Ancestor Work In Street Basketball

The basketball court is a place where young black men feel comfortable mourning death, but are there crucial elements missing from their grieving practices?

Onaje X. O. Woodbine | Excerpt adapted from Black Gods of the Asphalt: Religion, Hip-Hop, and Street Basketball | Columbia University Press | August 2018 | 25 minutes (6,825 words)

The spirit of the dead must live its life one more time in an accelerated fashion before departing to the realm of the ancestors. . . . It is believed that doing what was once done frees the living from the dead and vice versa.

— Malidoma Patrice Some, Ritual

I had just attended the 2013 Community Awareness Tournament in Roxbury. It was dark. I walked aimlessly along St. Mary’s Street near Boston University. Painful images of the young boys and men of Roxbury flooded my head. That afternoon Russell had asked me to read Marvin’s “Let It Be Magic” poem at halftime to the crowd. I couldn’t do it. Grief racked my body. I left the game. Tears rolled down my eyes as the full impact of the interviews and stories of Boston’s black young men hit me. This wasn’t a few suffering individuals — it was a collective injury. Take Marlon, whom I mention in the introduction. He was a long and skinny six-foot-two-inch player from Roxbury, versatile as a Swiss army knife. He shot threes from deep, made defenders fall with his hesitation dribble, and dunked on players off of one leg. A rhythmic beat reverberated through his head and the sound would grip his body during games:

It seemed like I always had a song going in my head, but I never knew what the song was. That’s just how my game was. It felt like I was dancing on the court. It’s not trying to show off, it’s just how my mind was going and obviously achieved. My mind had a song and I’m bumping to it in my head so now on the court it got me — I’m about to go dunk on somebody or I’m about to go shoot somebody’s lights out. I’m about to cross somebody. It was funny, it’s like I don’t know how many dudes that I made fall just from a simple move. Not even a crossover. A quick step and like “see you later.” Go down, roll it, dunk it.

Marlon, however, was almost raped by his abusive stepfather in a pissy Boston housing project building as a child. Fortunately, he fought him off, dressed his little sister, and hustled down several miles of snow-filled sidewalks to his grandmother’s apartment. His biological father was in prison and his mother was a drug addict, like so many parents of other ballplayers that I interviewed. “I’d run into somebody that was always like, ‘Your mom just copped [bought] some morphine,’ ” explained Marlon. “I tell them, don’t sell nothing to my mom. I’ll kill you. That’s what I tell a person. It’s like, ‘little n***er get the fuck out of here. You ain’t got no gun.’ ‘Oh, I don’t. Okay, be right back.’ [I’d] walk right into the projects. Saw one of the older dudes that know my mother and know my father like, ‘yo’ such and such this and such and such is my mom’s.’ ‘Here take that . . .’ ” and the older gangster would hand him a gun.

The full impact of the interviews and stories of Boston’s black young men hit me. This wasn’t a few suffering individuals — it was a collective injury.

Marlon’s mother was his biggest fan before she contracted HIV and died. After her death, he was so grief-stricken that he stopped playing altogether. He turned to marijuana and alcohol to keep the pain at bay. After bingeing on drugs one night and falling asleep, he dreamed of his mother, who told him:

“Put that [alcohol] shit down. Get your shit together and get on that court.” So that following year, sophomore year, came I balled all on out. Made it all the way. Only sophomore on the team playing with nothing but juniors and seniors. Played with one of the street-ball legends . . . Jay . . . He was on my team. . . . Yeah, she told me to get my shit together. I jumped out of my sleep sweating and crying.

