April 24: “Who Invented the Jumpshot” by John Edgar Wideman

Hello, Story366! Coming back to you after a day and a half at Cub Scout camp with my son. I see the scheduled post of my Kelly Fordon essay went up as scheduled—what a neat and handy function, WordPress!—so the project kept on schedule, uninterrupted, despite being offline for more than twenty-four hours. When I go to camp again this summer, for five days and four nights, I’ll be ready to keep storying, even when I’m taking them out of the bank.

Beaverman update: Yesterday, I relayed the story of Beaverman, this ghost story that I made up a few years ago at camp, a legend that has persisted among the boys, has been passed on (in the story-telling tradition). Last night, I had the chance to keep the story going personally—though a few boys tried their own updates before I had my turn—got to set things straight. I told the boys they had nothing to worry about, that Beaverman would not be released from the insane asylum until April 20, 2016 (three days beforehand), and his work release (for a half-man, half-rodent serial child killer) was far away, in Walnut Grove, Missouri (just a quarter mile from the campground). A couple of the younger kids got nervous—one kid started to cry a bit—so my work was done. I retired soon after, but took my tree saw into my tent with me, kept it under my pillow. You know, just in case.

But I’m back in Springfield and for today’s post, I read from John Edgar Wideman’s collection, God’s Gym, from Mariner Books, the first work I’ve ever read by Wideman. I’m not exactly sure what’s kept me from reading him before, but I’d guess it’s the same reason I’ve not read a lot of authors: There’s just a lot of authors. Still, I feel like I’ve been missing out, and after reading from Wideman’s collection, I know that’s true.

“Who Invented the Jumpshot” is a story about basketball, for sure, but it struck me most out of the stories I read because of a recent baseball story from the news. Just yesterday, a document called “The Laws of Base Ball” sold at auction for $3.2 million, a document that contains the now-oldest-known record of baseball and an attempt to organize it. It beats the old oldest-known rules by mere months, yet, someone dished out the second-most money ever for a baseball artifact, second to a Babe Ruth jersey that fetched $4.4 million.

This reminds me of Wideman’s story because both are about appropriation. Like with baseball and its “origins” as we know it, basketball has a similar story. Abner Doubleday supposedly invented baseball in Cooperstown, New York, which is why the Hall of Fame is there. James Naismith invented basketball, as the legend goes, in Springfield, Massachusetts (again, Hall of Fame spot). Doubleday and Naismith certainly had an impact on each game, respectively, as we know it, but anyone who knows anything about sports knows that Native Americans played both games, or versions of them, way beforehand. It’s also naive to think that Native Americans solely came up with the concepts, as people from all of the world, at one point or another, threw balls into holes, hit pitched things with sticks. But Americans like to name and memorize inventors—gives fourth graders something to memorize—so if we can give somebody credit, someone we can write books about, share pictures of, and immortalize with statues, we will.

“Who Invented the Jumpshot” isn’t about the origins of basketball itself—though the Naismith myth is mentioned, several times—but about what the title says it’s about, the origin of the jumpshot. Does that mean that Wideman names the person who first jumped up in the air, threw a basketball at a basket, and had it go in? No—that’s as impossible to know as knowing who invented fire or the wheel. What “Who Invented the Jumpshot” is about is racism, appropriation, about history, and about keeping things in perspective.

The narrator of “Who Invented the Jumpshot” is attending a conference in Minneapolis on sports, is at a panel called “Who Invented the Jumpshot.” Several people on the panel—all white scholarly types—are discussing papers they wrote, research they’ve done, and it seems as if the end of the panel will include an actual revelation of a person’s name, the person who took the first jumpshot (or described it to someone else to take).

The story is really a very metafictional deconstruction of some basketball origins. Most of it is an anecdote about a snowy night when a team of black players is heading from Chicago to Hinckley, Illinois, to take part in an expedition game. The team? The Harlem Globetrotters. They have been around a few years, have been wiping the floors up with white teams since, and have already become popular. Will the team make it to the game, to Hinckley, or will they perish in the snowstorm, their car flying off the road, exploding in a ditch?

History tells us the answer, but the story doesn’t. Again, it’s metafictional and deconstructive and kind of stream-of-consciousnessish, without a traditional sense of narrative structure. For a while, the narrator gets into the head of the white guy who’s driving the team in the snowstorm, wondering if they’re going to make it; the metafiction addresses how weird it is to be using the white guy’s perspective here, but that’s how this story works.

Before we find out what happens, we switch focus to a character named Rastus, the last black person living in Hinckley, after the Klan, years earlier, forced everyone else to leave. Rastus’ story is fascinating, as he arrived in Hinckley in the most unusual way: His pregnant mother hopped a train to town, then hopped off, only to crack her skull open when she landed on the station platform, Rastus preserved inside her, born right after. Sadly, Rastus’ life doesn’t get any better after that, as the town that Klanned off an entire population uses Rastus as a, well, slave. Rastus is grown, but wears tattered rags, sweeps the streets, is kept illiterate, lives is squalor. What’s better, to a Klan-struck town, than getting rid of the entire black population? Having one more person literally land in town so they can “raise” and then enslave him. How awful, but what great fiction from Wideman.

This is the town that the Globetrotters—”Globies,” as Wideman calls them—are risking their lives to reach. The stories collide, just about, when Rastus sees a flier for the exhibition, immediately dreaming of storming off with the team, becoming the next Globetrotter. Has he ever played ball before? Doesn’t appear so, but if you’re Rastus and you live in Hinckley, Illinois, it’s good to have hopes and dreams.

The rest of the story plays that night in Hinckley out, none of which includes a game of basketball, let alone the first jumpshot. As noted, it’s absurd to pinpoint the moment that happened, and Wideman doesn’t go there. The story is about racism, about appropriation, about legend. It’s a nontraditional story that’s filled with insight, with good writing, and with a lot of creation. I’m glad to have read “Who Invented the Jump Shot,” to have read more stories from God’s Gym.

John Edgar Wideman

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