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A conversation with the author of 'There's always this year'

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

The new book "There's Always This Year" opens with an invitation. Here's a quote - "if you please imagine with me, you are putting your hand into my open palm, and I am resting one free hand atop yours. And I am saying to you that I would like to commiserate here and now about our enemies. We know our enemies by how foolishly they trample upon what we know as affection, how quickly they find another language for what they cannot translate as love." And what follows from that is a lyrical book about basketball but also about geography, luck, fate and many other things, too. It's also about how the career arc of basketball great LeBron James is woven through the life of the book's author, Hanif Abdurraqib, who joins us now. Welcome back to the show.

HANIF ABDURRAQIB: Thank you for having me again, Scott. It's really wonderful to be here.

DETROW: You know, I love this book so much, but I'm not entirely sure how to describe it. It's part memoir, part meditation, part poetry collection, part essay collection. How do you think about this book?

ABDURRAQIB: You know, it's funny. I've been running into that too early on in the process and now - still, when I'm asked to kind of give an elevator pitch. And I think really, if I'm being honest, that feels like an achievement to me because so much of...

DETROW: Yeah.

ABDURRAQIB: ...My intent with the book was working against a singular aboutness (ph) or positioning the book as something that could be operating against neat description because I think I was trying to tie together multiple ideas, sure, through the single - singular and single lens of basketball. But I kind of wanted to make basketball almost a - just a canvas atop which I was laying a lot of other concerns, be it mortality or place or fatherhood and sonhood (ph) in my case. I think mostly it's a book about mortality. It's a book about the passage of time and attempting to be honest with myself about the realities of time's passing.

DETROW: Yeah, it seems to me like it could also be a book about geography, about being shaped by the place you grew up in and that moment where you choose to stay or leave, or maybe leave and come back. And I was hoping you could read a passage that that deals directly with that for us.

ABDURRAQIB: Of course. Yeah. This is from the third quarter or the third act of the of the book.

(Reading) It bears mentioning that I come from a place people leave. Yes, when LeBron left, the reactions made enough sense to me, I suppose. But there was a part of me that felt entirely unsurprised. People leave this place. There are Midwestern states that are far less discernible on a blank map, sure. Even with an understanding of direction, I am known to mess up the order of the Dakotas. I've been known to point at a great many square-like landscapes while weakly mumbling Nebraska. And so I get it. We don't have it too bad. People at least claim to know that Ohio is shaped like a heart - a jagged heart, a heart with sharp edges, a heart as a weapon. That's why so many people make their way elsewhere.

DETROW: What does Ohio, and specifically, what does Columbus mean to you and who you are?

ABDURRAQIB: I think at this stage in my life, it's the one constant that keeps me tethered to a version of myself that is most recognizable. You know, you don't choose place. Place is something that happens to you. Place is maybe the second choice that is made for you after the choice of who your parents are. But if you have the means and ability, there are those of us who at some point in our lives get to choose a place back. And I think choosing that place back doesn't happen once. I mean, it happens several times. It's like any other relationship. You are choosing to love a place or a person as they are, and then checking in with if you are capable of continuing to love that place or person as they evolve, sometimes as they evolve without you or sometimes as you evolve without them. And so it's a real - a math problem that is always unfolding, someone asking the question of - what have I left behind in my growth, or what has left me behind in a growth that I don't recognize?

So, you know, Columbus doesn't look the way - just from an architectural standpoint - does not look the way it looked when I was young. It doesn't even look the way it looked when I moved back in 2017. And I have to kind of keep asking myself what I can live with. Now that, for me, often means that I turn more inward to the people. And I began to think of the people I love as their own architecture, a much more reliable and much more sturdy architecture than the architecture that is constantly under the siege of gentrification. And that has been grounding for me. It's been grounding for me to say, OK, I can't trust that this building will stay. I can't trust that this basketball court will stay. I can't trust that this mural or any of it will stay. But what I do know is that for now, in a corner of the city or in many corners of the city, there are people who know me in a very specific way, and we have a language that is only ours. And through that language, we render each other as full cities unto ourselves.

DETROW: Yeah. Can you tell me how you thought about basketball more broadly, and LeBron James specifically, weaving in and out of these big questions you're asking? - because in the first - I guess the second and third quarter, really, of the book - and I should say, you organize the book like a basketball game in quarters. You know, you're being really - you're writing these evocative, sad scenes of how, like you said, your life was not unfolding the way you wanted it in a variety of ways. And it's almost like LeBron James is kind of floating through as a specter on the TV screen in the background, keeping you company in a moment where it seems to me like you really needed company. Like, how did you think about your relationship with basketball and the broader moments and the broader thoughts in those moments?

ABDURRAQIB: Oh, man, that's not only such a good question, but that's actually - that's such a good image of LeBron James on the TV in the background because it was that. In a way, it was that in a very plainly material, realistic, literal sense because when I was, say, unhoused - right? - I...

DETROW: Yeah.

ABDURRAQIB: ...Would kind of - you know, sometimes at night you kind of just wander. You find a place, and you walk through downtown. And I remember very clearly walking through downtown Columbus and just hearing the Cavs games blaring out of open doors to bars or restaurants and things like that, and not having - you know, I couldn't go in there because I had no money to buy anything, and I would eventually get thrown out of those places.

So, you know, I think playing and watching basketball - you know, even though this book is not, like, a heavy, in-depth basketball biography or a basketball memoir, I did spend a lot of time watching old - gosh, so much of the research for this book was me watching clips from the early - mid-2000s of...

DETROW: Yeah.

ABDURRAQIB: ...LeBron James playing basketball because my headspace while living through that was entirely different. It's like you said, like LeBron was on a screen in the background of a life that was unsatisfying to me. So they were almost, like, being watched through static. And now when I watch them, the static clears, and they're a little bit more pleasureful (ph). And that was really joyful.