Marlon’s dream was a wake-up call. He returned to the basketball court, even though heartbroken. Tears rolled down my face as I thought about Marlon, imagining him running in the snow, sister in arms, fleeing a rapist, mother dead, HIV, playing hoops in order to keep a small part of himself alive. I peered down St. Mary’s hill to Boston University’s Martin Luther King Jr. memorial. The doves of peace atop the statue were lit up as if ascending toward the sky. Even so, I only felt hopelessness thinking about young black men in exile in the dark of the night. I thought about Jamal, a young African American ball player whose mother was fourteen when she gave birth to him. The grandparents who raised him were crack addicts. He didn’t really know his father. Jamal went to the basketball court to express the pain he experienced at home and to bond with guys who shared similar stories. Being on the asphalt meant he didn’t have to carry the burden of his family’s struggles alone. “[Basketball] was a getaway, it was a means to just to get away from all the stuff that was going in my household, and when you’re around a bunch of kids, peers your age that are going through the same thing that love this game the same way. They found at this young age that we could express our self in there.”

Jamal’s grandfather was his greatest male role model, especially when he finally quit using narcotics. In fact, Jamal’s whole family became drug-free by the time he reached high school, and they were thrilled when Jamal was selected to play basketball for a predominately white and affluent prep school in Connecticut. On Thanksgiving Day, however, as Jamal prepared for a basketball game, his beloved grandfather passed away. “That was a big loss,” he reflected. “That was like the last or the only father figure I had at that time that would push me.”

During the game with his team at Dupont Prep, Jamal intended to mourn the loss of his grandfather on the basketball court. However, he was far away from home and his coaches, fans, and other players could not understand how he was using basketball to vent his frustrations and sorrow. In the midst of his sense of isolation, all of his shots careened off the rim, and he interpreted the missed goals as a sign of the ritual’s failure. Soon after the game, he rejected basketball and spirituality altogether, eventually turning to drugs:

It was horrible, I might have went oh for fifteen. I had a horrible game. . . .

I couldn’t even focus on the game honestly it was just more so I just kept thinking about [my grandfather].

During the game, crying at halftime like I couldn’t even . . . I thought I could deal with it but I really couldn’t, and I thought I could go out here and this would be a means for me to get away from that. But I couldn’t and that was a real tough time.

I’m at a prep school so I’m around a lot of people that don’t really truly understand how we actually really like live honestly, honest like truly live. I’m talking about I’m at school with the Duponts and the real prestigious families. They honestly had no clue whatsoever how we was living.

And it’s crazy because after I lost my grandfather I was done with church and done with all that, I buried that. And it got to a point where I didn’t care about ball, I started to abuse marijuana more, I started to hang with gang members more. I started doing all the negativity.

Images of Jamal playing basketball for his beloved grandfather flowed through my mind. Much like C.J., he had not been able to really mourn. I wondered what would eventually happen in Jamal’s life, and in the life of his children, if he never got to reconcile his relationship with his grandfather.

Baron, my informant, was another ballplayer who had been acquainted with far too much violence and death. In fact, he came close to dying himself. Ever since he was a child Baron had taken out all his anger on the basketball court:

My thing is, I don’t think I ever really let out childhood anger except but on the court. It definitely gave me an outlet, because when you are eight to thirteen you fight on the street, you fight in school, you fight on the court, whatever, you get in trouble. In basketball you don’t get in trouble. You can punch somebody’s ball, yell. You can steal the ball, run, get tired, box out, get rebounds, use all these different type of tactics to make your opponent feel like, this kid’s a problem, this kid’s a beast. He might not be able to shoot, he might not be able to jump, but he’s a headache on the rebounds. He just doesn’t let up. He doesn’t quit. So by the end of the game my own mind is, by the second quarter, four or five minutes left in the second half, if I’m tired, you’re dirt tired. That’s how I felt. If I get a little bit tired, I’m looking at my opponent like, if I’m tired, he’s dead tired.

I needed to cry, not just because of the premature death of loved ones but because I had to leave my neighborhood and culture behind in order to tell this story.

Baron’s mother was also a crack addict, and his father was a random guy he passed by on the street once in a while. Sometimes they said “hello.” He hated the Department of Social Services group homes he attended. Psychiatrists there would pump his body with pharmaceutical drugs to suppress his anger.

DSS programs try to use a drug to calm you down . . . like lithium, zipamine, repamine. These are all the different drugs they say calm you down, make sure you’re relaxed for the day. None of that stuff ever works. If you going to fight you going to fight regardless. A drug can’t tell you, it’s not going to make you not fight. So it got to a point where they was like, we can’t do nothing with him. So they pretty much kicked me out.

