In 1997 John Edgar Wideman wrote an essay for Esquire magazine called “The Silence of Thelonious Monk,” about love and poetry and words (all that jazz), the sublime way in which the quiet between a maestro’s key strokes elicits the glory of all of the above, and about Paris, too. Wideman penned the work, or at least framed its reflections, around his own sojourn in that hub of western culture and democracy and romance and empire and revolution, Gaul—safe haven for so many black American performers, artists, thinkers, and radicals over the postmodern years.
In that piece or perhaps another, Wideman compared the quiet of Monk’s melodic pauses with the basketball artistry of the Chicago Bulls’s Scottie Pippen, number 33, who mastered accompaniment of the GOAT (“Greatest of All Time,” for those who aren’t familiar with the bop-bop-bop and be of ball), Michael Jordan. The quiet in how Pip handled the leather opened opportunities for contemplation, improvisation, and movement—or the possibility thereof as long as the player followed coach’s word and staved off ball watching. (Watch his midsection instead. Then you’ll anticipate where he’s going with the rock. He can’t get there without his torso.)
PEN/Faulkner, O. Henry, Cooper, Rea award-winning MacArthur genius Wideman observed a learned fluidity in Pip’s game. At six-foot-eight (with arms and legs about the evolution of which Howard Cosell or Jimmy the Greek might’ve posed some rather interesting theories) Pip strung long to the ground as primary ball handler for the Bulls. Solitude seen in his torso, slender silence in the grace of each on-court movement.
Some might’ve proposed that the anomalous melody in Pip’s moves was a product of his late-adolescent growth. Or that he learned the game as a shorter point guard and was forced to dominate and defend on the highest stage, next to the GOAT, who demanded that he himself command the symphonic game if not the ball itself. So Pip had to train his limbs to dance economically, efficiently, while manipulating meaningful harmony to make the Big Chief’s triangle chime. Sounding silently, yet necessarily.
But Wideman didn’t say any of that. He just suggested a link between Monk’s long, luscious fingers, with their halting bop from A to E and back again, and the game of the all-star forward. Then he moved on. Wideman has written about love, race, loss, home, and his own wayward brother—imprisoned as an accomplice to murder—in the most stealth, eloquent, and evocative prose. But no subject has culled from him the same silent joy and bop-and-scat melody of language as the sublime game.
Almost 70 now, Wideman learned basketball coming up in Pittsburgh, in the Homewood neighborhood (also the wellspring of August Wilson) and played for much of his life. In another essay, he writes, Updike fashion, of having to forgo it in late middle age due to the toll it took on joints per the ravages of so many asphalt courts: forlorn, wrestling with acquiescence to the body. He’s collected his stories and essays in two books—Hoop Roots and God’s Gym—that use the game of basketball (I still love how Jordan utters that phrase, “the game of basketball”: all Brooklyn via Wilmington via Chapel Hill via swishing Greek messenger gods and ghostly shadows of the Henry Horner project) as a catalyst for fiction and creative truth. Hoop and harmony, love and basketball, mastery, silence, and the bop between—this is the work, in my ear, played by the radically great mind of John Edgar Wideman.