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Fridays With Fenrich: Reading Between The Lines

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Fridays With Fenrich is a weekly feature here at Hickory-High, the aggregation of an extended, week-long email conversation on a single basketball theme, between myself and Kris Fenrich of Dancing With Noah. This week Kris and I worked on the Hickory-High Question Of The Week.

Ian: You’re starting a book club and the first selection is the classic Phillip K. Dick novel, ‘A Scanner Darkly.’ Which four NBA players do you invite to join?

Kris: 1. Joakim Noah: By most accounts, Noah is a free-spirited genuine individual in a league made up of trend followers. Having had a past (and possibly present) relationship with drug use, I feel Noah’s curious nature and personal interest in the topic would provide a unique insight and energy to the book club. And maybe some potent herbs too.

2. Lamar Odom: Another player who’s battled substance abuse issues. Odom is a tragic figure who wears his heart on his sleeve. Given how emotional he was when he was suspended for marijuana use early in his career, I’d be interested in seeing his reaction to a book that makes the point that people can lose track of their identity and/or develop new identities through drug abuse.

3. J.R. Smith: While drugs (specifically the fictional Substance D) are the primary cause of identity-splitting in ‘A Scanner Darkly,’ the shifted identities and their relationships with one another (particularly regarding the main character who is both a drug dealer and an undercover police officer and spends much of his time attempting to capture himself, elude himself and elude his suspicious colleagues) remind me of JR Smith who at times appears to be his own worst enemy. While someone like DeMarcus Cousins has a bigger problem staying out of his own way, I feel Smith is mature enough that he could possibly see make connections and learn something from Scanner Darkly.

4. Rajon Rondo: Complete wild card inclusion. I’m not sure if he’d even read the book or if he’d maybe find a way to sabotage the book club, but I’d send out the invite just to see what happens.

Ian: I know this exercise is all hypothetical fun, but you’ve clearly taken the question seriously, actually assembling a group that could accomplish something meaningful together. Here’s my literary quartet:

1. Joakim Noah would make my list as well. As much as any NBA player, he seems to have a multi-faceted cultural perspective that doesn’t have basketball as a giant ionic column towering in the center. Plus, I’d say there’s more than a good chance he’s already read the book and wouldn’t just be making vague points from his memory of having watched part of the movie with Al Horford, sprawled over a papasan chair in some drab University of Florida dorm room.

2. James Harden. At it’s core, A Scanner Darkly is about identity. I can’t think of a player who’s identity bleeds across more borders, or defies more frames. If I’m going to have a conversation on that topic with NBA players I want to make sure James Harden is in the room. It’s been a recurring theme in our conversations over the past few months, but I’m absolutely captivated watching both Harden on and off the court. His game is analytically pure and stylistically extravagant. I want to know to what degree he reflects on himself and his actions on the basketball court, and what framework of identity he sees himself through. Will he see personal parallels between his own experience and the way Bob Arctor moves back and forth between the culture of drug-users and drug-subterfugers? Does James Harden sneak below deck during his all-white yacht partiers to read Kevin Pelton’s latest piece at ESPN Insider, hurriedly slamming his laptop closed as Chandler Parsons comes bursting through the door with a Kelly LeBrock lookalike?

3. Dwight Howard. I can think of about 368 NBA players I’d rather spend two hours in a room with, but I’m trying to be generous of spirit here. I get the sense that Howard is not someone who regularly has meaningful conversations about topics of any sort. That’s not to say he’s not intelligent, but he does seem to lack a significant amount of introspective viewing power and critical thinking ability. A Scanner Darkly and it’s themes of identity and substance abuse may not turn out to have any personal relevance or attraction for Howard, but he seems like an individual who could benefit tremendously from some time spent in close analytic proximity to life experience of a different kind.

4. Tyler Hansbrough. He’s essentially the Keanu Reeves of the National Basketball Association so he could certainly bring an authentic perspective to bear on the lead character. Plus, I’m a sucker for those dulcet tones of Poplar Bluff, Missouri that roll off his tongue. I’d listen to him read just about anything aloud.

I set the parameters for this initial discussion, choosing a book that I love and a framework I was curious about. What books would you like to read and discuss with NBA players?

