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Defending Walt Whitman
by Sherman Alexie
Basketball is like this for young Indian boys, all arms and legs
and serious stomach muscles. Every body is brown!
These are the twentieth-century warriors who will never kill,
although a few sat quietly in the deserts of Kuwait,
waiting for orders to do something, to do something.
God, there is nothing as beautiful as a jumpshot
on a reservation summer basketball court
where the ball is moist with sweat,
and makes a sound when it swishes through the net
that causes Walt Whitman to weep because it is so perfect.
There are veterans of foreign wars here
although their bodies are still dominated
by collarbones and knees, although their bodies still respond
in the ways that bodies are supposed to respond when we are young.
Every body is brown! Look there, that boy can run
up and down this court forever. He can leap for a rebound
with his back arched like a salmon, all meat and bone
synchronized, magnetic, as if the court were a river,
as if the rim were a dam, as if the air were a ladder
leading the Indian boy toward home.
Some of the Indian boys still wear their military hair cuts
while a few have let their hair grow back.
It will never be the same as it was before!
One Indian boy has never cut his hair, not once, and he braids it
into wild patterns that do not measure anything.
He is just a boy with too much time on his hands.
Look at him. He wants to play this game in bare feet.
God, the sun is so bright! There is no place like this.
Walt Whitman stretches his calf muscles
on the sidelines. He has the next game.
His huge beard is ridiculous on the reservation.
Some body throws a crazy pass and Walt Whitman catches it
with quick hands. He brings the ball close to his nose
and breathes in all of its smells: leather, brown skin, sweat,
black hair, burning oil, twisted ankle, long drink of warm water,
gunpowder, pine tree. Walt Whitman squeezes the ball tightly.
He wants to run. He hardly has the patience to wait for his turn.
"What's the score?" he asks. He asks, "What's the score?"
Basketball is like this for Walt Whitman. He watches these Indian boys
as if they were the last bodies on earth. Every body is brown!
Walt Whitman shakes because he believes in God.
Walt Whitman dreams of the Indian boy who will defend him,
trapping him in the corner, all flailing arms and legs
and legendary stomach muscles. Walt Whitman shakes
because he believes in God. Walt Whitman dreams
of the first jumpshot he will take, the ball arcing clumsily
from his fingers, striking the rim so hard that it sparks.
Walt Whitman shakes because he believes in God.
Walt Whitman closes his eyes. He is a small man and his beard
is ludicrous on the reservation, absolutely insane.
His beard makes the Indian boys righteously laugh. His beard
frightens the smallest Indian boys. His beard tickles the skin
of the Indian boys who dribble past him. His beard, his beard!
God, there is beauty in every body. Walt Whitman stands
at center court while the Indian boys run from basket to basket.
Walt Whitman cannot tell the difference between
offense and defense. He does not care if he touches the ball.
Half of the Indian boys wear t-shirts damp with sweat
and the other half are bareback, skin slick and shiny.
There is no place like this. Walt Whitman smiles.
Walt Whitman shakes. This game belongs to him.
Top Ten Reasons Why Indians Are Good at Basketball
by Natalie Diaz
1. The same reason we are good in bed.
2. Because a long time ago, Creator gave us a choice: You can write like an Indian god, or you can have a jump shot sweeter than a 44 ounce can of commodity grape juice—one or the other. Everyone but Sherman Alexie chose the jump shot.
3. We know how to block shots, to stuff them down your throat,
because when you say, “Shoot,” we hear howitzer and Hotchkiss
and Springfield Model 1873.
4. When Indian ballers sweat, we emit a perfume of tortillas
and Pine Sol floor cleaner that works like a potion
to disorient our opponents and make them forget their plays.
5. We grew up knowing that there was no difference between a basketball court
and church. No, really, the Nazarene’s hold church in the tribal gym
on Sunday afternoon—the choir belts out “In the Sweet By and By”
from the low block.
6. When Walt Whitman wrote “The half-breed straps on his light boots
to compete in the race,” he really meant that all Indian men over age 40
have a pair of original Shawn Kemp Reebok Kamikaze II’s in their closets
and believe they are still magic-enough to make even the largest commod bod
able to go coast to coast and finish a layup.
7. Indians are not afraid to try sky hooks in real games, even though
no Indian has ever made a sky hook, no Indian from a federally recognized
tribe, anyway. But still, our ability to attempt sky hooks in warm-ups
strikes fear in our opponents, thus giving us a mental edge.
8. On the court is the one place we will never be hungry—that net is an emptiness
we can fill up all day long.
9. We pretend we are playing every game for a Pendleton blanket, and the MVP
gets a Mashantucket Pequot-sized per capita check.
10. Really, though, all Indians are good at basketball because a basketball
has never been just a basketball—it has always been a full moon in this terminal
darkness, the one taillight in Jimmy Jack Tall Can’s gray Granada cutting along
the back roads on a beer run, the Creator’s heart that Coyote stole from the funeral pyre cursing him to walk alone through every coral dusk. It has always been a fat gourd
we sing to, the left breast of a Mojave woman three Budweisers into Saturday night.
It will always be a slick, bright bullet we can sling from the 3-point arc with 5 seconds left on a clock in the year 1492, and as it rips down through the net,
our enemies will fall to their wounded knees, with torn ACLs.