"If Alexander Wolff and Anne Lamott teamed up, they might slam-dunk something like this but King did it all by herself."
"Not since Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance has there been a sweeter, groovier primer on how to live. I love this book."
Karen Karbo, author of The Stuff of Life
"With pickup ball, it's always about the game, but sometimes it's also about what the game makes possible."
In her sparkling debut part memoir, part travelogue, part spiritual quest She's Got Next: A Story of Getting In, Staying Open, and Taking a Shot, Melissa King shows how much is possible when a woman in her late twenties turns to basketball in search of clarity and connection.
A transplanted southerner on the streets of Chicago, lonely and frustrated by her unfulfilling job and lackluster love life, King is looking for a place that feels like home, and her childhood passion for basketball leads her back to the court. "A game was always out there, calling me into the street, and I answered, every chance I got . . . I played because I need to move my body, shake stuff out of my mind, forget myself, prove that the world can be different . . . Race, money, gender, age, they're still there. But the junk we're all saddled with is gone."
From the rough, male-dominated, inner-city courts of Chicago, King travels to lazy oceanside pickup games in California and dilapidated gyms in her home state of Arkansas. She attends a basketball camp for adult women and volunteers as a coach at a local Boys and Girls Club. As King chronicles her journey, she introduces us to a memorable cast of characters: the grizzled park dude with his patented shots; the lesbian league players who actually have a significant other willing to cheer from the sidelines; the gritty trash-talkers from the hood; two kinds of girls, the glowering and those who get in the game with a smile; the court philosopher and ladies' man; and the older women who see the sport as a feminist rite of passage.
Everywhere King goes, she finds that basketball provides a form of community. Asserting herself on the court, she feels her confidence grow, and she discovers she has something to teach: how to be smart and daring and have the guts to take the shot, even if you miss it. She learns moves that serve her both on and off the court "the tricky balances of resilience and flexibility, of courage and serenity, of moving and stillness."
In a genuine, street-smart voice, both tough and tender, full of humor and hope, King conveys how she was searching for clues to the mystery of how to live, and how she found the answers in a game.
Melissa King has written for Sports Illustrated, Chicago Reader, and Sport Literate, among other publications, and her work has been featured in The Best American Sports Writing. She lives in Fayetteville, Arkansas, and is available for interviews.
A Conversation with Melissa King
How did you get started writing about basketball?
I've read and written since I was a kid. One of the things I remember doing, probably about age ten or so, was taking a calendar and systematically writing a poem about each of the holidays listed throughout the year. I made a whole book and illustrated it with magic markers. I've always been a writer of some sort, taking writing courses in college, working as a copywriter for marketing departments, and keeping journals as an adult. Not long after I moved to Chicago (in 1994) I bought a Macintosh computer, and I was writing a lot to justify all the money I'd just put on my credit card. I often found myself telling friends about all the experiences I had on the court, and so I sort of talked the stories before writing them. Or sometimes, I'd come home from playing and sit down in my gym clothes at the kitchen table and write down a story. Pretty soon there were quite a few stories.
What do you love about the game?
I love to get really exhausted, to push myself pretty close to a physical limit, but to do it in a way that isn't drudgery, like I find some other types of exercise to be. I've always exercised, and what I'm pretty good at is running, but I don't enjoy it as much as basketball. Beyond that, which became more apparent as I wrote, is that basketball has been a form of community for me, albeit a community with a constantly changing population.
I was pretty lonely when I first began to play, maybe I'm perpetually a bit lonely, and basketball is something I can do with other people. I think, too, that playing, asserting myself and getting on the court, held a new importance for me in Chicago. It was important to me that I come across as something of a "big city girl," and playing in the streets enhanced my confidence somehow, because I was hangin', in terms of both my personality and my game. That combination of fun exercise, community, and confidence-building was pretty addictive.
Are you any good?
Honestly, not terribly. I'm a good passer, and I play really hard, and I don't make a lot of dumb mistakes, usually. I'm a blend-in kind of player in terms of skill, even if I'm sticking out because of my race or gender or, more recently, my age. One advantage I do bring to a pickup game is that I like to pass, so, since it's more typical that pickup players are looking to shoot, I've been appreciated at times for getting the pass to the open man or working hard to get a rebound or play defense. That kind of support play can go well with all the busting a move that everyone else is doing.
You're not particularly imposing in appearance. How do men react to you when you're trying to get in a game?
