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A basketball tome that's too ambitious, even for the supposed thinking man
Charles Hirshberg
November 19, 2001
Hoop Rootsby John Edgar Wideman/Houghton Mifflin, $24
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November 19, 2001

A Basketball Tome That's Too Ambitious, Even For The Supposed Thinking Man

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Hoop Roots
by John Edgar Wideman/ Houghton Mifflin, $24

Sports fans come in two varieties: those who surrender themselves to the hypnotic allure of athletics and those who can't do so without first asking themselves why sports matter so much. This book is intended for members of the second group, the so-called thinking fans.

Wideman has won numerous awards for his previous 15 books. He's also the father of former WNBA guard Jamila Wideman and was himself a star forward at Penn. He writes that he began the book because, at 59, it had become time to give up playground hoops, which for him has been more than a game. "Sport is art," he proclaims, and basketball, "like any other African-American art form, expresses and preserves, if you teach yourself how to look, the deep structure...of a culture."

This is a cerebral subject, even for a thinking fan. But there's more: In giving up playground ball, Wideman senses the drying up of his manhood and of his time on earth. The book is intended not only as an intellectual feast but also as a deeply personal memoir, full of family strife, racial tension and sexual anecdote.

That Hoop Roots is much too ambitious is evidenced by the inability of Wideman, a gifted writer, to make it work. He bounces like a basketball from one half-baked intellectual notion to another, comparing the game to jazz, to a carnival, to the Creole language of Martinique. Then, as if he knows he hasn't been persuasive, he launches into some dramatic personal tale, about the time he had an anxiety attack while climbing a Mayan pyramid or the time one of his graduate students celebrated her Ph.D. by hiking up her skirt and dancing a hootchy-kootchy atop his desk. At times he grows desperate. "If you believe nothing else," he writes, "please believe I am always struggling for other words." Alas, it's easy to believe.

Wideman should be praised for his courage in revealing his private self, but Hoop Roots left this thinking fan thinking, Perhaps there's such a thing as thinking too much.