The day Baron was almost killed he was trying to protect his sister, who had been living in a violent area on Akron Street:

I mean you had like three different gangs up and down Akron. So all I knew is once one gun shot went off everyone started shooting, everyone! It didn’t matter. Um, there was a kid in a wheelchair, he had guns! It was like I knew everybody out there. Everybody out there. It was crazy. I had nothing to do with it. Nothing to do with it at all.

I ended up being shot five times, in the neck, twice in my back, in the butt and in my leg. I kind of ran through it to get to my house because I was on the opposite side of the street, and I ran through it to get my sister off the porch. When I got in the house, in the hallway there was just blood everywhere and I thought it was her, so when I got up I’m like, “yo, you’re bleeding!” She’s like, “it’s not me, it’s you!” And once I noticed it [snaps his fingers] it’s like you can feel it now, the sting, burning! Still didn’t drop, but now I’m feeling my neck ’cause my neck is on fire! I’m feeling both sides of my back, the one in my leg kind of, it grazed me more than hit me, so I wasn’t really worried but I’m feeling my neck, like something’s wrong! And now I’m leaking with blood! I just dropped. The next time I woke up I was in the hospital.

Baron eventually recovered from his wounds in the hospital, but his brush with death changed his personality. He was angry all of the time, always two seconds away from exploding. Baron has lost several friends and family to death — so many, he stopped counting. But one stands out, a young man named Ty, whom Baron calls his “little brother.” Ty was one of the few ball players who made it out of Roxbury and into college. Then one day, right on the hardwood, he just died. Baron was devastated.

That Thursday he played against one of my friends from the projects, Bobby. And I get a phone call from Bobby after their game. “Um, you know Ty passed out on the court. I think he’s alright. They took him to the hospital. I’ll call you later.” So when I called him back he was like, “yeah man, he passed out man.” So I kind of froze like, “is he alright?” “I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know.” I hung up the phone with him. He said his coach called a meeting with all the players or whatever. He said he would call me back.

Once I hung up the phone with him, Desmond called me. And everyone knew that me and Ty were like big brother, little brother. I looked at him more than a little brother than a lot of people in my family. Desmond called me and said, “I’m sorry to tell you this but Ty just died.” And I said, “D, don’t tell me that because Bobby told me he was alright.” Sure enough the phone beeps and it’s Bobby on the other line crying, and he said that they pronounced him dead pretty much on the basketball court but he was dead at the hospital.

Baron decided to go to the basketball court on the day of the church funeral to honor Ty’s memory. He designed the ritual himself: a walk with Ty’s family members to the court, a moment of reflection, pictures of Ty’s face on everyone’s uniform, an outpouring of tears before stepping onto the court, interpreting his made baskets as a sign of Ty’s approval.

The day of um, my little brother’s funeral, Ty Jones, um, it was a Thursday, and we had a game . . . [sighs] I had about thirty that game. And I remember I got some T-shirts made up with his face on them. And right after the funeral a few people went out to eat. I think I went home and just relaxed. The game was like at seven o’clock. I went to the game with some of the members from his family, from his mother’s side and some of my friends. . . .

And every, I mean I got his tattoo on my arm, his initials, every game I go to the game I kiss my tattoo before the game, after the game, during the game, and I pretty much live through that man. Because he was a person, he didn’t bother nobody. He loved life. He loved family, he loved friends, he loved air! He loved the sun, he loved rain, everything! He just loved life! And to see someone like that go, it just put life in a whole different perspective as far as what are we really doing here? What’s your purpose? He served a purpose by touching out to us and making sure that we seen somebody who actually came here for twenty-two years.

As I wandered down St. Mary’s hill, the accumulation of these painful narratives became overwhelming. How was it possible that so many of Boston’s young black men shared these experiences? I thought about my own unexpressed grief over the deaths of Marvin and Manny. I needed to cry, not just because of the premature death of loved ones but because I had to leave my neighborhood and culture behind in order to tell this story.

