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Matt de la Peña and Hanif Abdurraqib on how basketball feeds their writing

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

One of the coolest parts of this job is talking to writers. Well, this summer we're inviting writers to talk with each other. We set up Matt de la Pena and Hanif Abdurraqib on Zoom, and they had never met. But as writers and basketball fans, they found they had a lot in common. Here's Hanif Abdurraqib.

HANIF ABDURRAQIB: What position did you play?

MATT DE LA PENA: I was a point guard.

ABDURRAQIB: I was also a point guard. That's wild.

DE LA PENA: Oh, wow.

ABDURRAQIB: What kind of point guard were you? Were you, like, a score-first point guard? Were you kind of, like, pass-first?

DE LA PENA: OK, this is great. So, yeah, I like to shoot. A early mentor in my life said, Matt, win, lose or draw, you get 50.

(LAUGHTER)

DE LA PENA: So that was, like, my - what was floating around my head as a kid. But also, my college coach called me Matt No de la Pena because I wasn't a big defender.

ABDURRAQIB: No. I was also - I was - my scouting report would also suggest that I was a very unwilling defender.

SHAPIRO: De la Pena writes books for young people. Abdurraqib writes poetry and essays. They've each won awards for their work, including a Newbery and a MacArthur. Abdurraqib jumped in with the impact of de la Pena's first book on him, "Ball Don't Lie."

ABDURRAQIB: Well, the thing about "Ball Don't Lie" is it was, like, a little bit out of what some would consider my, quote-unquote, "reading range." And I was a little older, but I loved it because to this day, I still take it to, like, young writers I work with. And I see it have the same impact on them as, like, Walter Dean Myers' "Hoops" had on me when I was a kid.

DE LA PENA: Yeah.

ABDURRAQIB: I think every generation, like, requires a story that speaks to them on their level.

DE LA PENA: I agree. You know, it's, like, so seminal for the reading experience - is, like, that first series or book that you read. It just sticks with you, you know?

ABDURRAQIB: Yeah. I don't know why that is.

DE LA PENA: So thank you, by the way. Thank you for saying that. It really means a lot. I'll tell you, you know, I went to college on a basketball scholarship. And then I went to an MFA program. And I remember getting into the MFA, and I said, I will never, ever - no matter what happens, I will never write a book about basketball because I didn't want the sport to define me. And then, of course, I made it two months, and I started "Ball Don't Lie." But, you know, like, I think sometimes you kind of are fighting against the way the world's defining you. And it doesn't always go smoothly, you know?

ABDURRAQIB: Yeah.

DE LA PENA: What about you? Did you grow up as somebody who was playing the sport or watching the sport?

ABDURRAQIB: Oh, both.

DE LA PENA: Like, what's your early memories of the game?

ABDURRAQIB: Yeah, both. I mean, this is interesting because what I'm working on now is a book about growing up in the era of LeBron James, who was about my age and who was in high school when I was in high school, and to be in Ohio, you know?

DE LA PENA: Ohio, yeah.

ABDURRAQIB: It was, like, a unique time. But I grew up loving the game in the heyday of the '90s. And I've been a lifelong Timberwolves fan, but individually I loved Allen Iverson. He was my guy. And yeah, we - you know, I played all the time. Basketball is still the sport I play, you know, every day that I can. I live near a court. And I go, and I put up shots until I hit 50 jump shots. I just...

DE LA PENA: Wow.

ABDURRAQIB: It's a part of this thing where I love the routine. And some days I can make 50 jump shots in no time at all. And some days it takes a long time, you know?

DE LA PENA: Yeah.

ABDURRAQIB: But I really like the feeling of getting to something and completing it because I think...

DE LA PENA: Oh, I love it.

ABDURRAQIB: You know, there are days where the writing doesn't come easy. And I feel a little bit more trapped in my own brain. But those movements of - you know, you go out to a court with the basketball, and you know how to shoot a jump shot. And even if...

DE LA PENA: Yeah.

ABDURRAQIB: ...It's not falling, if you keep shooting, you're going to make a couple.

DE LA PENA: I love that metaphor because, you know, like, it's true. You're going to make yourself hit 50 shots if it takes 65...

ABDURRAQIB: Yeah, yeah.

