Who's to say? Maybe it's enough for you. After all, they're playing the game on a shiny hardwood surface, and it moves with such beauty and ferocity across that surface...maybe that's sufficient. Perhaps you can stick your hand on a radiator and know all you need to know about heat. But if only you could hear, in the silence between sneaker squeak and ball bounce, the other drama being played out. If only you could see what brought each of these 10 people to this shiny wood, what makes them race and leap and dive across it, then you would know the true heat and beauty of the game.
There's no time for that, of course. But what if you understood, say, just one of the 10? Then you would have at least some notion of this other place where the game unfolds, this furnace room that heats it. Say, for instance, the most obvious player out there, the littlest and quickest one, the relentless feet and the ponytail—did I fail to mention that this is women's basketball? No, too hue, now she's over there in the coiner, the one in the Stanford uniform playing jaw-to-jaw defense, pressing even when her team isn't pressing, the one thieving and threading through everyone else, dribbling behind her back, between her legs, deceiving left, dishing right, running the whole damn show—no, you must look quicker. Over there, streaking up the sideline now, everyone's all-American in high school, one of the leading characters in a best-selling book, the daughter of one of America's most distinguished writers, the sister of the damned, the niece of the doomed—missed her again, huh? Right baseline now, the 5'6" point guard who helped steer Stanford to the Final Four the last two years only to be shipwrecked each time in the semifinals, and who's hell-bent to not let it happen to her No. 3-ranked team again this year, this month, her final shot. Too late, too late again—she's just too quick, and there are just too many pieces to her; the eyes cannot fix Jamila Wideman with one look.
Even when you think you've caught her. you haven't, because how can you see black when you're looking at white, or see a murder in a man-to-man press, and how can you hear the point guard's brother saying, "I feel helpless for the destruction I have caused, and hate myself for it," or her other brother saying, "In a single overwhelming instant I realized that I was...the sole Black male Wideman of my generation not behind bars or beneath the ground," or her father saying, "Fear marched along beside guilt.... Fear that I was contaminated and would carry the poison wherever I ran," or her mother saying, "I'm not going to check either box! The baby's not black! The baby's not white! I don't care who you send in here to convince me!" And how could you possibly, as Jamila flies past midcourt on a two-on-one break, flip to page 2 of one of her dad's novels and read words that could have been ripped right from her throat: See, cause I wanted to scream. I wanted to cut loose and tell somebody how scared I was.... Needed to scream worser than I ever needed to pee ...or needed anything I can think of. But I knew if I'da screamed I'd be gone. If I screamed I'd be like them other poor suckers screaming and flying away. That scream would take me with it.
Stop. Stop right there. Calm is what's called for here. A little distance. The writer who's going to have any chance of understanding the furnace can't jam his head inside it.
But it's easy for the writer to lose his bearings when he's an outsider stepping inside the door of a family of writers such as the Widemans and trying to write what is too close, too suffocating for them to write. There's John Edgar Wideman, the black father and two-time PEN/Faulkner Award-winning author, upstairs in his writing room in Amherst, Mass., working on his 14th book. There's Judy Wideman, the white mother who at 52 earned her law degree and ranked second in her class, down the hall from John, writing briefs in her battle against the death penalty. There's their son Danny, at 28 the editor of a published anthology of black authors' works, bent over his notepad at his new home in Durham, N.C., writing his own books of nonfiction and fiction. There's Danny's brother, Jake, 27, writing haiku and short stories as he selves a life sentence in Florence, Ariz. And there's their sister, Jamila, 21, in her apartment near Stanford, writing in stream-of-consciousness flurries in her journal. But perhaps the smoke is still too dense where the Widemans are, the blank page too flammable for this story to conic from their hands.
