Hanif Abdurraqib explores the romance of basketball — and futility of LeBron vs. MJ debate — in his latest book

CHICAGO — It’s uncommon for those who love basketball to embrace the inherent romance of the sport. But in his latest book, author Hanif Abdurraqib hopes to explore a side of basketball that often goes untouched.

“There’s Always This Year: On Basketball and Ascension” — the sixth book by the New York Times bestselling author — is a reflection on ascension and descent, a study of what it means to love and leave and return to a place. And yes, it’s also a book about basketball.

“I was trying to make a book that I had never seen before,” Abdurraqib told the Chicago Tribune after a talk at the Newberry Library with fellow poet Eve Ewing. “For most of my life, I’ve rooted for a very bad basketball team. You’re propelled by affection when there’s nothing else there. That’s what sports fandom does feel like — to be sometimes propelled by these wild affections when there’s nothing else motivating you. … And so I had to almost in my head pursue the wildest possible version of my affections for basketball to hold me over, to fill in the gaps that I couldn’t otherwise do with my abilities.”

A native of Columbus, Ohio, Abdurraqib’s study of basketball is entrenched in local royalty. This book began as a stray thought about LeBron James, native of Akron, Ohio, and his love affair with his home state and the community that raised, reviled and revered him. The idea grew to encapsulate Abdurraqib’s relationship with basketball and the way it constructed legacies for many figures in Abdurraqib’s life, from his father to James to neighborhood legends who dominated the hoop at the elementary school across the street from his childhood home.

Throughout the book, Abdurraqib works to shrink the grandeur of these legacies into something small enough to be held in the palm of his hand. And one such figure is Michael Jordan, a star whose legacy typically appears larger than life.

“We loved MJ,” Abdurraqib writes in the final pages of “There’s Always This Year.” “But there were Michael Jordans on our block. There were Michael Jordans walking among us. Jordans four houses down, Jordans at the bus stop. If I haven’t made it clear yet, this is all about the good fortune of who gets to make it out of somewhere and who doesn’t. Who survives and how.”

Abdurraqib has long since removed himself from the LeBron versus Jordan debate — “There’s nothing left to say,” he laughed — and his book ignores the argument that devours far too many modern NBA discussions. But he’s distinctly aware there isn’t a way to write about LeBron James without writing about Michael Jordan, because both have defined and redefined the concept of greatness in the sport.

In that way, Jordan’s presence is often situated just off the page, his legacy reflected in the way he is compared to those who taught Abdurraqib to love both the sport and the city he grew up in.

“All of that seemed so far away to me,” Abdurraqib said. “But having a relationship with the people in my neighborhood who felt like they were exceeding whatever expectations the outside world had for them — to me, these people were at least akin to Michael Jordan. … To me that seems so singularly fantastic that I just happened to be born into this place where I could look upon people and say — even if this guy on this court was like the sixth man off the bench of their high school team, on that court, they could be a version of a Michael Jordan in our neighborhood.”

This idea defines the focus of the book even when it wanders off the basketball court. Abdurraqib weaves stories of Michigan’s Fab Five and Columbus high school standout Kenny Gregory alongside intimate recollections of living unhoused in Columbus and reflections on songs like “Don’t Take My Sunshine” by The Soul Children. To maintain control of this sprawling scope, Abdurraqib structures the book in the terms of a basketball game, dividing it into a pregame and four quarters and punctuating his writing with a shot clock.

The result is a piece of writing that relies on a trust in the reader to embrace a journey through the most intimate — and, yes, romantic — work of Abdurraqib’s writing career.

“Using the language of battle or war is perhaps more fluorescent or vibrant in the actual weeds of playing a sport,” Abdurraqib said. “But actually, even if that is not the language used, sports are a romantic pursuit. I felt most romantic sometimes in the throes of a game. To hyperfocus on an opponent is an act of affection. It is offering and surrendering yourself to a depth of knowing another person. That pursuit of knowing is an act of affection.”

Abdurraqib is well aware of his position on the precipice of a new form of fame. Over the past seven years, he has risen rapidly through the ranks of literary achievement — a MacArthur “genius grant” in 2021, a National Book Award finalist selection and an Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence for his last book “A Little Devil in America.” In Columbus, Abdurraqib has become a local legend, complete with a place on a mural commissioned by the library. But that stature is stretching far beyond his hometown.

Last week’s event at the Newberry Library served as an informal entry into a full-on book tour, which launched with a pair of readings in Columbus on Monday. After the event, fans waited patiently for more than an hour in a line stretching down the longest hall of the library for a signing and a quick moment of chatter with Abdurraqib.

This isn’t the most comfortable setting for Abdurraqib — but if the spotlight was going to sharpen at any time in his career, he is grateful that it has focused on “There’s Always This Year.”

“Sometimes a shot feels good when it leaves your hand,” Abdurraqib said. “I just really feel like I achieved what I wanted. I feel like this book is as close to what I dreamed as I could possibly make it. I feel so grounded by the fact that I am walking through a dream with this book. And this book is kind of like a grounding thing because I did dream it and through my dream, I was able to make it something that I never thought I could.”