At least through basketball, I was slowly returning home. G-Big was a chubby boy who first initiated me into street basketball when I was nine years old. C.J. called me up one day from Roxbury with G-Big standing next to him. “Oh, I have a surprise for you. Hold on.” C.J. handed over his cell phone: “Oh, it’s me, your boy G-Big! Did C.J. tell you?” “What?” I said excitedly, glad to hear G-Big’s voice for the first time in fifteen years. “My baby’s mother, she was murdered.” “What? Oh, I am so sorry, man. So sorry,” I responded, staring down at my cell phone. Our first conversation in years and those were his first words. G-Big’s girlfriend had been shot with an AK-47 and died on the spot. We hung up quickly. I haven’t dialed his number again.

All Buddy’s friends were wrestling with how to honor his life and death through basketball. Some thought that Buddy deserved a perfect game and rattled with emotion; they tried to control the outcome of every play.

G-Big’s girlfriend was murdered near Jermaine’s house. I ran into Jermaine at one of the Save R Streets Basketball Classics. When he learned that I was writing a book about basketball, he urged me to visit his apartment a few days later so that he could share his story. “Basketball is everything,” he told me.

It has been the tool to my life to make me who I am. Without it, I don’t know if I would be who I am. I know that point blank. Without basketball, will Jermaine be Jermaine? Would I know as many people? Would I walk the same? Would I talk the same? No, I would be someone totally different. I don’t know what I would have done. . . . But this is who I am and basketball has made my life. There has to be part chromosome in there [in his DNA] with some stripes on it somewhere or something.

I found out that as a child Jermaine lacked proper food to eat. His mother and father raised him in a “drug-infested environment,” and when he was three years old, he had to run across Brook Avenue to steal food from the local store. One day a car slammed into Jermaine’s body, which is how the Department of Social Services discovered his home situation and placed him in the care of his grandmother. She meant everything to him during his early years.

Eventually Jermaine’s father moved in with Jermaine and his grandmother. His father also brought along his new wife and her son after divorcing Jermaine’s mother, who continued to abuse drugs. It was confusing and painful, but he turned to the basketball court, where he was free to be himself.

It’s like church. It’s like going into that silent time when you are just down. Everything you want to do, everything that you can think of, you’re just doing it and trying it. There is like there are no faults, it’s just you and the two goals and these lines. So I just felt the feeling of freedom. Being able to do whatever I want to do and nobody is going to judge me. If I miss it or if I make it, no whistle is going to go off. So it’s just freedom man, just straight freedom.

Jermaine had lost loved ones in the streets as well. After his mentor and basketball coach, Buddy Taylor, died suddenly, Jermaine decided to play in a game to honor his memory. However, when he arrived at the court, he realized that he was the youngest player on a team full of Buddy’s older friends. Jermaine felt intimidated and self-conscious about the possibility that he might make a mistake on the court. He did not want Buddy’s older friends to view his missteps on the court as a sign of disrespect to Buddy’s memory.


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But in fact all Buddy’s friends were wrestling with how to honor his life and death through basketball. Some thought that Buddy deserved a perfect game and rattled with emotion; they tried to control the outcome of every play.

That experience was very intense because I played with the guys. I knew Buddy growing up. He was one of my older guys that I looked up to. And the guy that I played for, those were his friends. They were his legitimate hangout buddies right there to that day. And as soon as the ball went up and a couple fouls were called, it was so emotional. I want to tear up now just thinking about it because it was very, very emotional. There were dudes crying and screaming. The game was emotionally packed. I am going to tell you his friends; they were his high school buddies. As a matter of fact, they played twelve-and-under with this guy. That’s how close they were. And just playing in the game was like, everybody wants to be the hero just for him. It was all for him. Everything was for him. We had to win this for him. We have to do this for him. And when they put me in I kind of like was, “man, I want to go in because I know him, but I want to do so well and I don’t want to mess up. I don’t want no one mad at me.”

