BLACK PLANET

Facing Race During an NBA Season

By David Shields

Crown. 223 pp. $23

Before the National Basketball Association season of 1994-95 got underway, David Shields, a novelist and English professor at the University of Washington, approached the management of the Seattle SuperSonics "about spending the year with the team in order to write a book about them." Not surprisingly, he was turned down. Professional teams in any sport move in self-contained bubbles, hostile to outsiders, in constant fear their secrets will be divulged, their internal balance always at risk.

So Shields went ahead and did something unimaginably stupid: He wrote a book anyway. "Necessity is the mother of invention," he says, though "invention" is hardly the word for what's in this book; "denied access to the gods, I'm writing this other book--about being a fan in the faraway stands and ogling the gods." Rejected by the team, rarely granted a seat in the press box, he resorted to recording his e-mail exchanges with other basketball lunatics; transcribing (and reproducing ad nauseam) sports-talk radio shows; doing play-by-play synopses of meaningless games he saw from the stands; filing occasional reports on home life with his wife (including some fairly detailed ones, for which divorce would seem appropriate retaliation, on their sexual activities) and young daughter; and indulging himself in unrelievedly tiresome ruminations on race in America as seen through the distorted lens that the NBA presents.

"Black Planet" is an amazingly bad book, right up there at the top of my list of all-time stinkers, side by side with Alexandra Ripley's "Scarlett," Gay Talese's "Thy Neighbor's Wife," Joe McGinniss's "The Last Brother" and Seymour Hersh's "The Dark Side of Camelot." It is coarsely written, contains almost as many first-person singulars (10 on the first page!) as definite articles, and in its approach to one member of the SuperSonics is so servile and hagiographic as to turn one's stomach.

Had the Sonics permitted Shields to write about the team from the inside, Lord knows what he would have produced, for this book suggests nothing so much as that he's really only interested in writing about himself. If he has the reportorial skills and curiosity about others that would have been necessary to write the book he originally proposed, there's absolutely no evidence of it here. He is content to sit on the sideline, sucking his thumb and gazing at his navel.

When, that is, he isn't gazing at Gary Payton's navel. Payton was the star guard of the 1994-95 Sonics. Shields may be married to his wife, Laurie, but it looks for all the world as if he's in love with Gary Payton. Consider the evidence:

"I spend so much time thinking about him," Shields writes, "his baffling mixture of being very cool and very square." Or: "I seem to need to constantly try to translate Gary's actions into words, make him somehow understandable to me, make him mine." Or: "I admire Gary Payton, the way the passenger admires the driver." Or: "Payton is utterly narcissistic, utterly self-referential, but (and?) somehow I adore whatever he does." Or (hold your breath): "Making love with Laurie, I feel like I am--I imagine that I am--as tall, thin, and muscular as Gary Payton."

There's all the proof you need or could possibly desire of what Shields says in his Author's Note: that this book is about "how white people (including especially myself) think about and talk about black heroes, black scapegoats, black bodies." What he doesn't say, for obvious reasons, is that when it comes to race he is capable of the most arrant nonsense imaginable, perhaps the loveliest example of which is:

"A poster on a city bus says, 'Condoms--they go where you go. Condoms have improved since your parents used them. If they had sex, that is.' In the ad, a black man and black woman are both wearing glasses. It's unmistakable to me that their blackness is meant to represent their sexuality; it's also unmistakable that their glasses are meant to represent being smart about sex. The ad would not make sense if they weren't wearing glasses or if they weren't black. Embedded in the ad is the history of our country."

If you think it can't get any more vulgar than that, think again. Elsewhere Shields tells us that "recently, under the covers with Laurie, I couldn't quite" reach orgasm. Then he thought about the larger-than-life black superstar Charles Barkley, who "likes going to strip clubs; I imagined Barkley at a strip club; then I . . ." 'Nuff said? Well, white eggheads blissing out on black athletes is an old phenomenon, and probably a harmless one as well, though Shields probably would do well to keep his distance from both Payton and Barkley. But this book takes it right down into the pits. It doesn't get any worse than "Black Planet."

Jonathan Yardley, whose e-mail address is yardley@twp.com.