It's not usually adversarial, although it is sometimes. On a certain level, I think every pickup player knows that he likes to play, and so there's an understanding that that's what it really comes down to. I can almost hear the thought and see the shrug that goes with it; the attitude seems to be, "I don't know, man, she just likes to play." I think being something of a foreigner can sometimes make people hesitant to question you. Also, I gauge a situation pretty carefully before I try to get in. It's easy to spot what's reasonable for me . . . I just watch and look at the size and skill and intensity, and if I'm trying to get in, the attitude seems to be, "She thinks she can play with us, let her play." There's a whole demeanor to getting in a game, and if you generally follow the etiquette, then people assume you've been around courts and you can play a little.
How "true" is the story?
The story is true, but one does have to remember, with writing like this, that the writer is choosing what to write about, and she's working from memory, and sifting through through all the filters of interpretation. I might remember one very small interaction or facial expression or comment, and I might build a vignette around it, so that I think what the reader is really getting is a diary of feelings.
What we remember and what stands out at the end of the day is that small thing that happened and made us feel something, and feelings aren't journalism. There is also the issue of voice. The narrator is not exactly me, although she's one part of me. She walks the line between sage and doofus, and that line has to be controlled, especially as you move toward a work of longer length. I think of the narrator as "she" as much as I think of the narrator as "I." So the story is true, but that narrator, she has her issues, you know?
You played basketball as a young girl, and now you have coached a team of girls at the Boys and Girls Club. Do you think sports are good for girls?
Yes, I do, and I also think there are lots of perfectly confident and self-possessed young girls out there who have no interest in physical exertion or sweating or testing their skills in the context of a game. It shouldn't be assumed that every girl should want to tap into her aggressive side.
Are you still playing?
Not as much as I'd like to. I have a three-year-old son, Jackson, and that does have a way of cutting into my leisure time. People ask me if I hope he plays some day, and I say of course, that would be great. I have an image that sticks with me, a memory at the end of the day that doesn't go away and so it must mean something. I attended a football game at my high school for the first time in twenty years, and I noticed that, when halftime started, a few of the players played with the band.
That football player trotting out onto the field with a trumpet in his hand was an awesome image of young manhood. When I was in school, there were the band guys and the football guys, boys could be one or the other, a nerd or a jock, and that was it. I'd like my son to avoid those limitations, and I was gratified to see that the system which might come down to that particular football coach and that particular band director in this case was doing what it could to avoid putting kids in boxes.
I find it disturbing how we push sports on boys from the time they are infants, with little onesies that say "Future All-Star" or "I love sports!" you know? But I admit I feel a little excited when Jackson wants to toss a basketball back and forth with me, and, maybe I'm crazy, but he seems to be working on his no-look pass. I try to keep myself in check though, because I'd hope for any kid that, beyond any specific interest that might be "good" for him or gratifying to his parents, he can find what amounts to his passion and his freedom and his community. That's what basketball was, for a good long while, to me, but it doesn't have to be basketball. It could be almost anything.
Praise for She's Got Next
"King's gentle self-deprecation makes her a lovable narrator, with her cool humor a plus throughout . . . Her poetic prose, as rhymthic as a dribble, will carry readers wherever she goes. If Alexander Wolff and Anne Lamott teamed up, they might slam-dunk something like this but King did it all by herself." Kirkus Reviews
"Once again the growing canon of literature about women and sports can welcome a new player onto the team roster, Melissa King, whose tribute to basketball and the almost mystical power it exerts on its fans and practitioners alike is a complete delight. In locales as varied as Arkansas and Chicago, Venice Beach and the hill towns of Massachusetts, the author's not-so-secret love affair with the game provides her and the other athletes she meets along the way joy and redemption in equal measure." Madeleine Blais, author of In These Girls Hope Is a Muscle
"More than a great sports book. A great book, period. Funny, wise, honest, and smart . . . this is a thoroughly unique memoir from a woman who plays the game of basketball for what it teaches her about herself and about others." Glenn Stout, author of Red Sox Century and Yankees Century
"Poetic and profane, funny and heartbreaking, it's a voice that catches you off guard from first page to last. A wonderful debut." Darcy Frey, author of The Last Shot
"Pickup-basketball queen cum reluctant philosopher Melissa King is the real deal. The girl also owns a champion's portion of sass, heart, brains, and nerve. Not since Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance has there been a sweeter, groovier primer on how to live. I love this book." Karen Karbo, author of The Stuff of Life
"There's so much to love about She's Got Next its urban rhythms, its deep dive into sport, its moments of great clarity and power. But most of all there's Melissa King, companionable and wise and funny, finding herself on the courts." Beth Kephart, author of Ghosts in the Garden