBron and Steph and CP3 do now. And this is why, out of the twenty or so regulars of the weekly Thursday night pickup hoop games at Central Catholic High School—games that start at seven, end around nine, and have been held consistently for 30 years—“Law” is my favorite teammate.
But as my team checked the ball to start the game on the second November Thursday in 2016, my thoughts were possessed by the fact that my point guard is also a conservative. Who stumped for, gave money to, and even once took a selfie with Donald Trump. And who definitely, absolutely voted for him two days earlier.
This motherfucker voted for that motherfucker, I thought while spitting into my hands before rubbing them together and wiping them on the soles of my gray-and-black Kyrie 1s to gain some sort of traction on the bit-too-slick gym floor in need of a scrub. And again while tightening the brace stretching from my upper left thigh to the shin below it, swallowing and protecting my knee. The thoughts dissipated when the action began; can’t exactly be mindful of blind back ball screens or finish in traffic while obsessing over your point guard’s bitch-ass political leanings. But they returned during each extended break in action. When games ended or subs were made, I became anxious again. And not necessarily because of what I thought I might do, but what I knew I wouldn’t.
Trump’s win provided no major epiphanies for me. Perhaps I underestimated the appeal of the preservation of white supremacy, but the idea that racism is an essential and inextricable part of America’s identity is not particularly novel. I’ve never been a postracial Pollyanna, even in the years directly following Obama’s election, when postracial Pollyannaism was in vogue and marketed as a soothing and restorative balm for America’s cold sores. But still, even with all of this awareness and consciousness and performative sobriety, Tuesday, Nov. 8, was an earthquake. That shit fucking hurt, man. And the following morning was the postquake tsunami. America’s tectonic plates had shifted, and I wasn’t as sure of my footing.
In the days following the election, I incorporated my usual coping mechanisms when faced with intense stress, including (but not limited to) writing and frequent masturbation. But mainly I limited my interactions with white people. Not just suspected or actual Trump voters, but all white people. If they didn’t happen to support Trump, I blamed them not doing enough at their Thanksgiving tables and country clubs and home and garden tours and company potlucks and family barbecues and each other crucible of whiteness I’m not privy to in order to sway those who do. Perhaps this blanket characterization was unfair. But, all things considered, being fair to white people felt (and still feels) irrational.
Fortunately, I had an occupation where literally zero white people worked in my office (the street-facing bedroom on the third floor of the house my wife and I were renting), so no chance of running into one in the break room (my kitchen), the restroom (the third-floor bathroom), the exercise room (the space in the hallway leading to the stairs where I occasionally do pushups), or the water cooler (the two bottles of Deer Park and the half-empty bottle of Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Honey sitting on that bedroom’s dresser). And, since I’m one of the only Thursday-night regulars who happens to be black, I considered skipping the games that week as well.
This would have been the first time I ever intentionally skipped Thursday Night Hoops. For the decade or so that I’ve been a regular, it’s existed as an essential part of my weekly routine. So essential that I’ve rescheduled family commitments, passed on work-related opportunities, and postponed first dates just to ensure I was available. For the stretch in 2012 when my car was repossessed for two weeks, I just made the mile-and-a-half walk down Fifth Avenue from my place in Point Breeze. In 2013, when a tweak of the same knee I had ACL reconstruction on in college sidelined me for three months, I signed up for Obamacare after not having insurance for four years just to be able to see an orthopedist and buy a discounted brace so I could play again. When my car was the only car my wife and I owned and she needed it that evening for errands, I’d either Uber or convince her to restructure her itinerary to allow her to drop me off and pick me up. And when my daughter was a newborn and my wife happened to be in Chicago or Denver for work—rendering me the sole available parent—I’d take her to the gym with me, propping her up on the bleachers in her car seat, checking on her, feeding her, and changing her diapers between games. (Whether I washed my hands afterward depended on the intensity that night. If it was a particularly heated and competitive day, whoever was guarding me would have to just deal with me and my skunky, baby-shit-scented hands.)
The value I attached to Thursday night is mined from its scarcity. It’s rare in a football town like Pittsburgh to find a consistently good pickup basketball game as an adult; even rarer to find one with guys who can actually play; even rarer to find one with guys you actually enjoy playing with; and finding one with each of these characteristics and a game that isn’t bogged down with heedless foul and travel calls and half-hour-long arguments over those foul and travel calls is like finding a fucking unicorn.