Kris: Oh man, I’m cracking up over your Kelly LeBrock reference. I know we’re both on the older end of the basketball blog spectrum, but you took it waaaaaaay back with that. I guarantee you a good chunk of guys who read this post will go straight from here to a “Kelly LeBrock” search on Google Images. Not to get too distracted here, but it was bizarre seeing her go from Weird Science to Hard to Kill and it’s even stranger she was married to Steven Seagal.

Sorry for that, but here are a few books that’d be fun or insightful to read with NBA players:

- The Book of Basketball: The NBA According to the Sports Guy: Over the years, Bill Simmons and his endless well of snark has worn away at me. I find the guy insufferable at times, but with The Book of Basketball, he stuck to what he knows best and did a hell of a job breaking down the league’s greatest players of all time. It’s not without its snarky flaws, but it’s an easy, engaging read. I’m always intrigued by what players think about other players and what they’ve experienced competing with and against each other. I think this is one of the reasons NBA TV’s “Open Court” series is so successful; because it taps into that insider’s world. Reading The Book of Basketball with NBA players would be fun, insightful, entertaining and probably head scratching at times (seems players often hold other players in higher regard than their actual ability).

Breaks of the Game: David Halberstam’s masterpiece on the landscape of the NBA in the late 70s articulates the challenges faced by the league and its players better than any other book on basketball I’ve read. When I read it a few years ago, I was struck by how many of the same issues are still prevalent in the game and the business of the game today: racism, reactionary responses to a majority African-American player base interacting within a majority Caucasian business and marketing model. For players in today’s game, I think it’d be eye opening to see that while yes, things have changed drastically for the better, the subtleties of the NBA in the late 70s are still very much alive.

Hellhound On His Trail: The Electrifying Account of the Largest Manhunt in American History: Hampton Sides wrote this thorough tale about the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and painted an almost frighteningly detailed portrait of his assassin, James Earl Ray. It’s a tragic and engrossing read that seems like a must-read for players in a league that treats King’s birthday as a celebration complete with day games on the annual Monday holiday. The race aspect, the readability, the power of the story … in terms of reading schedule, this would probably be the first or second read of the book club.

Oh the Places You’ll Go!: The Dr. Seuss classic still carries weight if you’re willing to just open the book and absorb the message. It’s fun, poignant, meaningful and deeply insightful for anyone who’s been through challenges in life. Assuming players could shrug off the hard ass veneer that so many of them wear in public and on the court, it’d be fun to read with players who enjoy a drink every now and then followed by an open conversation. Give me Shane Battier, Jerry Stackhouse, Zach Randolph, Chris Andersen, some booze and The Places You’ll Go and let’s see what crazy shit we end up talking about.

Ian: Running your finger across the top of my living room bookshelf you’ll find a whole lot of Edward Abbey and Tom Robbins. It’s an odd pairing, and one that I don’t think would particularly appeal to most NBA players. Although I suppose some of Abbey’s fiery stoicism and rugged surliness might strike a chord with a certain Laker guard, who coincidentally appears to have some extra time for reading on his hands.

However, if I somehow was able to get a book into the hands of an NBA player, with the promise of it being read, I’d be heading down to Everyone’s Books to snag a copy of Dune for LeBron James. I wrote about the parallels between LeBron and the main character in Dune, Paul Atreides, nearly three years ago, just after his move to Miami (Follow that link at your own peril. My ability to communicate ideas through the written word has grown considerably since then.) The themes in that novel are scattered about like grains of sand, but the one that always pulls me in is the idea of mythic templates. The story is convoluted to say the least, but fifteen year-old Paul arrives on the planet of Arrakis, a member of the new ruling family. As the planet is thrown into turmoil by rebellion and war, Paul steps into the role of messiah for the native people, fulfilling a long-held prophecy. The interesting thing is that the prophecy he fulfills is a completely and consciously false construct, planted among the natives centuries before by outsiders from Paul’s own culture.

I’ve done a poor job summarizing the plot, but hopefully enough to see the theme. Like all professional sports, myth and prophecy drive NBA basketball. Both have also been swirling around LeBron since he was a boy. Like all myths, the ones built around, for, and by LeBron are just constructs, whether consciously or unconsciously conceived. These myths, these artificial constructs, accurate or not, have not just helped define LeBron to the public, they appear to have, in some ways, defined his own self-image. I wonder what reading a book like Dune would do for LeBron in examining his own journey.

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