A Q+A with David Shields, author of Black Planet, which used a season with Gary Payton and the Sonics to discuss the social implications of hoops.
My favorite “basketball” book of all time is Black Planet by David Shields. I use quote marks because it is about so much more than basketball. It’s about America, and life, and race. And a lot about Gary Payton! It’s one of the few books I’ve ever read cover-to-cover twice, which I guess makes it one of my favorite books of any kind of all time. My readings of the book came when I was just a freelancer for SLAM and other publications, but since I’ve become Editor-in-Chief, I’ve had the chance to meet with David and speak with him in person and on the phone several times. Now a professor of English at the University of Washington, David is exceedingly bright and fun to speak with. Until a couple weeks ago, I think we’d last spoken a few years ago when we discussed the possibility of him doing a Gary Payton feature for SLAM. We didn’t work that out (Greg Dole got the honor instead), but I reiterated my respect for his work, and he made clear his respect for SLAM.
Then, in November, I heard from a student of David’s named Kevin Dowd. Kevin had interviewed David for a brief blog post on The Seattle Times’ website focusing on his interactions with race and sports, and they covered a lot more ground than was able to run on the blog. Together, Kevin and David agreed that SLAMonline might be a good home for the rest of the interview. I, of course, agreed. They made some tweaks, we formatted it into SLAMonline style, and the result is below. I hope you find it as interesting as I did.—Ben Osborne
by Kevin Dowd / @kevindowd
SLAM: You were born in L.A., raised in San Francisco, and lived for about 20 years on the East Coast. In Black Planet, you joke a lot about not wanting to become a Seattleite. Are you still holding out?
DS: There are parts of Seattle that still drive me crazy. There are a number of characters in the book. There’s me, my daughter, my wife, Gary Payton, George Karl, and Seattle is definitely one of the main characters in the book. In a later book I wrote called The Thing About Life Is That One Day You’ll Be Dead, I take one part of my father and really emphasize his physical vitality. That’s only one part of him. In Black Planet, I take that part of Seattle that is un-Sonics-like. Basically, I tried to create a contrast between the rudeness of the Sonics that year and create tension between Seattle and the Sonics. The Sonics were so perfectly anti-Seattle, the Seattle of that time. Or better said, the Sonics expressed an undertow to Seattle which is there but is often disguised.
SLAM: Did that rudeness draw you to the Sonics, coming from the East Coast, where that whole ethos is kind of different?
DS: I think that’s really true, that I just loved the Sonics so much. It’s not like I’m some person who grew up in Harlem or something. But it did strike me on coming back here. It felt like Sweden to me, it just felt vey different. I felt really Jewish. I grew up in a very Jewish, if very secular, family in L.A. and San Francisco, and Seattle either felt very Asian to me, or very Nordic. I remember living in Ballard for a couple years, and I just felt like I was going crazy. I felt like I was tweaked too high, that I sort of wear my nerve endings on my sleeve. And Gary Payton was speaking for me. I loved him so much. The main point of scoring an incredible basket was to create a verbal tattoo on the other player. It was almost like the game mattered less than the verbal pyrotechnics that followed. He would score an incredible basket, and then he would run down the sideline and start yelling at the reporters who thought he couldn’t make a shot; he just seemed to live through language so powerfully. Which I think in the book I connect to stuttering. Basically, I grew up with a stutter, and still have glimmers of it, and at the time I was worried that my daughter might inherit my disorder. But anyway, I was relatively recently married, I was a new father of a very young daughter, and I was living in Wallingford. I felt very Jewish in relationship to my WASP-y wife, who seemed in a way to fit more with Seattle. She’s from a suburb of Chicago. Her cultural style is closer to Seattle’s, in a way. Somewhat undemonstrative. She doesn’t wear her heart on her sleeve the way I do, certainly. I was processing a lot of issues, and I think all that was a bit of the background to why I cartoonize Seattle, I think. How does Seattle play in the book to you?
SLAM: It seems extremely accurate.
DS: As I was walking here and you saw me coming across, I jaywalked. I wasn’t consciously doing it; it’s just the way I walk; I’m really impatient. I don’t pretend to be some incredibly urban person, but it’s just how people walk in big cities. And yet, people in Seattle sometimes come to a screeching halt and imply, “Well, if you’re going to violate the law that much, you must be a kind of quasi-criminal and so I’m going to insist that you walk in front of me.” I’m not aware of any other cities in which people obey the stoplights as much as they do here. To me, it’s sort of like obeying nature: Seattle worships nature more than I do.
SLAM: Sports radio is another big part of Black Planet. Do you still listen much to it?
DS: I do again, mainly because I’m hugely into the Seahawks right now. During baseball season, because the Mariners are so awful, I don’t watch the Mariners. And there’s no basketball team, alas, though I hope they come back. But sports radio is to me an amazing anchor that that you drop into the ocean of the American id: pure American male, largely white, id. Part of me is listening as a fan, because I’m just hugely wired into the Seahawks right now, and part of me is listening as a pith-helmeted anthropologist who is listening for cultural revelations.
DS: I was driving around in the car one day, maybe six months after the book came out, and I was listening to ESPN radio, nationally: they were talking about the book. And they were really putting a lot of distance between themselves and the book. They were basically mocking it: Oh, isn’t this pathetic, this white guy who thinks he’s Gary Payton in bed with his wife, chuckle chuckle chortle chortle. My response was: You are telling me way too much about yourself on ESPN radio. All those shows—they live through this vicariousness, this voyeurism, this homosexual panic. I just owned it, that’s all. I named what is there but what no one is willing to talk about.
SLAM: What’s changed since you wrote the book?