To gain entry, you need to be either a graduate of Central or somehow connected to a regular. Even then, you’re subtly vetted on the court. If you shoot a bit too much or call a few too many fouls or talk a bit too much shit or play a bit too little D, a couple of well-placed eye rolls, exhales, and smirks will communicate to your host that he probably shouldn’t invite this wack motherfucker back. I gained entry via Alex, the oldest son of Paul—Central’s 60-something head basketball coach and Thursday night’s alpha dog. I’d known Alex and his brother Kenny since we were grade-school Pittsburgh Diocese rivals in football and basketball, me at St. Barts and them at St. Sebastian. We played with and against each other as teens in the summer at Expos Camp at the Shadyside Boys & Girls Club and the Ozanam League in the Hill, became rivals again in high school, and played against each other again in the Connie Hawkins Summer Basketball League in East Lib while in college. We’ve never been close friends, but we’ve always been cool. So when I happened to bump into Alex outside the Macy’s at Ross Park Mall in 2006, and he invited me to come through that Thursday, I obliged.
I’ve been a part of the runs long enough now to chart the ebbs and flows. From 2007 to 2010 they’d often be packed with as many as 30 people, some of whom were 22- to 25-year-olds who’d played ball in college, recently graduated, and still desired opportunities to prove that they should have been recruited by bigger schools out of high school. They’d carry petty, eight-year-old grudges no one gave a shit about around their necks like tennis sweaters, and each game was played like an assistant coach from Pitt or Duquesne was in the stands, ready to offer a scholly to whoever had the prettiest step-back J. And then, of course, there was me. Sometimes the only guy in the gym who’d played D-I ball. But although I was more than a decade removed from those days, my ego wouldn’t allow me to allow them to forget who I was. So I spent many Thursdays—maybe three out of every five Thursdays—rocking my 12-year-old Canisius College practice jersey while playing; its tattered and tired sleeves clutching my shoulders for dear life, its once vivid and vibrant blue base and yellow stitching faded so definitively that it became the tint of mashed bananas mixed with baby oatmeal, its threads reeking of caked, decade-old sweat and fresh Bounce fabric softener. It looked like plantain peel marinated in almond milk. It looked like I was hooping in a fucking dish rag.
By 2011 the herd began to cull, eventually settling into a group of regulars so regular I have extensive scouting reports on each of them. Both Alex and Kenny work at Central, Alex as an assistant principal and Kenny as a math teacher. They’re also assistant coaches for the basketball team. Tall (6-foot-4) and lean, Alex looks a little like Neil Patrick Harris and carries himself like someone doing an impression of a Mormon. Preternaturally earnest, honest, and forthright, he shakes hands with enthusiasm and integrity, never not making eye contact, never not expressing a genuine interest in you. He’s one of the few people who, when they ask “What’s up?” or “What’s going on?”, always gives a damn about your answer. His game fits his personality. He’s so fundamentally sound—the perfect jump stop here; the textbook chest pass there—that it sometimes veers mechanical and predictable. He also gets hot, both with his J (he’ll have stretches where he’ll make three-pointers five or six times down court in a row) and with his temper when antagonized by Kenny, Alex’s opposite in build (also 6-foot-4, but probably 260 or 270), looks (he’s regularly mistaken for Ben Roethlisberger), temperament (sarcastic, fun, and a little dickish), and skills. While Alex is an objectively better basketball player, his game comprising a concrete sequential distillation of tens of thousands of Mikan drills and lane shuffles, Kenny is a better and freer natural athlete. Faster and springier than his size would suggest, he played football in college, and hoops unconstrained by the pressure of always making the perfect play.
Paul, the oldest of the regulars, is the living personification of old-man balls in YMCA locker rooms. Old-man balls, of course, are the languid and smirking testicles possessed by the type of middle-aged and elderly men who, decades ago, auctioned away their last fuck about being bare-assed in the locker room. While most men attempt to spend the least amount of time possible naked there, these guys will hold entire conversations while their still-dripping-’cause-they-haven’t-dried-from-the-shower-yet nuts sway fuckless and free beneath them. Utterly and completely devoid of fucks, Paul regularly takes shots off the dribble from 35 feet, but has enough gravitas—and, admittedly, makes enough of them—that no one bats an eye if he misses five or six of those heaves in a row and doesn’t even feign to bother to get back on D.
