Why We Play Basketball

by Sherman Alexie


In December snow
covered the court. We
wrapped our hands in old
socks, soaked the white snow
with kerosene, lit

the match, and melted it
all down to pavement.
We were Indians
who wanted to play
basketball. Nothing

could stop us from that,
not the hunger in
our thin bellies, not
the fear of missed shots,
n=ot the threat of white

snow. We were small boys
who would grow up into
small men. We played ball
until dark, then played
until we could see

neither hoop nor ball.
We played until our
mothers and fathers
came searching for us
and carried us home.


We play because we
remember the first
time we shot the ball
and knew, beyond doubt,
as it floated toward

the hoop, that it was
going to be good.
We walked off the court,
left the ball waiting
as we fell in love

with Indian girls
who grew past us, who
grew into Indian
women. Somehow, we
grew families while

that ball waited, inert
suspended, till
we remembered, with
a complex rush of
pain and joy, what we'd

left behind, how we
loved the ball as it
finally dropped into
the net, after
years of such patience.


We wanted to know
who was best, who could
change the game into
something new. We knew
about Seymour. Blind

and deaf, he played by
sense of smell. Leather
balls drove him crazy.
He identified
his teammates by tribe:

Spokanes smelled like bread:
Flatheads smelled like pine;
Colville smelled like snow;
Lester smelled like wine.
Seymour shot the ball

when the wind told him
it was time to shoot.
In basketball, we
find enough reasons
to believe in God,

or something smaller
than God. We believe
in Seymour, who holds
the ball in his hands
like you hold your God.


It is just a game
we are told by those
who cannot play it
unless it is play.
For us, it is war,

often desperate
and without reason.
We throw our body
against another
body. We learn to

hate each other, hate
the ball, hate the hoop,
hate the fallen snow,
hate our clumsy hands,
hate our thirsty mouths

when we drink from
the fountain. We hate
our fathers. We hate
our mothers. We hate
the face in our mirror.

We play basketball
because we want to
separate love from
hate, and because we
know how to keep score.


We play basketball
because we still love
the place where we lived.
It was a small house
with one door. We lived

there for twenty years
with crazy cousins
and one basketball.
We fought over it
constantly. I climbed

into a tall tree
with the ball, refused
to come down unless
they made me captain.
My brother dragged me

from the tree and punched
me so hard I saw
red horses. We play
because we believe
in our skin and hands.

These hands hold the ball.
These hands hold the tribe.
These hands build fires.
We are a small tribe.
We build small fires.