DE LA PENA: ...You know, attempts or if it takes a hundred. So, like, you force yourself to do it. And it's similar to writing. You can't just come in and it just flows every day, right? Like, there are times where you have to sit there and wait and force yourself to not leave. It's interesting. I don't know how you were as a reader. But I was a basketball player first. That was my identity. And that's the way I kind of wanted the world to see me because I was good at it. And as a student, I was very average. And I kind of went to class to sort of survive instead of to succeed.

ABDURRAQIB: Oh, for sure.

DE LA PENA: But I grew up playing basketball and not really watching it. So in a weird way, I came to being a fan of the NBA through becoming a player first. And I actually came to being a reader through writing first.

ABDURRAQIB: Yeah. I was only a reader. I never wanted to be a writer. I never thought of myself as a writer. Even when I wrote my first book, I was like, this is it. I wrote - my first book was a poetry book. And I was kind of like, I'm going to write one book of poems, and that's it. You know, I never really wanted to write any more than one book.

DE LA PENA: Wow.

ABDURRAQIB: I got into a lot of trouble in my late teens and early 20s, and so I had a record. And so it was hard for me to get a job. And...

DE LA PENA: Yeah.

ABDURRAQIB: I had found this job, this, like, 9-to-5 job with benefits. It was a decent job. And I didn't love it, but I was like, well, I got to stay here because no one's going to hire me if I don't stay here. And so it was like, I'll write this book. I'll take, like, a couple of weeks of paid time off to go on a little book tour. And then I'm back to it, you know? I'm back to the 9-to-5. And I'll write poems on the side.

DE LA PENA: Yeah.

ABDURRAQIB: But that's it.

DE LA PENA: Wow, that's so interesting.

ABDURRAQIB: The big question of my book is I'm orbiting the idea of what it means to, quote-unquote, "make it," you know, this narrow idea of making it where it's like, did you make it to the league? And it's like, maybe not, but if your name is good on your block until you die, you've made it.

DE LA PENA: Yeah.

ABDURRAQIB: You know, like, if you've done something, if you haven't played in 20 years but kids know who you are now, you've made it.

DE LA PENA: Yeah. And again, it goes back to narrative.

ABDURRAQIB: Narrative. Yeah.

DE LA PENA: It's the neighborhood narrative. Like, you know, it's so interesting that you said that. What does it mean to make it? What was floating in the back of my head always with my very first book, "Ball Don't Lie," was, you know, we always hear the story about the one in a thousand who "makes it," quote-unquote. But I wanted to tell a story about one of the 999...

ABDURRAQIB: Yeah.

DE LA PENA: ...Who don't because that to me is fascinating. Like, where do you fall short? - because this is another thing that's interesting with basketball. It teaches you failure...

ABDURRAQIB: Absolutely.

DE LA PENA: ...Because at some point you're going to hit your ceiling. And by the way, we're talking even LeBron James - you just talked about. He hasn't shown the ceiling yet, but eventually it will hit him, you know, even one of the best players to ever play. But those of us who aren't the best player to ever play, like, we hit the ceiling earlier. And we go, oh, this is as far as I can take this sport. Now I've got to figure out where to go from here. And I feel like that's such a valuable lesson as a writer...

ABDURRAQIB: Yeah.

DE LA PENA: ...Because, like, for me, when I come up with a story idea, that's the most beautiful the story could ever be because it's the inspiration. And then when I try to actually execute it, it never lives up...

ABDURRAQIB: Yeah. Well, our dreaming can't really match the capacity that - we dream infinitely, like, right? The dreams of what we want our work to do are infinite, but our abilities are not infinite. It's like any other dream. When I wake from a dream that's really beautiful, from the moment I wake up, it starts to fade. And so the work then becomes, how closely can I render this for someone who was not there dreaming alongside me, right?

DE LA PENA: Yeah. Oh, that's perfect.

ABDURRAQIB: And that's, like, how the work is, too, where I just want to look at a finished draft and say, how close did I get this to how I imagined it? And without being rigid because - did I allow myself room or space to be playful? Did I allow myself room to diverge from...

DE LA PENA: Oh, I love that.

ABDURRAQIB: ...This kind of - you know, just because I had the dream once doesn't mean that I can't expand on it.

DE LA PENA: Yeah. Yeah. I love that.

SHAPIRO: Matt de la Pena in conversation with Hanif Abdurraqib. De la Pena's next picture book is "Patchwork," out later this month. And Abdurraqib's next book is titled "There's Always This Year." You can hear his podcast as well - "Object Of Sound."

(SOUNDBITE OF NELLY SONG, "RIDE WIT ME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Elena Burnett
Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.