There’s Kenny, the genial accountant whose release is so deliberate and slow it’s like a disconnected Wi-Fi signal rebooting. His jump shot is a process. A gotdamn parable. But if no one’s within seven feet of him, he’ll knock it down. His nephew Jackson is in his mid-20s, played lacrosse in college, and hoops like the world’s most athletic nine-year-old. Frank is a 28-year-old engineer and annoyingly relentless backdoor cutter. Sometimes he cuts oblivious to the ball; his only purpose is to amuse himself by possibly tricking or fatiguing the guy checking him. He’s also a much better shooter and ball handler (and player) than he thinks he is. Sixty-year-old Lonnie runs an accounting firm, is impressively athletic—think Santa after eight months of CrossFit—probably smokes an ounce of weed per week, and is by far the worst player of the regulars. Carson is the best. He’s 30, but one of those rare 30-year-old ex-college ballplayers who’s stronger and in better shape than he was at 21. He plays with a pulsing and frenetic rage; I’ve called him White Russell Westbrook but a more apt determination is that he hoops like he’ll only be allowed to eat dinner if his team wins.
There are also several semiregulars—guys who show up once or twice a month. Most notably Rakeem, who’s 49 years old, black, has a practically unguardable right-shoulder turnaround J, and comports himself like a sitcom dad perpetually annoyed that his wife orders so much junk from QVC, and Tucker, who walked on at Pitt, is in phenomenal shape—his abs and pelvis actually do the V thing that Olympic swimmers and H&M mannequins possess—and recently did a bid in prison for drug trafficking. Occasionally Tucker will bring his boy Chevon, a former University of Pittsburgh star and recently retired pro who, against us, is essentially a hybrid of Wilt Chamberlain, Draymond Green, Jesus, and the alpha velociraptor from Jurassic Park.
Games are played to 22. And instead of twos counting as one and threes counting as two—as is the case at most pickup games—twos are two and threes are three. There are six people on each team (five players and one sub) and subs are made after each team has combined to score eight points. (For instance, if one team scores five points and the other team hits a three, it’s time for a sub.) Fouls are not called, they’re given. If you foul someone you’re expected to acknowledge it, stop play, and give them the ball, which is also a stark contrast from most other pickup games, where arguments over foul calls often comprise the bulk of the time on the court. This honor system extends to other violations, where instead of a travel or a double-dribble forcing the guilty party to relinquish possession, the team is just forced to preempt their possession and check the ball up. Basically, they receive a do-over.
At first, these rules seemed impractical and even foolish. But as a veteran of roughly 2,000 different pickup games at maybe 100 different parks and gyms—with dozens of different rules and park-specific variations of those rules—this is easily the best and most efficient set of rules I’ve ever encountered. It is, truly, a gentleman’s game. A fair game. With rules that make sense and are followed by everyone, with no exceptions. Imagine that.
After the runs conclude, most of the regulars stay behind another hour or two to shower, drink beer, and talk shit in Paul’s office. The beer-buying and -bringing duties rotate; you’re expected to bring a case at least twice a year. And, if you happen to go an extended stretch without coming, you’re expected to bring a case when you return. The acronym FUBAC (Fuck U Bring a Case) is often attached to the texts informing the regulars of cancellations or changes in date or start times.
These runs have cultivated new friendships and strengthened old ones. Many of these men have been invited to each other’s homes, bachelor parties, and weddings. I am not as close to them. I’ve been invited to Alex’s house a few times, and even attended a couple of Memorial Day barbecues there, but I’ve never invited anyone from Thursday Night Hoops to spend time with me and my people. I’ve attempted to convince myself that this lack of reciprocation is for their own good, assuming none of the Thursday-night regulars would be very interested in bringing a case of Woodchuck to an all-black game night where the jokes and conversations occasionally veer into some variant of “funny and/or fucked up shit white people did.” But I don’t invite them to my house because I just don’t want them in my house. I haven’t been possessed with the inclination to grant them that privilege, and I wouldn’t want my friends or my family or my wife to feel the need to redact themselves in one of the few spaces we’re able to freely regard white people with callousness and mundane and hilarious cruelty. These are not bad guys. But they are white, and whiteness already takes up too much space for me to volunteer my own.
This dynamic lives in paradoxical concert with these men existing as the only men I do “man” shit with on a regular basis. I’ve had more drinks with them than I have with each of my closest friends—most of whom have long moved away from Pittsburgh. When my daugher was born, I honored the Thursday-night tradition of new dads bringing a bottle of whiskey instead of beer, and the shots we shared that night remain the first and only group toasts ever made to her. I’ve even leveraged those relationships to my family’s benefit, asking Alex and Kenny to assist me in getting my nephew Maurice into their school.
