Poetry in Motion – The Literature of Basketball, Weeks 3 & 4: Meet the Houston Rockets’ New Starter, Donald Barthelme

Two iconoclasts, one beard: James Harden and brother from another mother Donald Barthelme.

Despite a win-loss record of 9-8, the Houston Rockets this week emerged as the internet’s new favorite team. On Yahoo’s blog Ball Don’t Lie, Eric Freeman has devoted serious e-ink and cautious optimism to the Rockets, hyping their big off-season acquisition James Harden as “if not a bona fide superstar, then at least an excellent player who could be a first option on a pretty good playoff team.” Bethlehem Shoals asked on Twitter last week if the Rockets were this year’s hip squad to watch on NBA League Pass, the subscription service which allows diehards to watch forty out-of-market games per week.  And during an interview on Slate’s Hang Up and Listen podcast with Houston GM Daryl Morey, host Josh Levin dubbed the Rockets “the most interesting team in the world”.

If the Rockets need inspiration to surpass their .500 record, let it come from the dusty stacks of a Preston Station bookstore. For Houston’s most admirable native child is not Wes Anderson, Beyonce, or Roseanne and Felicity theme song composer W.G. “Snuffy” Walden. It’s postmodernist author Donald Barthelme, who arrived at age two and lived primarily in the Texas metropolis until his death in 1989. In their dual approaches to “deconstruction”, Barthelme and the Rockets share an eccentricity and experimentation baked in the kiln of Houston’s sweltering sun. Should Harden yearn for his old team, the supreme Oklahoma City Thunder, let this passage from Barthelme’s short story “The Crisis” guide him: “Three rebellions ago, the air was fresher. The soft pasting noises of the rebel billposters remind us of Oklahoma, where everything is still the same.” Sage words, and not merely because Harden and Barthelme have similar wizard beards.

Much of the Rockets’ web enthusiasm stems from Morey’s unconventional “Moneyball” style methods. He recognizes that his team lacks a surefire ace in basketball, that most superstar-driven of sports, in which one starter can be the difference between winning sixty games out of eighty vs. a mere twenty. This leads Morey to measures that are at once odd, risky, savvy, possibly detrimental, and thus highly entertaining. Where other teams would have intentionally tanked this season in pursuit of future draft picks, Morey and Co. are simultaneously trying to build now and rebuild for later: further deconstruction. Like Barthelme, they are an iconoclastic influence to their profession’s culture, despite being largely removed from our coasts. “Paying lots of attention,” wrote Barthelme in his story “Great Days”. “A clear vision of what can and can’t be done. Progress extending far into the future. Dams and aqueducts. Organizing our deepest wishes as a mother foresightedly visits a store that will be closed tomorrow.”

Morey is a dude who chairs an MIT conference on analytics, and who just penned a feature in The Economist about why his job is hard. In this he follows Barthelme’s oft-repeated mantra: “Write about what you’re afraid of.” This summer, Morey re-signed nerd icon Jeremy Lin away from the Knicks, just one year after waiving Lin’s contract to clear payroll. He raided the closet of the Western Conference champion Oklahoma City Thunder like a procrastinator on prom night, acquiring Harden and lesser-known cogs Cole Aldrich and Daequan Cook, both of whom embody Barthelme’s notion that “machines are braver than art.” From the Chicago Bulls, Morey took Omer Asik, considered one of the league’s best defensive Centers despite having knees made of mashed potato. The Rockets even signed Royce White, a rookie with both incredible upside and a crippling anxiety disorder that has kept him from playing a single game, as if begging to be made into an uplifting Fox Family original series. Morey’s approach harkens to what Barthelme exclaimed in his short “The New Music”, collected in his anthology Sixty Stories: “Succeed! It has been done, and with a stupidity that can astound the most experienced.”

And what of a potential Rockets championship? Consider what Barthelme dubbed the “aim of literature”: “the creation of a strange object covered with fur which breaks your heart.” If that doesn’t accurately depict the sight of the NBA’s Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy after an arena-wide celebration – and the rioting and parades which soon follow – I don’t know what does.

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