MATTHEW: David, your book convincingly locates NBA action in such homoerotic territory -- white men looking at, idolizing, envying, loving black men's bodies. While I don't experience the race dynamic so totally consciously as you do (for instance, Gary Payton is not half as sexy as Sacramento's Jason Williams, I say), I think your point about the manly sex subtext of the NBA was right on. So speaking of Jason Williams, what did you make of the endless repetition locally and nationally, for weeks on end, of that three-second moment last season when Jason Williams froze Gary Payton with a ridiculous move, then blew past him for the lay-up? The intense focus on and savoring of it in the media astonished me. But what I'm wondering is, wasn't all that intensity more of a boyfriend problem than a race thing? It was like the sexiest new boy had just arrived in town, and let everyone know it.
DAVID: Well, the thing is, the move wasn't ridiculous; it was amazing. It was a boyfriend thing, I suppose, but it seems hard to miss how it's a race thing, too. Jason Williams, who grew up in the same town as Randy Moss (the Minnesota Viking wide receiver), in the deepest South -- Mississippi? Whose entire identity is derived from black culture, black style. The reason it kept getting played over and over and over in the media was that Gary Payton -- defender of defenders -- got faked "out of his jock" (boyfriend thing?) by a white boy whose style is black. This was too good to be true, for white-boy-wanna-be-black-boys everywhere.
The whole Jason Williams as "White Chocolate" stuff I love, too. A Kings beat reporter for the Sacramento Bee, quizzed about the controversy regarding the White Chocolate nickname, told The New York Times, "No organization can deal with race. Not the Sac[ramento] Kings. Not the NBA. Not my paper. Not your paper." The NBA is where race is so omnipresent -- in this lone province young black men rule -- that by not dealing with it, you're really, really dealing with it. Do you have a mad crush on Jason Williams?
MATTHEW: Well, I had a mad crush on Jason before he shaved his head. And by the way, yeah I meant the move was amazing; "ridiculous" was just my cool way of saying so. And the move was not any kind of fake at all: He stopped and looked like he was doing absolutely nothing. No up fake, side fake, no fake anywhere, just sudden dull, motionless, pothead vacancy so that Payton had nothing to read him by, and then Jason blew past him.
Naively maybe, I think Jason's cool, and not imitation-black cool, which is why the "White Chocolate" tag was so dumb. Partly he's a bratty kid, partly he looks picked on, partly he could give a shit, partly he's an unrepentant pothead (got kicked out of college ball for it). In any case, his cool kind of exposes the limits of that binary race/cool stuff. He's not acting black, or if he is, that's not what's cool about him. One of the latent issues behind your race analysis gets exposed by his cool. He's poor country white trash. As much as race, class is the matrix by which our NBA projections get formed. [Look at] Grant Hill: His good, middle-class manners undermine so much of his superstar cool, he's dragging way behind Jason Williams on almost everyone's sex-o-meter. I mean, isn't he?
DAVID: Grant Hill is the Huxtable Hero and, as such, is disgusting to me; this has to do with class, I suppose, but it also has a hell of a lot to do with race: Who wants black athletes acting so square? What's hilarious is when Hill tries to act down. It like's Paul Schell getting busy.
MATTHEW: You lost me on the Grant Hill thing. Personally, I'm all for more square black athletes. It still seems evident to me that class is the engine that powers race issues in basketball, even such capricious and unstable race issues as what's cool and who turns you on. Which is why black/white dichotomies fall apart where class divisions run counter to the norm. An upper-middle class or Ivy League -- even a preacher's son -- black player resists many of our habitual projections onto black athletes in the same way that a lower-class, white country pothead-type like Jason Williams invites them. We're used to thinking it's the black body that's so available for our fantasies about sex and power, but I'm saying it's not just that, it's also class; it's also the well-off making romantic fantasy projections back onto poverty. And it is also the adult man projecting onto the boy -- or the man he likes to call a boy or "man-child" -- his own sorry appetite for virility.
As an enthusiastic gay fan, I've got to ask you, what keeps the straight fan from wanting to have sex with the idealized player? I noticed in your book you imagined yourself as Gary Payton one time while having sex with your wife, and the description of Payton made him sound a little like a 6' 4" erection, but why no fantasy-sex with him?
DAVID: "Tall, thin, and muscular" -- give me a little credit, Matthew. I can spot a phallus when I see one. I think, too, I can spot a persona when I see one as well. To me, the David Shields character in the book is me, but is also, quite clearly, a stylized figure of myself -- someone through whom I want many cultural tendencies to flow, one of which is displaced sex. I like Gary Payton a lot; I'm not sure I've ever literally thought about him at bedtime. I want/wanted to be him; I don't want to do him.