The guy that coached pulled us to the side and said, “listen, if you guys are going to play for him, then play for him. But don’t go out there and embarrass yourself because you are trying to play too outside yourself. Just play within yourself and play for him.” And we won one game and lost the next one, but it was a hard-fought victory . . . people were talking to him. “This is for you Buddy.” And just, “miss you.” It was crazy man. I want to say that it was so long ago, it was like ten years ago man. I can’t believe that he’s been gone that long. He has been gone that long.

As Commonwealth Avenue grew silent late into the night, an overwhelming sense of sadness weighed on me. The basketball court was obviously a place where young black men felt comfortable mourning death, but I still had so many unanswered questions. Did these grief rituals have a basic structure, and if so, what were its key elements? If young men were mourning on the court, why did their feelings of anger and violence not dissipate thereafter? Were crucial elements missing from their grieving practices, elements that kept black men from forgiving themselves and bearing no malice toward others?

“I Could Have Died and Went to Heaven Right There”

In an attempt to answer these questions, I examine NBA player Chris Paul’s memorial game for his grandfather, “Papa Chilli,” through the lens of ritual theory. Paul’s grief ritual, which occurred soon after the loss of his grandfather, exposes the limitations of black men’s grieving practices in Boston’s inner city. It also represents an optimal model of healing for these young black men in the future.

Chris, a prolific point guard and president of the National Basketball Players Association, was born and raised in Lewisville, North Carolina, within a tightknit African American extended family. His immediate relatives included his parents, Robin and Charles Paul, and an older brother, C.J. Charles, C.J., and Chris all share the same initials, which is why Chris Paul is better known as CP3. Although Paul’s immediate family offered him a safe haven as a child, there was no greater figure and mentor in CP3’s life than his grandfather Nathaniel Jones. Papa Chilli was Chris’s best friend and counselor on and off the court.

Were crucial elements missing from their grieving practices, elements that kept black men from forgiving themselves?

Nathaniel Jones was a pillar in Lewisville’s black community. The state’s first African American founder and owner of an automotive service station, he commanded respect. During times of hardship, extended family members and friends turned to Nathaniel, who always extended his support. Papa Chilli’s grandsons adored him and could often be found by his side fixing cars. Papa Chilli was equally proud of his grandsons. He attended all of Chris’s basketball games, demonstrating his undying love with his presence on the sidelines: “I felt my granddad was my biggest fan,” Chris once said. “I would go out to the service station to see him and you know, he would just be, um, he would always be bragging on me and my brother about how good we were, and he just [pause] . . . he just made me feel different.”

Chris was much shorter than his older brother, C.J., during his early years. C.J was a hoops star, leading his West Forsyth High School basketball team before matriculating to Hampton University and the University of South Carolina Upstate, where he played college ball. Eventually, however, Chris caught up to his older brother in height and basketball talent. By the time he was a senior at West Forsyth, he averaged 25.0 points, 4.4 steals, and 5.3 assists a game, all while his doting grandfather cheered from the crowd.

Chris’s impressive basketball skills made it almost a foregone conclusion that he would matriculate to nearby Wake Forest University, where his grandfather could continue to attend his games. When Chris signed his letter of intent to attend Wake Forest, Papa Chilli stood there right beside him, proudly placing a Wake cap on his grandson’s head.

On the following day, however, five African American boys robbed, duct-taped, and beat Papa Chilli to death with metal pipes for the cash in his wallet. All five boys were close in age to Chris when they brutally ended Nathaniel Jones’s life. Eventually, all five were arrested and convicted. Two are currently serving life sentences. The other three were sentenced to fourteen- and fifteen-year prison terms.

The Ritual Structure of Chris Paul’s Memorial Game

The African scholar and shaman Malidoma Patrice Some suggests that rituals can be defined as any human attempt to communicate with spirit. He argues that the structure of a ritual generally follows a tripartite form, which includes an opening, a dialogue, and a closing. Some’s understanding of ritual as a three-stage process shares similarities with Arnold van Gennep’s well-known stage theory of ritual, which involves the processes of separation, threshold, and aggregation. The core assumption underlying both concepts is that rituals facilitate individuals and groups to move from one status or condition (separation) through a state of ambiguity (threshold) to a new way of being in the world (aggregation).