An entirely different story could be written from inside the guts of the couple whose son was murdered by Jamila's brother. Who can imagine what it was like for them to send a child to summer camp 11 years ago and then get a phone call saying he was dead? But this is not a story about the death, nor a back-and-forth story about the families, nor any attempt to put the Widemans' grief up against the grief of the parents who got that call. It's a story about a young woman who will be on TV this month trying to lead her team to a national title, one who knows now that so much of who she is, as a person and a player, is connected to her family history and to a tragedy. So here the writer goes, stepping gingerly, sensing how much there is to be learned about a game, but beyond that about a person, and a family, and a country, all engaged in a similar struggle, the struggle that everything rides on. to see if all their pieces, their many pieces, can be held together, or if they must blow apart.
Start simply this time. Start one summer evening, 1986, with a 10-year-old at a summer camp in the woods of Maine, the only girl among 350 boys. Jamila, the one exception, because her mom's father, Mort Goldman, owns and runs Camp Takajo, and because she can run circles around half the boys, and because she can bunk in the nearby cottage her grandfather built so her family of five could live at the camp each summer. It's not just any evening. Tonight's the musical variety show, and Jamila's got the curtain-closer. Her 17-year-old brother, Danny, one of the camp counselors, will accompany her on piano. Her uncle John Henry will be playing trumpet. Too bad her 16-year-old brother, Jake, won't be there—he's off on the camping trip out West that the older campers traditionally take—but she knows her parents will be. Everything she and her two brothers have ever done, Judy and John have been right there, hooting and hollering for all they're worth...so where are they now, Jamila wonders. her eyes sweeping the audience seat by seat?
She's going to sing If You Don't Believe, a song she loves by Deniece Williams. Jamila, you see, has this dilemma, the same one her brothers have. Her dad is black, and for a week each year, they visit their relatives in one of America's bleakest ghettos, the Homewood section of Pittsburgh. But Jamila's skin is white, or perhaps a pale olive—you might guess she's Italian—and she has lived her 10 years in a middle-class white section of Laramie, Wyo., the ranching and college town where her father teaches literature and creative writing. How can she straddle Laramie and Homewood? Already she's beginning to form a way of talking, slipping in a y'all here and there, droppin' a consonant at the tail of a verb, nothing extreme, just a gentle, middle-ground diction that flies just fine in either world. Already she has sucked in the sociopolitical discussions whizzing around her dinner table, drawn a deep breath, climbed onto the cafeteria stage of her elementary school at lunchtime. grabbed the microphone and talked half of the school into walking out to demand a holiday on Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday. Done it so adroitly, in fact, that her principal immediately called an assembly so the issue could be discussed before the entire school. Already she has stood up, when her fourth-grade teacher tried to downplay the horror of U.S. slavery by emphasizing how many other civilizations have engaged in the practice, and declared, "My family were slaves once!" Standing this evening in front of a campful of affluent Jews and singing this black woman's soul song is one more hook-and-eye attempt to stitch the pieces together.
Nervous? Sure she is. But not too nervous. Jamila is accustomed to the head-turning, the stares, the buzz each time she races onto the basketball court for the layup drill before a game against another all-male camp—That little squirt, that GIRL, she's on their team? She's going to START? She can live with that. She has been watching her dad play every weekend in pickup games against college players half his age. She's been mimicking his moves, practicing one-on-one, no-holds-barred, against her two older brothers. She's been provoking the whole crowd at Laramie High to roar with each of the little squirt's 15-foot shots at half-time of her brothers' high school games, and to boo Danny and Jake's team when it comes out of the locker room and displaces her on the court.
She's a precocious child with deep, dark, sensitive pools for eyes, calm and wise way past her years. At five Jamila could already do what the great point guards do, what most adults go to their graves without mastering: make the imaginative leap from her own consciousness to someone else's. One day the Widemans were wedged in an endless line of cars on a bridge, exhausted after a long day of travel, and the children were listening to their father fume about all the people blocking the way. "John, John, why don't you hush up?" came a squeaky voice from the backseat. "Don't you know you're just traffic to all those other people?"