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6527212 October 14, 2010

Writing and Basketball: Christine Baker

" ... without creativity in sport, there would be no sport."

I was a cheerleader.  My daughter is a basketball player.  When she's at her best, jumping for a rebound or flying across the court for a steal, I get an amazing glimpse into what makes her tick.

I see her potential, not just as an athlete, but also as a woman.  She's only 5' 7", but she wears size 13 shoes and can palm the ball.  We don't know how tall she'll grow, or how far she'll go in basketball. After all, she just turned eleven.

What we do know is that basketball is the activity she loves the most.  The game inspires her to do her best.  It pulls her outside in 15 degree weather to practice shooting, snow on her hair and eyebrows.  It makes her proud to be tall for her age.  It gives her confidence and tests her focus.  It provides her with a positive outlet for her highly energetic disposition. It teaches her head strong personality to be part of a team.

It's a good thing.  She may soon give up her love for Justin Bieber, but we hope she won't give up her star-reaching, 11-year-old's dreams to play for our local high school team, in college, and then in the WNBA.

My guest today, Christine Baker, knows how my daughter feels about basketball, and why.  She's interview numerous players at all levels to find out why they play. Christine grew up enveloped in a deep love for basketball.  She also adored writing.  In her book, Why She Plays: The World of Women’s Basketball (University of Nebraska Press 2008), she masterfully brings these two diverse loves together.  

When I read Christine's descriptions of how basketball defined her life, I immediately felt at home. They also described how writing has defined mine.  I've never considered myself highly competitive.  There's only one person I constantly compete with, and that is myself.  We've played an ongoing game of one on one for years.  In reading Why She Plays, I realized that what I share with Christine is heart.  We're champions because we refuse to give up.  We constantly challenge ourselves to improve.  We work hard at what we love because we hate to lose, especially  when we know we have what it takes to win.

In her book, Christine says, "You can't measure heart.  There will never be a test to effectively gauge it.  Mediocre teams have beaten superior ones on heart alone. Human beings since the beginning of time have erupted from difficult circumstances to attain glorious achievements because of the desire in their hearts that only they know was present all along, because talent only gets you so far."

My daughter may not get her athleticism from me, but perhaps I've given her heart.  As each year passes, we see her vision, stamina, focus, and self-motivation increase exponentially. Christine's book taught her the concept of  basketball IQ, and now she wants that, too.

I can't say to either of my daughters, "Never give up on your dreams," if I give up on mine.  How can I doubt that my children will accomplish extraordinary goals when I sit around dreaming of a Pulitzer and millions of readers?  I may never achieve that level of  accomplishment, but as my dad always said, "If you don't shot for the stars, you'll never get off the ground."  I've always figured that someone has to reach that star; why not me?

Christine's book and her answers below remind us what winning and losing is all about, and how the ups and downs remain part of the human experience for a profound reason.  When we experience a phenomenal basketball player flying through the air for a perfect shot or a talented ballet dancer soaring across the stage; when we read an unforgettable novel or hear a song that melts into our soul; when we see great works of art; we see the human heart in its greatest form.  We see the same struggle, the losses, the wins, the hard work, and the never say die attitude that carries humanity forward in the hearts of soldiers who fight for love of country, parents who  sacrifice for their children, and individuals who survive horrific experiences.

Playing AAU 12 basketball as a 10-year-old
I see all that human potential in my daughter's 11-year-old tall, lanky body soaring across the court as if in slow motion. She grabs the ball in her unusually large hands, lands hard on the court with her giant feet.

Turn and face.

Triple threat position.

Does she shoot?  Does she pass?  Does she dribble?  What will she do and where will she go?  Only time will tell.  All I know for sure is that she has my heart.
What's your writing story? How long did it take to establish yourself as a writer? Was the journey on a straight or twisted path? Are you surprised by your success?

I’m not sure one ever really establishes oneself as a writer. The short answer is: I’ve dreamed of being a writer since I was a little girl. But my career path initially went the direction of public relations and marketing. In 2005, I decided to quit my job as director of publications and advertising at Ramapo College in order to pursue the idea of writing a book about women’s basketball. So I’d say it was at that point that I really made a conscious career choice to focus on writing. Of course now five years later, I’m back to doing marketing and PR, but on my own terms and I have found a way to incorporate my writing projects with my consulting and PR work. It’s taken me a while, but I’ve found a great balance.

You asked if I am surprised by my success. It might sound a bit arrogant to say no. But the truth is, I have always been the type of person to go after something and not stop until I get it. If I do something, I do it 110%. It was no different with my writing. I work at it constantly as a craft and know that if I believe in my abilities, good things will happen.

With regard to your book, Why She Plays, was there an "ah-ha" moment you can tell us about?

Yes. I interviewed many people for the book but it wasn’t until my final interview with Becky Hammon (WNBA all-star and point guard for the San Antonio Silver Stars) where I really found the title and the framework for the book. Without realizing it, I always asked my interview subjects why they played the game of basketball. I didn’t see the connections until all of the interviews were done. It’s a good thing I had that “ah-ha” moment because I was beginning to panic that I had no idea how to put the book together!