Some emphasizes the intermediate stage (dialogue) as ritual’s most transformative dimension. During this phase, individuals place their previous assumptions about the world in abeyance and are able to recognize the historically constructed nature of their identities. For individuals and communities whose lives are largely determined by “symbolic violence,” the capacity to displace the natural “order of things,” can become critical for survival. The philosopher Dwayne Tunstall refers to this practice as an “ego-displacement technique” where persons of African descent bracket “ ‘the reality’ of racial categories” in order “to ‘see’ the world as a racialized one.”

Tunstall suggests that these techniques derive their origins from the rituals of African traditional religions. Many practitioners of African traditional religions perform ritual “in order to prepare themselves for an examination of how their lived experiences are co-constituted by the relationships, encounters, and engagements she has with other living persons, her ancestors, other living organisms, and her environing world.” Tunstall points out that for these religious practitioners the human ego represents a necessarily limited and socially constructed version of the self and world. Ritual is therefore required to reclaim the self ’s authenticity and rootedness in its more spiritual ground.

Some shares Tunstall’s views concerning the ego-transformative potential of ritual, arguing that ritual practice must be distinguished from ceremonial behavior on the basis of whether or not the ego dominates the activity. He suggests that while ceremony constitutes an ego-centered activity (which he defines as the repetitive structure or “anatomy” of ritual), the essence of ritual is a spontaneous dialogue between humans and spirit. Though ceremony may effectively relate human beings to each other (often hierarchically), ritual connects persons to gods.

The Crisis of Death: Separation

Marginalized African American people in U.S. cities are continuously confronted with the crisis of death, which is bound to produce a sense of disorientation among the bereaved. Some suggests that this sense of inner turmoil is the first step toward ritual because it places the bereaved person into a state of doubt regarding the veracity of the world. Sigmund Freud framed this state of disorientation in the context of wishful thinking, as the bereaved person is prone to fantasize about a possible reunion with a lost loved one despite the fact that he or she is gone. When Papa Chilli was murdered, Chris expressed an initial sense of disorientation and doubt: “We went to my granddad’s house and I didn’t want to believe it. And all I wanted to do when I got out the car was see my granddad and he wasn’t there. I just [pause] . . . you know everybody has to die, but I just thought that my granddad was one of those people who never would, never would.”

Other scholars have been critical of Freud, however, for reducing the bereaved person’s attachment to the deceased to a psychic fantasy. Detractors have argued that a bereaved person’s feelings of inner turmoil and emotional angst may also represent the lingering energetic presence of the deceased. Freud’s view, in other words, only takes into account the experience of the bereaved person who is still physically alive. Some, by contrast, suggests that the spirit of the recently deceased is also disoriented, suddenly detached from its body and thrust into a state of limbo. This state of spiritual ambiguity among the deceased is what produces an analogous sense of turmoil for the living. Some reinterprets the bereaved person’s felt sense of sorrow, anger, and fear as the dead ghost’s restless energy. While Freud argued that the basic work of mourning is to free the mourner from these emotions, Some suggests that grieving also serves to release the spirit of the dead from its needless attachments to the physical world. Spirits who are not mourned properly become what Toni Morrison famously referred to in Beloved as the “the black and angry dead,” winning the attention of the living by causing more heartache and destruction. Some’s spiritual interpretation of the mourning process makes an important contribution to the literature on the cycle of violence within urban black communities. In addition to the structural, institutional, and interpersonal causes of premature death, Some’s work suggests that there is a deeper spiritual dimension of this collective injury. Some’s spiritual perspective is also hopeful because it recognizes that a reunion between the living and the dead is not “wishful thinking.” Instead, the living and the dead remain codependent even after the physical body has decayed. The act of grieving then may be understood as a radical act of liberation and healing, because once the spirits of the deceased are at peace, they are more likely to generate accord among the living.

