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.