DS: I’m different now. I’m 57 now, whereas when I wrote the book I was in my late 30s. Part of me now frankly loves Seattle, and part of me has a huge amount of distance toward the New York cultural style. I do think people who have only lived in one city tend to have different views. Right now, I just feel like people are people, that there are smart people and stupid people and aggressive people and passive people. I think it’s a very easy cartoon of different parts of the country. It still drives me nuts that people on the East Coast always say, ‘Out west.’ If you’re listening to ESPN on the radio, they’ll say, ‘And in scores out west.’ To me, it’s all just one country. It’s basically saying the East Coast is the absolute center, and everything else is quote ‘out west,’ do you know what I mean? If Black Planet is any good, it’s not really about race, per se, but it’s about how all human beings, including me, including you, have a tendency to not tolerate within themselves their own demons, and so they project those demons onto other people. Jews and WASPs, east and west, black and white, parent and child, spectator and athlete, coach and player. Some people who don’t understand the book say, “I don’t get it, why’s he talking about some discussion he had with somebody at Bartell’s? Why didn’t he focus in on the Sonics?” But that’s not the book, and the book isn’t even about race to me, per se. There will be a tiny moment between me and my wife that’s just as important as a blowup between George Karl and Gary Payton. And so to me, if the book works, it really opens up this interesting space between people, and you start to ask yourself, Why is it that you tend to demonize someone else? Isn’t it probably because there’s something about yourself that you either love or loathe, and that you’re projecting it onto someone else? That, to me, is the core of the book.
SLAM: One part of the book that really sticks out is when you talk about going running in Wallingford, and when you pass a black guy you start running faster, as if you want to impress him. Or you won’t hold the door open for white people, but you always do for black people. I do the same things. I had always kind of thought that was because I haven’t spent much time in the company of black people, but that doesn’t sound like it was the case for you. How much do you think familiarity matters with that sort of thing?
DS: Both of my parents were very politically involved. Growing up in San Francisco, they were hugely involved in desegregation of the schools and civil rights, things like that. My father worked for the poverty program, trying to help black people find housing or jobs. And sometimes we would have people who would live in our house for a whole year; they would live and sleep in our living room. That was a common thing for us. I grew up in a pretty white suburb of San Francisco, a little bit south. The kids on my basketball team were black. I feel like even though both of my parents were involved with that and perhaps I was around people of different ethnic backgrounds perhaps a little bit more than you were, I still grew up in a relatively white suburb. I do think that background is interesting, because I’m very interested in this thing: sort of a paradox I’m drawn to—that my parents were very devoted to love and truth and justice and all these things in the abstract, but in our actual lives we had trouble getting along; my parents weren’t very happily married and I feel there was a lot of tension between the parents and children in our family. I feel like my parents, and my mom in particular, were really good at loving strangers, giving them the living room for a year, but they really had trouble loving people in our actual family. I was really interested in the gap. There’s this great line of T.S. Eliot’s, which is, “Between the idea and the reality falls the shadow.” They were very good at the idea, because it’s really easy to love a stranger, in a way, because you’re sort of loving an abstraction, someone sleeps on your couch for three months and you get to give yourself 10 brownie points for being a good person. But it’s really hard to love a person who’s actually in your life permanently and who’s a very flawed human being. I was also sort of hugely aware of the Lady Bountiful aspect of it, you know, what was my parents’ true motivation? I think they were trying to do good in the world, and I think they did do good, but I think there was a huge amount of competition to see who could be the most righteous person. I remember at one point my mom was going to sell our house and we were going to move into the ghetto in order to just sort of be down with the people. It just seemed like a funny gesture to me. Someone had told her that the revolution begins when white people sell their houses in the suburbs, and so my mom sort of marched home and said we were selling our house. The book is both an ode to my parents’ politics and a critique of it. There’s this line of Montaigne, who says, “Every man contains within him the entire human condition.” I’m really interested in making myself complicit—basically to acknowledge that I’m capable of racism, too. The parts of the book I found hardest to write are the parts of the book that have got the most positive reaction from black readers, who say, “Thank you for writing this, because I hate it when white people pretend not to do that.” I gave a reading once in Chicago to a predominantly black audience, and I basically thought, what the hell, I’m going to read the parts of the book that are the most provocative. So I sort of chose the most uncomfortable passages, and people just loved it, because instead of trying to be some enlightened liberal, I was just owning it, trying to understand my own confusion. And I think people just thought, it’s so liberating to hear a white person acknowledge their own baffling, baffled guilt. And I just feel like the discussion begins there. I think there’s a pretense that we live in a so-called post-racial America, and that’s just nonsense. I’ve read many times and I’ve heard that Obama is largely the same person [both in private and public]. Unlike Bill Clinton, who in private is strikingly different from how he is in public; in private apparently Clinton is unbelievably unhinged and angry, he yells at his underlings, has temper tantrums. I’m sure he’s mellowed with age, but he was apparently brutal in private. And Obama is just—supposedly, I’ve read many places and heard sort of tenth-hand—that he’s largely the same in private as he is in public, with one big exception: Obama is hugely aware of the ways in which race plays a part in the right’s hatred of him, and even I would say the left’s embrace of him. All of this he more or less refuses to acknowledge in public.
SLAM: Have you seen the clip of Obama greeting the Olympic basketball team? He goes up to the white assistant coach and gives him a real standard handshake, and then when he gets to Kevin Durant, Obama gives him this big, stylized, complicated high-five.
DS: I’m fascinated by stuff like that. That’s so loaded. At some point I was thinking about writing a book, and may still, about the infinite gradations and calculations of Obama’s body language, which fascinates me. And that clip is relatively recent. I just feel like Obama is constantly and fascinatingly calculating, almost to the nth degree, how much blackness to show. Do you feel that, too?