An Outside Chance: Drafting a Literary Starting 5

Peter Cavanaugh

basketball diaries

And now your literary starting 5...

To be sure, there are things happening in the sports world. Jeremy Lin has returned to earth after confirming the slight (and too-often overt) racism in most of us, the New Orleans Saints admitted to “Bounty Hits” adding to the concern that maybe the end of football is nearing, Derrick Rose takes game-winning shots while LeBron James passes them off to Udonis Haslem, and Peyton Manning and the Colts split up gracefully reminding us yet again that at the end of the day the weight in “professional sports” is found in “profession.”

A sample size of twenty years, and none of these items are important. Merely variations on archetypes that have seemingly existed since the beginning of athletics, they remain as fun trivia.

The stat line that seems most impressive recently comes from author, Thomas Beller. According to his Twitter feed, Beller posted 20 points and 24 rebounds at his local JCC game. I had already casually added him to my imaginary list of contemporary writers who could casually ball (sadly it had been stuck at two with just Dave Eggers and Stephen Elliott), but Beller’s achievement demanded further inquiry. After a brief Twitter conversation – as everything is inherently brief on Twitter – we arrived at four writers and one musician who I will use as the basis for the first ever completely non-hypothetical, most realistic and happening very soon East-West Literary Basketball Championship.

We’ll begin with the plausible, the proven, and slowly devolve to fantasy and the completely ludicrous, letting personal accounts and science give way to generalizationsand lazy assumptions.

The West, as a word, can exist in one’s mind as a vague and beautiful plateau extending past the eye’s reach and dissolving greens and blues and reds into the Pacific the way one dream goes into the next. It only makes sense, then, that we begin the West’s roster with Stephen Malkmus. A songwriter before author, but the hair, the graceful lankness, and an outside shot rumored to be as pure as Ray Allen, it would be unforgivable to ignore him. We will place him at small forward and hope the East doesn’t end up with enough size to impede his perimeter shooting. Dave Eggers and Stephen Elliott will run the 1 and 2 positions, respectively. As a writer, Eggers has proven he can compose competent and often shattering books. As a human, he has shown incredible generosity and passion, as most obviously demonstrated by his 826 program. Knowing he and Elliott frequent the San Francisco courts, it wouldn’t but a leap to assume those qualities would easily transpose to a game similar to Steve Nash’s. While able to score a healthy amount of points when needed (write bestsellers), the beauty of his game would be his passing and distribution (children’s literacy programs, social responsibility). There is an assumed generosity in Elliott’s being that we gather from his intimate writings and his website, The Rumpus that makes it hard to keep him as a strict shooting guard. We will start him at the two, but let the natural ebb of the game dictate whether he or Eggers runs the point. Though, maybe, we say there is a tenderness about him, something nearing fragile that makes him a perfect candidate for the emotional shooting guard. A gentler John Starks, Allen Iverson.

The power forward is physical in a way that stands out from the other positions. He must have size, but not so much that he can lazily fall asleep in the paint waiting for the smaller men to lob balls his way. The misfired shots off the iron do not simply drop into his hands, he must lobby hard, using his thick frame to gather purchase under the basket and out-jump the taller centers. There is an inherent volatile nature to the power forward rarely seen in the other players. We don’t call it desperation, but an aggression exists. If he was still with us, it would be hard not to elect the sturdy Ken Kesey for this role, but that doesn’t mean suiting up Seattle’s Sherman Alexie is a consolation prize. Beller compared his potential game to that of everyone’s favorite mouthpiece, Charles Barkley. The passion is obviously there – we’ve read Alexie’s stories, followed his testimony in support of his city’s now departed franchise – and with his vaguely doughy facial features tempering his fire, he’s stands to be a convincing Round Mound of Rebound.

Joel Anthony, the center for the Miami Heat, is one of the better basketball players never imitated on the schoolyard court. When assigning alter egos, the young ones go for James, Bryant, Griffin, or the lone realist understanding his athletic deficiencies, Zach Randolph. The same might be said for William T. Vollmann, if kids were to arrange their desks together during recess and hold salons in place of tag, etc. Vollmann, for reasons I can’t understand, is rarely the sexy pick, but like Anthony is an incredible worker. They both show the extreme dedication to their craft and produce work that is not an end but a means to the end, bigger picture. Anthony does not lead any stat column, and is recognized only by announcers or coaches as an integral part of a team’s functionality. Vollmann writes incredibly long, involved narratives that seek to both entertain and educate his fellow humans; he is not merely satisfied with writing a book but is looking for a way to improve the well being of our species.

And that is the West’s starting five, full of empathy, emotion, and perhaps cooperation: Dave Eggers, Stephen Elliott, Stephen Malkmus, Sherman Alexie, and William T. Vollmann. The coach will be, has to be(?) Gordon Lish.

What then with the East?

Sticking to facts, I’m only aware of the previously mentioned Thomas Beller as a writer who can hold court. Beller said he’s slightly Joakim Noah, with a desire for Bernard King or Latrell Sprewell. Somehow that makes me put him at power forward and hope he can match his early stat line when he goes up against Alexie. His writing does arrive to us more controlled than what we might want for a natural power forward, but there is a beauty in it for certain. And given the occasional middle of the night Twitter rants about his beloved Knicks, it seems there might be something just “off” enough to provide for an energetic output on the floor. Surely my boys are far too old to lace up the appropriate shoes, but as long as we’ve made it this far it seems excusable to let the Michigan boys Thomas McGuane and Jim Harrison run the backcourt for the East. Both masters, McGuane worked through his selfish tendencies in Panama and has been writing for all of us ever sense. He’s engaged with the lives of his community whether it is Montana, Key West, or Michigan in the way the best of the point guards are in tune with their team. It might not be a straight success to label his best friend Harrison as selfish, but most females will attest to his perverted nature. That sexual, me first macho drive paired with his graceful exploration of nature makes for a convincing shooting guard. We’ll just ignore his fouled up eye.

Ben Marcus will fill the center position. He doesn’t have the size, his books aren’t the simple narrative you would see from a big man posting up all day in the lane, barely moving only if success is the guaranteed outcome, and there’s no information handy as to whether or not he can give a decent hook shot. The only thing Marcus has going for him is the fuzzy resemblance to Miami’s Žydrūnas Ilgauskas. Who else to assign to the small forward role than everyone’s favorite to dump on, Jonathan Franzen? Is it safe to say he is the LeBron James of the writing world? It’s not his fault the white suburban narrative is exhausted and he has a desire to keep cranking them out, but it does make him an easy target for the lazy critic. He just wants to write a great American novel, or an American novel. Just as it’s not James’s fault for ditching Cleveland in search of the ring. He is quite good at what he does and is just putting himself in a position to be recognized as so. Franzen’s Oprah fallout is James’s “Decision” special. Enemies lit across the board firing on pure emotion, and both came back stronger and more determined.

And the East then: Thomas McGuane, Jim Harrison, Jonathan Franzen, Thomas Beller, and Ben Marcus. It’s a tossup for who will have to coach this masculine group, Harold Bloom or James Wood. Both have the potential to go Bobby Knight midgame, but I like the freedom old age gives you and James Wood is just a little too young for such a position.

I’ve mailed out letters breaking down the logistics and necessities for this game to happen to all the appropriate agents, publishers, etc. Both Malkmus and Sherman Alexie are game. Harrison will only come if he can keep a jug of port in place of Gatorade or water. No one else confirmed one way or another yet, but it’s only a matter of time. Vegas has the East winning by 15; we will start taking bets next week.

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