MATTHEW: I'm thinking the problem with the whole league since [the Detroit championship years] is how unwavering the worship of strength and abhorrence of weakness has been. It's the least sexy part of NBA action, this styleless devotion to monster strength, plus the pathological fear of weakness. Even your book's disquiet with [former Sonic] Kendall Gill comes because he appears weak. Gary is never weak. To be weak is the lowest put-down. And this unites the intellectual world of the book and the physical world of the sport, this universal hunger for strength and kind of perpetual panic about weakness. "Muscular prose." "Masterful reasoning." Eeek.
DAVID: I'm all for weakness. I think I even quote John Hawkes in my book -- failure is the only subject. Yes, I'm discomfited by Gill's weakness, but only because it's so familiar to me. He's myself; Payton isn't.
Speaking of weakness, here's my terrible confession -- I have never actually seen the videotape of Jason Williams' move on Payton. I've read numerous descriptions of it, but since the '94-'95 season I've seen relatively little basketball. I couldn't admit that I hadn't actually seen the move, which has of course achieved Rodney King-like echo-myth status in my mind from all of its (reported) repetition.
MATTHEW: That Gill business got creepiest to me when it began to seem evident that [former Sonic] Coach Karl resented Gill mostly for Gill's amazing feminine beauty, and because that beauty triggered Coach's own submerged homo desire; in a different century Karl would have simply disemboweled and burned Gill. Instead, he tortured him through coaching.
DAVID: I missed the Vancouver-Sonics game last night, but I heard on delay Calabro's call of Vernon Maxwell hitting a three with five seconds left to win it. I suppose this is all very easy stuff, but the adrenaline rush of Calabro's call -- the joy of that -- the delight in Vernon Maxwell -- the cool thing of Maxwell getting hot and staying hot -- you respond to this, don't you? You're enough of a rooter that you thrill to the dagger, don't you? Maxwell is one of just a handful of players in the history of the NBA to ever score 30 points in a single quarter; he apparently can get so hot, can feel it so completely, that it's not "zone" or "groove"; it's heroin. One of my favorite sports memories is when I was 14 or so, and several friends of mine and I were playing all-night 5-on-5 in total darkness; you adjusted. I was so hot that I let go of a jumper from the deepest left corner and just from the way it left my hand, my backcourt mate slapped me five; I knew; and he knew I knew; communication since has gotten more oblique.
MATTHEW: I'm deeply moved by NBA dominance when my heroes are vanquishing my enemies (say, Sacramento running Utah into the ground, or Shawn Kemp blocking Michael Jordan's short jumper in the NBA Finals). When displays of grace and strength are that celestial, I can't deny the adrenaline urge to leap and scream. But if the play is anything less than pure, other-worldly perfection, the pumped-up excitement of it all starts to feel fakey and kind of desperate. Most NBA highlights remind me of playground ball, where the emotional needs of the players are so much greater than their skills, an awful lot of fist-pumping and growling and shouting goes on around very little accomplishment. So it's pretty rare for me to "thrill to the dagger."
As for playground ball, I love it and played every day I could for at least 15 years, but I never, ever wanted my team to get a lead of more than one or two points. To lose by one or two points felt -- still feels -- a lot better than winning by a lot. I got so much shit from fellow regulars on W. 13th Street in New York, my local playground for seven years, 'cause I often preferred losing; I took no pleasure in dominance, was embarrassed by it, even on those rare occasions when I got hot or could dominate.
DAVID: Oh, god, I'm not for dominance; I'm for dominance as compensation for weakness -- the ultimate weakness. Your story about W. 13th reminds me of that great moment in Bill Russell's book Second Wind, in which he talks about a particular game, the happiest game of his life, apparently, in which he was delighted that the other team -- Oscar's Royals? Wilt's Sixers? West's Lakers? -- was scoring at the same clip that his Celtics were. Back and forth they went, matching hoops. Russell was delighted that the rhythm got kept up, point after point. He wanted the other team to score in order to maintain his own joy. You have to be incredibly secure to want this; of course, Russell had probably already accumulated seven championships at this point.
MATTHEW: I loved, still love, that court at W. 13th Street I used to fear for my life whenever I returned to NYC from a West Coast vacation. Once, arriving at Port Authority in the dead middle of the night, I got swarmed by a dozen freelance bag-handlers. And there, suddenly, like an angel, drugged-out in the middle of the threatening bag grabbers, was a nameless 13th St. pal who smiled when he saw me, elbowed the others aside, and took me to his cab. Basketball gave a bunch of us solidarity, even though economics and habit surely could've driven us to kill each other in any other place in the city.