DETROW: LeBron James, of course, left the Cavs for a while. He took his talents to South Beach, went to the Miami Heat. You write - and I was a little surprised - that you have a really special place in your heart for, as you call them, the LeBronless (ph) years and the way that you...

ABDURRAQIB: Oh, yeah.

DETROW: ...Interacted with the team. What do you think that says? And why do you think you felt that way and feel that way about the LeBronless Cavs?

ABDURRAQIB: I - you know, I'm trying to think of a softer word than awful. But you know what? They were awful.

DETROW: (Laughter).

ABDURRAQIB: I mean they were (laughter) - but that did not stop them from playing this kind of strange level of hard, at times, because I think it hit a point, particularly in the late season, where it was clear they were giving in and tanking. But some of those guys were, like, old professionals. There's, like, an older Baron Davis on that team. You know, some of these guys, like, did not want to be embarrassed. And...

DETROW: Yeah.

ABDURRAQIB: ...That, to me, was miraculous to watch where - because they're still professionals. They're still NBA players. And to know that these guys were playing on a team that just could not win games - they just didn't have the talent - but they individually did not want to - at least did not want to give up the appearance that they weren't fighting, there's something beautiful and romantic about that to me.

DETROW: It makes a lot of sense why you end the book around 2016 when the Cavs triumph and bring the championship to Cleveland. But when it comes to the passage of time - and I'll say I'm the exact same age as you, and we're both about the same age as LeBron. When it comes to the passage of time, how do you present-day feel about LeBron James watching the graying LeBron James who's paying so much attention to his lower back? - because I don't have anywhere near the intense relationship with him that you do. But, I mean, I remember reading that Sports Illustrated when it came out. I remember watching him in high school on ESPN, and I feel like going on this - my entire adult life journey with him. And I feel like weirdly protective of LeBron James now, right? Like, you be careful with him.

ABDURRAQIB: Yeah.

DETROW: And I'm wondering how you think about him today and what that leads your brain to, given this long, long, long relationship you have with him.

ABDURRAQIB: I find myself mostly anxious now about LeBron James, even though he is still - I think he's still playing at a high level. I mean, I - you know, I think that's not a controversial statement. But I - while he is still playing at a high level, I do - I'm like everyone else. So I'm kind of aware that it does seem like parts of him - or at least he's paying a bit more attention to the aches that just come with aging, right?

DETROW: Yeah.

ABDURRAQIB: I have great empathy and sympathy for an athlete who's dedicated their life to a sport, who is maybe even aware that their skills are not what they once were, but still are playing because that's just what they've done. And they are...

DETROW: Yeah.

ABDURRAQIB: ...In some cases, maybe still in pursuit of one more ring or one more legacy-building exploit that they can attach to their career before moving on to whatever is next. And so I don't know. And I don't think LeBron is at risk of a sharp and brutal decline, but I do worry a bit about him playing past his prime, only because I've never seen him be anything but miraculous on the court. And to witness that, I think, would be devastating in some ways.

And selfishly, I think it would signal some things to me personally about the limits of my own miracle making, not as a basketball player, of course, but as - you know, because a big conceit of the book is LeBron and I are similar in age, and we have - you know, around the same age and all this. And I think a deep flaw is that I've perhaps attached a part of his kind of miraculous playing beyond what people thought to my own idea about what miracle is as you age.

And so, you know, to be witness to a decline, a sharp decline would be fascinating and strange and a bit disorienting. But I hope it doesn't get there. You know, I hope - I would like to see him get one more ring. I don't know when it's going to come or how it's going to come, but I would like to see him get one more. I really would. My dream, selfishly, is that it happens again in Cleveland. He'll come back here and team up with, you know, some good young players and get one more ring for Cleveland because I think Cavs fans, you know, deserve that to the degree that anyone deserves anything in sports. That would be a great storybook ending.

DETROW: The last thing I want to ask about are these vignettes and poems that dot the book in praise of legendary Ohio aviators. Can you tell me what you were trying to do there? And then I'd love to end with you reading a few of them for me.

ABDURRAQIB: Yeah. I'm so glad you asked about that. I haven't gotten to talk about that as much, and that - those were the first things I wrote for the book. I wrote 30 of them...

DETROW: Really?

ABDURRAQIB: ...I think. And of course, they all didn't make it. But that was kind of an exercise, like a brain exercise. And I was trying to play with this idea of starting out with folks who were literally aviators. So it begins with John Glenn and Lonnie Carmen, and then working further and further away from aviation in a literal sense, much like the book is working further and further away from, say, basketball in this concrete sense - because ascension in my mind isn't just moving upward, it is expansion, too. It is, I think, any directional movement away from where your position is. And so I got to be kind of flexible with ideas of ascent and growth and moving upward.

DETROW: And the last aviator you did this for was you. And I'm hoping you can read what you wrote about yourself to end this.

ABDURRAQIB: Oh, gosh. OK, yeah. This is Hanif Abdurraqib, Columbus, Ohio, 1983 to present. (Reading) Never dies in his dreams. In his dreams, he is infinite, has wings, feathers that block the sun. And yet in the real living world, the kid has seen every apocalypse before it arrives, has been the architect of a few bad ones. Still wants to be alive most days. Been resurrected so many damn times, no one is surprised by the magic trick anymore.

DETROW: That's Hanif Abdurraqib, author of the new book "There's Always This Year: On Basketball And Ascension." Thank you so much.

ABDURRAQIB: Thank you, Scott. I really appreciate it.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLEETWOOD MAC SONG, "ALBATROSS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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