Opening a Threshold Between Worlds

Some suggests that in order to open the threshold between worlds, the living must find some way to invoke the spiritual presence of the deceased. Invocations take many forms, some of which include prayers, gestures, dances, sounds, images, and thoughts. The key to invocations is that they must signify the intention of the bereaved person to dialogue with the deceased’s spirit as part of the grieving process. During Boston’s memorial games, for example, players placed images of deceased relatives on iron fences and walls around the basketball court. Others kissed tattoos right before crossing the lines that separated the court from their everyday lives in the neighborhood. Others simply contemplated memories of deceased loved ones as they took warm-up shots. Chris’s memorial game was no different in this regard. He too, meditated on memories of Papa Chilli throughout the game. According to Some, these invocation techniques shift the energy of a ritual space (such as the basketball court), calling the spirit of the departed into the performance.

Spirits who are not mourned properly become what Toni Morrison famously referred to in ‘Beloved’ as the ‘the black and angry dead,’ winning the attention of the living by causing more heartache and destruction.

Another element involved in creating a ritual space, although not always available, is the active involvement of community elders. The conscious participation of elders is one of the most striking differences between Chris’s grief ritual for his granddad and the mourning practices of Boston’s young black men. Two days after Papa Chilli’s death, Chris’s aunt came to her nephew’s side and suggested that he score a point for every year of his grandfather’s life in his next high school basketball game. In that moment, she stood in her nephew’s shoes and offered a creative response to his inner needs: “My first thought was: how can I go out there on the court, knowing that my grandfather’s not there?” Chris wondered. “And my aunt mentioned before I went to the park and game, she said: ‘How about sixty-one points for your granddad?’ And I just thought to myself, you know that would be lovely. And I just thought to myself, ain’t no way I could do that.”

The absence of a critical mass of elders (there are, of course, dedicated individuals) standing behind Boston’s city hoops players is a symptom of the collective injury haunting these urban neighborhoods. More often than not, Boston’s inner-city basketball players turn themselves into choreographers of the court, summoning the courage to mourn without witness. C.J., for instance, went to the court with his “sad face on.” Baron designed T-shirts with Ty’s face and broke down right before the game. When Shorty was released from prison, he made his own way to the asphalt to remember Kane.

Between Worlds: Dialoguing with Spirit on the Court

From Some’s perspective, once a person has invoked spirit and left the familiarity of everyday life, dialogue with a spirit world becomes possible. In street basketball, the movement of player’s bodies, the ball, and the hoop may turn into vocabularies of spiritual communication. Similar to the art of divination, throwing the ball up and down the court gives players access to a form of spiritual feedback. The frequency with which the ball enters the basket says something about the activity of the spiritual world. Chris described this back-and-forth dialogue with Papa Chilli: “This is one of the times that I just felt there’s no way that, I don’t care what kind of defense you play, who you put in front of me. There’s no way you are going to stop me from getting to that goal. The whole game I was just thinking about my granddad, just thinking, you know, he’s in heaven, he’s watching this game, he’s watching this game. Every time somebody hits me to the floor, he’s up there jumping out his seat getting angry. And as the course of the game went on, I said ‘I can do this.’ ”

Some suggests that employing one’s own bodily movements as a spiritual metaphor is precisely what is required to “stimulate the grief catharsis” in the funerary rites of his Dagara community in Burkina Faso, West Africa. During the “dialogue” stage of traditional Dagara funerals, friends and relatives reenact the deceased person’s life.

Besides the xylophone, drumming and singing to stimulate the grief catharsis, there is another important part to the funeral ritual. The life of an adult who dies must be reenacted by the surviving members of his initiation group. All the males who were initiated at the same time as the departed one will, in the second or third day, re-enact the person’s life. That portion of the ritual is called xanu. It means dream, as if the dead were dreaming his life. The spirit of the dead must live its life one more time in an accelerated fashion before departing to the realm of the ancestors. . . . It is believed that doing what was once done frees the living from the dead and vice versa.