Aberration Nation currently focuses on creativity, but it's also about how life's aberrations (whether physical, emotional, or situational) can become the kernel of our strength. In Why She Plays, you write about how an intense love and connection to basketball shaped your life, and about having to leave playing behind. Can you share your thoughts on what losing basketball games and losing the game of basketball have taught you about life?

What people don’t often realize is that participating in team sports is an intensely personal experience. I am a highly competitive person. I don’t like losing a game of checkers or a game of basketball. Losing basketball games taught me the value of hard work. I realized that I hated losing so much that I would work harder than anyone else to avoid it. That in itself is a powerful life lesson that I’ve used every day of my life – whether it be in my writing, in my professional life, or even in my personal life.

When I graduated from college and focused only on my career, I felt the pain of losing the team aspect of the sport- the team camaraderie, the two hours every day where I could burn 1,500 calories and ignore the rest of the world, disappeared. I missed that terribly. I went from being a leader on a team to not having a team to lead. It was difficult for me to find balance in my life, and it took me quite a few years to realize how much I missed the game and how much I wanted it to be a part of my life again.

Losses in life, no matter how small or large, test the spirit. It hurts to lose. It's not surprising that so many people stop trying after a loss. After a great loss, many of us tend to wallow over our imperfections and situations as if nothing could possibly be worse. We feel sorry for ourselves, guilty that we didn't somehow do more, and as if we can't win next time. We forget that there is always someone out there who has it worse than us. How were you able to avoid letting those emotions sabotage your happiness and success?

Sometimes we lose because someone else is better than us on a given day. There is no shame in trying your best but coming up short. There is, however, shame in not giving 100%. My goal every single morning is to wake up and give 100%, no matter what the tasks ahead of me may be. I know for a fact that I am harder on myself than anyone else could possibly be. Sometimes I have to remind myself to lighten up, to enjoy life and live in the present. It’s easy to dwell on the negative. It’s harder to remain optimistic even through difficult circumstances. I’ve learned that if I focus on the negative, I bring more negativity to me and if I focus on the positive, I manifest more positive outcomes.

In Why She Plays, you mentioned that great basketball players often have creativity on the court. Can you explain what that means? How critical do you think creativity is for athletes?

In the game of basketball, there is a framework to the game- rules, court dimensions, team positions, etc. There are plays that the team works on every day in practice. But to be successful in basketball, one cannot be a robot. A player must learn how to work within the framework to create. Athletes are so unbelievably creative with their bodies in motion, that when done well, does look like art. Look at Michael Jordan dunking a basketball in slow motion and tell me that is not creativity in its highest form. So to answer your question, without creativity in sport, there would be no sport.

For you, is writing more about creation or expression? It could be both, but does one dominate with regard to your need/urge/desire to be a writer and why?

Hmm. That’s a great question. I feel like this is a left-brained or right-brained question. Writing for me is a combination. I treasure the process of creating something new. And, I have always felt that writing offers me a vehicle to express myself in ways that I might not be able to otherwise. For me, it depends on what I am working on. If it’s a poem, I would say expression. If it’s the script I am currently writing based on the life of Emily Dickinson, I would say creation.

As describe in Why She Plays, the act of playing basketball offers various levels and types of therapy for top athletes and for those who love it. It's an outlet. In general, is writing therapeutic for you? How was writing Why She Plays therapeutic?

Writing is very often NOT therapeutic. LOL. Sometimes I wonder if I have rocks in my head for sitting at a computer 10-12 hours per day. Only sometimes when I really hit my stride does writing feel therapeutic for me. That said, writing Why She Plays was cathartic for me on three levels:

1. It brought me back to the game of basketball and forced me to articulate how much the game meant and still means to me.

2. It was the first time I was published, so it was self-affirming.

3. I made a huge career change to write that book, and took a big risk. I had a great deal on the line.

When it was published, it was extraordinarily therapeutic because it meant someone else believed in me and my abilities to write as much as I did.

Have you ever had to deal with people in your life failing to understand your creative personality, interests, or drive whether that translated to basketball or your writing? If so, can you tell us about it and how you've dealt with it?

Absolutely! I wear many different hats. I find that it’s difficult for people to see me as a whole person. It’s much easier for people I work with to see me as only able to write and pitch a press release, or develop a media plan. It’s often frustrating to me that we tend to pigeon-hole one another. “Oh, she’s good at marketing, but wait, she writes poetry and teaches too?”

Aside from that, some people have not been able to handle the level of intensity I bring to life. I’m learning that I only want to be around people who possess that kind of positive energy, and similar values.

Was there ever a time when you just felt like giving up? On yourself as an athlete? On writing? If so, how were you able to cross that bridge?

Never. I can honestly say that “giving up” on something is just not in my vocabulary. I’m not built to give up on anything, so it’s never been a bridge that I’ve had to worry about crossing. I believe that everything will work out the way it should. If I work hard and do things for the right reasons, I will always find success and opportunity.

When I was a senior in college, I was burned out and tired of playing basketball, but it wasn’t about giving up. It was about wanting to ensure I was good at something else in addition to basketball.

If you could tell the world one thing about overcoming the loss of a dream, what would that be?

It’s okay to change a dream and it’s okay to dream as we get older. Dreams aren’t just for children. I said in the book that dreams give us hope when hope is a tall order. The world is a better place for having dreamers among the doers.

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