Still, despite my decade-plus membership to Thursday Night Hoops, I’ve never quite felt completely comfortable there, particularly during the post-hoop beer sessions in Paul’s office. I’ve never felt unwelcome, but while clutching and pretending to enjoy Labatt Blues, sitting on those beat and cracked-to-the-bare-cushion couches, makeshift stools, and ice-filled beer coolers repurposed as benches, it’s as if they’re all in on a joke. It’s a joke I get—I understand why it’s funny and appreciate its humor—but don’t get get it because I wasn’t there for its inception. This sense of abstract discomfort doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Conversations about politics are infrequent. Most revolve around sports (the Steelers, Pitt football, college basketball, the Pens, and WPIAL sports, mainly), the games just played, and shit presently happening in each other’s lives. (Socks are also discussed far too frequently.) But they happen enough for me to know just how much of an outsider I am there—how different my world is from theirs, and how my world exists within theirs—and how this outsider status extends through the door to Paul’s office; past the visitor lockers, urinals, and showers in the hallway leading to the gym’s main entry; into the just-recemented parking lot; onto both the Fifth Avenue exit wrapped around the school’s entrance and the Neville Street exit parked behind the gym; and wherever either of those paths take me. There is nowhere in America I can drive, walk, shit, write, scream, sleep, fuck, eat, sweat, lie, spit, die, conjure, see, touch, sit, dream, drink, run, jump, dunk, dribble, shoot, pass, steal, guard, catch, screen, block, lob, assist, or win without a similar sense of estrangement. Nowhere that I can have a moment of respite—a house party, a family reunion, a conversation with a friend at a bar or in my car or in a house I own—without knowing that relatively safe and superficially black space is surrounded by whiteness. And, whether it’s a driver’s license or my eyeglasses or a navy blue Yale University tote bag Yale gave me after I spoke there in February 2016 or a threadbare practice jersey stuck like a Post-it to my skin, there’s nowhere I can be without always being possessed to carry some form of ID. Something to let them know that I’m safe. Something to assure them that, despite my being surrounded and outmanned and outresourced and outflanked and outgunned by them, I am not a threat.
But, for two hours a week every week, I’m able to forget about that. The white men surrounding me, bumping me, chasing me, fouling me, calling my name, flanking me, defending me, blocking me, and stopping me are either my teammates or the team my teammates and I are trying to beat. And it’s difficult to resist the temptation of romanticizing Thursday Night Hoops; of shoehorning some sort of allegorical commentary about race and racism between Central’s baselines. Particularly because we’re playing basketball, a sport where the inherent culture—a difficult but voluntary coagulation of distinct and encouraged individuality to achieve a collective goal—closely mirrors what America wants us to believe it’s aspiring to.
Perhaps, I’ve been this close to thinking a few more times than I care to admit, this is what America needs. Just a group of black and white men joking and laughing and sweating and swearing and having fun together. This will solve racism. I get so desperately close to Remember the Titans–ing it all that I can hear the Motown montage music and taste the spittle exploding from Denzel’s mouth.
And then I get smacked back to reality, like the Thursday I overheard Law talking to Jeremy (another regular) and sharing his experience at a Trump rally earlier in the week. He was even close enough to the stage to take a selfie, which he excitedly showed Jeremy, pressing his phone in Jeremy’s palm for him to get a clearer look. (Jeremy, to his credit, didn’t seem very impressed. Even said, “He’s much fatter than he looks on TV.”)
There are several more instances like this I can cite, none particularly egregious, but all notable for my reaction to them: nothing. I’d do nothing. I pretended not to hear Law fawning over Trump, and whenever I’d maybe overhear another one of the regulars say something that revealed his politics, his whiteness, I’d take that opportunity to become fiercely interested in the debate about beer nut brands the rest of the room was having.
When that would happen—and it didn’t happen often, but enough—I’d leave questioning my blackness. My manhood. My balls. I’d ask myself why it was so easy to write about race and racism behind the safety and the space to marinate in outrage that a laptop provides but so difficult to challenge it when in this room. Even if it wasn’t blatant, it was there. It was an opportunity for me to do all the things I challenge white people to do. I’d been granted access to this portal of whiteness, the coach’s office at Central Catholic High School, sharing beers and shots and sweat and stories with these very Pittsburgh and unambiguously white men, and I’d always decide to pass. And then convince myself I’d engage the next opportunity I had to. But when the opportunity came five weeks or four months or two years later, the same thing would happen again.