There is remarkable parallelism between Some’s description of a Dagara funerary reenactment and Chris’s pledge to score a point for every year of his grandfather’s life on the second day after his murder. At least on a symbolic level, each point represented his life in an “accelerated fashion.” But Chris’s description of his experience indicates that something occurred beyond mere symbolism. Toward the end of the game, after he had already scored fifty-nine points, Chris drove to the right side of the hoop, leaped into the air, and kissed the ball off the glass to score the sixty-first point. At that moment he collapsed onto the hardwood, his body seemingly limp and lifeless: “It felt like I could have just died and went to heaven right there. It felt like my purpose for being here was almost over.” It is difficult to know whom Chris is referring to at this point, himself or his grandfather.

Closing Ritual: Returning Home

Some suggests that once communication with spirit has ended, a ritual can be closed through an expression of gratitude. The act of thanking the spirit closes the ritual because it tells the spirit that the purpose of the ritual has been achieved. Boston’s street-basketball players expressed gratitude in different ways to signal the end of a grief ritual. Baron kissed his tattoo of Ty after games. Jason stood on the basketball court, as the mantra “thank you, thank you” washed over his whole body, in appreciation for his life. Unfortunately, however, it is also true that players are often unable to close the space of ritual because there is no one to welcome them back home. It was Jason’s trainer who confirmed for him that his ordeal was actually over: “I started crying and when that trainer started, when I seen her crying that was honestly one of the best feelings in my life. . . . She truly, deeply understood . . . she started crying the same way I started crying.”

Boston’s street-basketball players generally lack the witness of an elder who may affirm their special inner qualities after undertaking such an arduous ordeal. Some suggests that the absence of elders to close a ritual properly is dangerous because both humans and spirits remain unacknowledged, stuck in a perpetual state of turmoil and confusion. Chris, by contrast, scored his sixty-first point, intentionally missed a free throw, and walked over to the sidelines and into his father’s arms. “I just looked at my Dad and started crying.” His father confirmed: “It’s just like everything came out of him. He just walked over to me and gave me a hug and just fell in my arms and that’s when I just, it just tore me up, you know, ’cause of what he had just done.” The absence of elders to open and close a grief ritual properly may be the single most important reason for the failure of Boston’s memorial games to be more than palliative.

Ritual and Reconciliation Between Young Black Men

The blessing Chris received in the process of grieving his grandfather with family and friends may be partly responsible for his ability to forgive the five black boys who murdered Papa Chilli: “At the time, it made me feel good when I heard they went away for life,” he stated. “But now that I’m older, when I think of all the things I’ve seen in my life? No, I don’t want it. I don’t want it. . . . These guys were 14 and 15 years old [at the time], with a lot of life ahead of them. I wish I could talk to them and tell them, ‘I forgive you. Honestly.’ I hate to know that they’re going to be in jail for such a long time. I hate it.” Howard Thurman, the great mystic and theologian of the civil rights movement, once noted that a person who feels a sense of inner peace wants to see it manifest in others and in the world. Chris’s willingness to see the ultimate worth of those five black men certainly indicates something about the state of his inner life. At the beginning of this book I referred to the asphalt court as a representation of the objectified black male body, but Chris’s memorial game for Papa Chilli (and subsequent forgiveness of those responsible for his death) turned the court into a model for the reclamation of black humanity, healing, and reconciliation.

Finally, in almost every narrative I have used to examine street basketball as a lived religion among young black men, women have been a catalyst for change and healing on the court. When young black men were able to cry, women often paved the way for their tears, supporting them, encouraging them to acknowledge their true selves. If black men are able use the basketball court in the streets and in prisons to surrender to the waters of grief inside of them, they may ultimately find that it is a tribute to the feminine energy that is the source of their lives. Chris’s aunt opened the path for her nephew to grieve for Papa Chilli, and although Chris may never be able to release those five black boys from prison, his gift of forgiveness may have given them permission to free themselves.

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Onaje X. O. Woodbine is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy and Religion at American University. His research explores the varieties of black religious experience. He is also the executive producer of a forthcoming documentary on the art of black preaching. His next book Take Back What the Devil Stole explores the other-worldly travails of a contemporary black woman on Boston’s rough streets. 

Editor: Dana Snitzky