Basketball Skills, Bassey Ikpi, Colson Whitehead, George Clooney, Jerome Kersey, Kiese Laymon, Michael Clayton (2007), Portland Trail Blazers, Roxane Gay, Slashers, Tressie McMillan Cottom, Walter Mosley, Writing Approaches, Writing Styles
A few years ago, I declared myself the writer equivalent of the fictional character Michael Clayton, whom George Clooney played in a movie of the same name in 2007. Like Clayton, who straddled the worlds of police officers, attorneys, and fixers, I found myself a misfit between academia and writing, journalism and writing, and professional writing. Despite whatever successes I have had in recent years (if one can call them that), I do not think this equation has changed. I still often find myself pounding on the walls of stone temples, a world of white folks who would just as soon spit on me and my manuscripts as they would ignore my queries. Such is the world in which I inhabit as one of the Black folx.
But I am not just Michael Clayton. I am also like the late Jerome Kersey (1962-2015) (may his body rest in peace while his spirit takes a moment to read me out — hopefully). At least as a writer. The six-seven small forward who came from a one-time Division II school and played the bulk of his career with the Portland Trail Blazers was one of the best slashers and one of the better defenders in the NBA in the late-1980s and in the 1990s. Kersey was especially adept at weak-side defense and playing passing lanes, great at finishing off of full-court fast breaks, and could beat defenders off of give-and-gos in the half-court set with ease. His J (if one could call it that) was serviceable at best. Anything outside 12-15 feet was a risky proposition, especially in close playoff games. But if you needed a weak-side rebound and put-away dunk, Kersey was the man.
In his prime, he was a necessary asset as part of the Blazers’ runs to the NBA Finals in 1990 and 1992, part of Clyde “The Glide” Drexler’s underrated band of brothers who entertained us. At least until they ran into teams that liked beating up on their opponents, like the Detroit Pistons in 1990 and MJ and the Chicago Bulls in 1992. When Drexler left in a mid-season trade to the Houston Rockets in 1995, obviously hungry for a ring, I knew Kersey’s days as a Blazer were numbered. They still had the great Cliff Robinson, so they would be a playoff team for years to come, but not a championship team.
I think I write the same way Kersey approached basketball. I am not someone who can take on a team one-on-three or one-on-five. I am a good passer, but the Chris Webber no-looks or LBJ pocket passes, okay, but nothing to wax braggadocious about, either. But if I get one step past a defender, good luck in keeping me from making a lay-up. Also, don’t leave me wide-open from three. I’ll make at least one for every three I take on my best days. I will fight for rebounds while taking elbows to my cheeks and jaw and eye socket, while knocking knees and shins, and will fall to the ground to get the ball.
That’s how I write. I am straightforward in my approach, hoping that my wit, my goofiness, and my knowledge bleed through. But I am also counterintuitive, and will take big ideas and try to break them down in ways no one else I know in the writing world is doing (that’s how I’ve managed to publish the pieces I have over the past six years, hitting the occasional 3). I write like I defend, as if my life depends on it, precisely because it does.
And yes, this leaves me vulnerable. In today’s NBA, even in Kersey’s NBA, one cannot just put their head down to the floor and drive to the basket without looking cross-court for an open teammate. Or, in case a defender plants themselves firmly to the wood, waiting to take an offensive foul or to block your shot. That’s where Kersey’s slash-to-the-hoop game often worked against him, especially once the injuries piled up, as his first step became slower.
So, I might not have the slow yet deliberate pick-apart-a-defense moves of an all-time great like Walt “Clyde” Frazier, or can staccato through defenses like the Celtics’ Jaylen Brown, Kawhi Leonard, or current Blazer Damian Lillard, the equivalent of the way poetry slammer and author Bassey Ikpi writes. Nor do I have the quantum-level precision of pouring in points, beating defenses off the dribble, or making turn-around jumpers like Bernard King once did and MJ did with cold-blooded lethality, the way Colson Whitehead and Kiese Laymon weigh every single word, every phrase, every sentence, and every paragraph. Nor do I have the ability to flash killer smiles while also killing you with my post-up game, the way Magic Johnson once did and future WNBA hall-of-famer Candice Parker still does, which is how I see Roxane Gay, Tressie McMillan Cottom, and Walter Mosley (most of the time) as writers.
Kersey had a 17-year NBA career, won a title with the San Antonio Spurs in 1999 (against my Knicks), and is in the top-3 or top-5 in most team statistics all-time as a result of his 11 years in Portland with the Blazers. Maybe I am not a hall-of-fame writer. But my writer game as Jerome Kersey might make me a long-hauler in this calling. Even if agents and editors, journalists and academicians still only see me as Michael Clayton.