These decisions weren’t fear-based. I knew there’d be no physical confrontation, no collective decision to jump the black guy who dared ask Paul how he really felt about Black Lives Matter. I also knew they were mostly aware of what I did for a living. Among the dozens of newspaper clippings adorning the office walls is a 2015 Post-Gazette profile of me and my work. Instead, I chose not to acknowledge these moments because I just didn’t want to. I preferred keeping these relationships superficial, so that I didn’t have to feel anything about these men other than whether I enjoyed playing with them. If I took them out of that box I kept them in, maybe someone would say or do something that would make his whiteness too hard to ignore, and I didn’t want to have to process and assess that and have it dictate my attendance. Knowing how precious Thursday Night Hoops is, I just didn’t want to strangle the unicorn.
For those two hours every Thursday, I wanted to be able to not be so fucking aware. So hypersensitive to language, enunciations, inflections, connotations, and mannerisms; so cognizant of our prolonged state of houselessness. Of being othered. Of the hysteria, the psychosis, and the claustrophobia. I just wanted to be a guy who happened to be black hooping with other guys who happened to be white. I just wanted to finish post moves and make nice passes and make it through another week without tweaking my knee and then drink beers afterward and maybe get a slice of vegetable pizza from Maximum Flavor on Craig Street on the way home. That’s it. It’s just too fucking much to always have to be angry and alert. To always have a perfectly pithy tweet or a thousand-word screed ready in response to the next Trayvon Martin, the newest Sandra Bland, and the latest Eric Garner, and to feel all the same feelings again. And again. And again. I just wanted a fucking break.
Before the games started on that second Thursday in November of 2016, I saw Law and Lonnie embrace in an exaggerated and performative manner. The hug was an inside joke that only the regulars would be privy to. Lonnie was an outspoken “liberal,” and throughout the election season the two had ribbed each other about their “teams.” Them wrapping their big beige arms around each other represented them calling a truce to everyone’s amusement and delight, effectively serving as some sort of postelection, postgame handshake line. It must be nice, I thought while stretching my hamstrings underneath the east wall backboard. To be able to exist here without ever questioning your existence here. To be able to treat something I’m treating like Hurricane Katrina like a highly contested but cleanly fought game to 22.
Teams were chosen shortly afterward. It’s a process where the first 12 to get to the gym are divided in a way to make the first game as competitive as possible. The younger guys would guard each other, as would the older guys. I was matched up with Carson. Law was on my team, matched up with Jimmy. I barely acknowledged him, spending extra time tightening my brace and tying my shoes instead of giving him and the rest of my teammates a pregame pound.
And then the game started. And a couple of well-placed post entry and outlet passes reminded me why Law was my favorite teammate. And I forgot about it all: the election; Donald Trump; the country; my country; my perpetual otherness in my country; my anxiety about my safety and the safety of my wife and daughter; my shame at bringing an infant girl into this fucking world the year before.
We won that first game easily. And as I sat on the bleachers, taking a breather, gulping the Gatorade I brought with me, and basking in postvictory glow—another Thursday Night Hoops session off to a great start—I thought of the irony of my needing to be there, in that gym and surrounded by those people, that week to exhale. And of all the negotiating and navigating it requires to exist while black and relatively sane. And how, for the rest of them, for my teammates and the guys we just played against and the guys waiting to play next game, this was just another game. Just another week. Just another day. Just another election. Just another president. Just another Thursday. Whiteness in America exists and thrives in that just another space, where things will always be fine. Things will always be all right. Things will always work out. And then I wondered (again) if I should even be there. And if, by being there, I was choosing sanity over integrity. Sanity or integrity? That’s such a fucked-up question to ask someone and to require someone to answer. Such a fucked-up circumstance to even allow such a fucked-up question to exist.
And then it was time to get back on the court for the next game. We won the next two, lost one, sat for one, and then won the last two. I left the gym that Thursday night feeling better than I had before I entered. Sanity or integrity? I thought again as I walked to my car. I guess I found my answer.
Carson was parked next to me, and was sitting in his car with his window down when I walked past him. He looked frustrated.
“My fucking phone won’t link up with my Bluetooth, and I don’t know if it’s the car or my phone,” he said when he noticed me noticing him.
“Shit, I hate when that happens,” I replied before getting into my car and driving back home. I hope he found his answer, too.
What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker is available for purchase now.