PROFESSIONAL BASKETBALL, more so than any other organized sport, is loaded with the symbolic language of race. Within the vicarious, sensual embrace of spectatorship -- mediated and focused by the arcing flight of a leather ball -- there courses a hushed longing, filled with uneasy desire and misplaced expectations. It's at once the most overt and the most covert of power-laden discourses. Your average fan -- whether he realizes it or not, whether he even wants to think about it or not -- is enmeshed in a web of volatile racial tensions, 48 minutes of voyeurism which, despite its power, intricacy, and immediacy, is routinely unacknowledged or quietly, conspiratorially ignored.

David Shields is not your average basketball fan. Shields, a Seattle novelist and hopeless basketball junkie, spent the entire 1994-95 season doggedly tracking the Seattle Supersonics, play by play, game after game. This was no ordinary sports beat, though. The goal of Shield's quest was to document and then unpack the symbolic and linguistic play of racial themes twining in and around the National Basketball Association. His aim was to capture, through assiduous eavesdropping, diary-keeping, interviewing, and note-taking -- through what was in fact a very nebbish, eggheaded form of spectatorship -- the elusive reality of "how white people think about and talk about black heroes, black scapegoats, black bodies." The results are intriguing and depressing and hilarious, sometimes exhausting, and very often downright embarrassing, in that nakedly existential manner of the intimate confessional.

Black Planet adopts the highly personal and idiosyncratic form of the daily journal. The reader is privy to the meandering thoughts, domestic trivialities, and quotidian details, as well as the recurring themes and concerns, which comprise the inner life of one very smart, very self-critical, and painfully candid basketball fan. This particular fan (who happens to be a fine writer) constantly worries himself about the undertones and overtones of race in the NBA: how race manifests itself in words and deeds, through mass media and ordinary conversation, and also the devious ways in which it is hidden or politely obscured.

Shields' dated entries into this diary detail the manic ups and downs of what was, arguably, the most controversial and disheartening Sonics season to date. For all its necessary jock talk and statistic-mongering, Black Planet plays out like something of a soap opera. It's compulsively readable, with a cast of colorful characters swept along by a narrative that is topsy-turvy with conflict. Endless in-fighting among the players, management problems, chronic bitching and moaning, juicy gossip, allegations of drug abuse and laziness and greed, second guessing of tactics and motives -- this is the stuff of high drama. And to top it all off, this tragic charade of a season terminated in the Sonics' humiliating loss to the Los Angeles Lakers in the first round of the playoffs. Shields' timing was serendipitous, to say the least.

Throughout Black Planet, Shields maintains a hyped-up, ultra-sensitive alertness to racial content, whether he's transcribing the macho chatter of post-game call-in shows or picking apart his own ambivalent encounters with (and responses to) ethnicity. His sensitivity to racial issues -- and particularly to their more inadvertently symbolic or subconscious expression -- gives a coherence and a certain intellectual urgency to this collage of fact and fancy. Indeed, the primacy of racial concern acts like a current that buzzes and flows through the subject matter, drawing together the scattershot fragments of Shields' observations. Sometimes this theory-thick current dams up and virtually explodes from the page, overwhelming the material in a burst of mordant theorizing or angry, hilarious conjecture.

These outbursts represent the strongest sections of Black Planet. They have a dark slapstick quality, coming as they usually do after lulling pages of straight reportage; they are lightning-quick, shocking, insightful, and stingingly funny. In one such passage, after scribbling down a few snippets of undeniably homoerotic repartee from a call-in radio program, Shields blurts out this line, as though he just can't take it anymore: "It would be impossible to overstate the degree to which sports-talk radio is shadowed by the homosexual panic implicit in the fact that it consists almost entirely of a bunch of out-of-shape white men sitting around talking about black men's buff bodies." Moments such as these grant a startling relevancy to Shields' rambling encyclopedia of fandom; they elevate and give meaning to the rambling scraps of information which make up this odd treatise.

It is not the case, though, that Shields spends the entire book tearing apart the pathetic attributes of a life misspent watching other men play with balls. He adores the game, and really, much of Black Planet reads like a queasy, and perpetually unanswered love letter to the Sonics' trash-talking point guard, Gary Payton. Payton, in fact, is the book's protagonist. Shields obsessively returns to this flashy, talented player as though to a pet motif. What Shields finds so fascinating and compelling about Payton is his conflation, on and off the court, of language and performance -- the way in which the cadences and poetic irregularities of Payton's hiphoppy dialect both fuel and reinforce his actions. "So much of what I admire about Payton," he writes, "is the indivisibility for him of playing and talking, of life and language." Payton represents, to the language-focused Shields, the epitome of black cool -- an idealized attitude that predominantly white, middle-class fans simultaneously appropriate and fear.

Black Planet is a seminal work on a largely ignored topic (as Shields states at the outset: "Race, the league's taboo topic, is the league's true subject"). As a groundbreaking study, it's as interesting and exciting as it is short on satisfying conclusions. One gets the sense that Shields has pried opened the Pandora's Box of race, and then, frantically yet admirably, attempted to jot down the specific nature of its cascading contents. Sometimes the book feels out of control, and Shields -- perhaps for good reason -- appears reluctant to rein it in with a definitive authorial stance. These are minor concerns, though. Black Planet is an important book -- one which bravely confronts the seemingly unmentionable workings of race in the NBA, and which also challenges long-standing, and relatively unsophisticated, notions about what it really means to "watch sports."

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