Sherman Alexie has recently published War Dances, a much-praised collection of short fiction and poetry that he's referred to as a "mixtape" and when he appears at The Nature of Words next week, he will almost certainly read from this work. Chances are his 2007 novel, Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, which earned him a National Book Award for "Young People's Literature," will also come up in his discussion. And it would be near shocking if Alexie didn't address the fact that this is the same book that was yanked from the in-class curriculum of Crook County schools because it - brace yourself - featured foul language and mentioned masturbation.
Fans of Alexie, a Native American who grew up on a reservation near Spokane, know that basketball is often a featured subject in Alexie's writing, with the sport serving as a prized skill of True Diary's hero, Arnold Spirit, Jr., but not everyone knows how deep the famed writer's love for and knowledge of basketball run. And neither did I... until the winter of 2008 when I started religiously reading a weekly column Alexie penned in The Stranger, a Seattle alt-weekly paper, entitled "Sonics Death Watch."
The column, as the name flagrantly implies, was a rundown of the final days of the Seattle Supersonics and lasted for a glorious 26 installments during which Alexie wrote a lot about race, politics, and other supposedly serious issues through the lens of basketball. But he also wrote directly about basketball, like when he described the near-pornographic artistry to be found in a highlight reel of Shawn Kemp's dunks from 1996 or illustrated his dislike for Oregon-superstar-turned-mediocre-Sonics-point-guard Luke Ridnour. Oftentimes, a column, even if it was hilarious, was nonetheless remarkably poetic, like this segment from the March 12, 2008 installment:
I want my hostage to understand that when I cheer for the Sonics, I am cheering for the city of Seattle. I'm a small-town kid who, through his basketball love, has changed this metropolis into my community. You are my family.
This is a love story, damn it.
Once, in KeyArena, after a big Sonics win, I hugged a stranger and he hugged me back. We were men crying in each other's arms. Can't you see the beauty in that?
This wasn't necessarily a sports column (although Alexie could become a great basketball journalist if he ever wanted to pursue such an endeavor) as it was Alexie's own literary snapshot, or maybe a journal, of a time when one of the things he loved most in life - his city's professional basketball franchise - was swept up in a tornado of contention and litigation, eventually being dropped down in, of all places, Oklahoma City.
While the column was still running, Alexie was asked by the city to testify, on behalf of fans, at a trial resulting from the City of Seattle's lawsuit to keep the team in town for a couple more years. And the longtime season ticket holder did just that, but not before the investment group tried, albeit unsuccessfully, to block his appearance. When he finally testified, he was on the stand for more than 35 minutes during which he joked, opined and made a passionate call, as a diehard fan, to keep the team in town. As many know, the Sonics aren't in Seattle. They are in Oklahoma City... and they're not called the Sonics, they're now the Thunder and they're awful even with Kevin Durant.
Alexie's writing - about anything - is all at once hilarious, insightful and touching. But I really wouldn't mind if he just kept writing about basketball.
at The Nature of Words
Guest Author Readings and Book Signing: 7pm Thursday, November 5. Tower Theatre. $15, $7.50/seniors, Free for first 75 students with ID.
Sherman Alexie Unplugged: 9am Friday, November 6. Pickney Center for the Arts at COCC. $45.