There is a lot of bad poetry in the world, and sports poetry is wincingly bad. You wish more people would take the advice of Noel Coward, who said, “If you must write poetry, you probably shouldn’t.” But I wanted a poem, a basketball poem, for my friend Pat Summitt. That’s how I came across Mary Karr’s poem “Loony Bin Basketball,” which, strangely, is dedicated to Phil Jackson. Strangely because it’s not about the glorious elevations of the game but about broken-sharded souls playing a pickup game in a mental ward, and it wasn’t what I wanted, I thought at first.
Every now and then a coincidence makes you feel like the real surveillance in this world isn’t conducted by the NSA but by a higher power, which has strung invisible fiber-optic threads right into your living room. That was the sensation I had in stumbling on Karr’s dedication to Jackson — like invisible filament threads had formed a weird triangular connection. See, it was Jackson who taught Summitt the triangle offense, with which she won so many NCAA championships before she got Alzheimer’s disease. Pat taught the triangle to me when I was helping her write her memoirs. Karr is a famous memoirist. Karr, Jackson and Summitt, that’s a triangle.
To find out more about this crisscrossing path of a poetic ball, I wrote Karr, inquiring about the poem and why she dedicated it as she did. She in turn sent a note to Jackson, asking what she should say about their relationship.
“Can I tell her I’m the real author of the triangle?” she wrote.
“Tell her we started as pen pals,” he replied.
Karr says, “That’s the truest thing” about their friendship, which is not as entirely unlikely as it seems. He’s a serious reader who takes obscure literary magazines and assigns books to his players. She’s a writer of piercing skill whose books, including the latest, “The Art of Memoir,” describe a hand-over-hand climb from alcoholic breakdown to sober literary achievement. When she isn’t writing at Syracuse University, she owns a New York apartment near Madison Square Garden, where she regularly watches Jackson’s effort to turn around the New York Knicks as president of the franchise. They talk a lot about the similarities between losing and literary rejection. “We’re all just trying to put a stone on the mountain,” she says.
They first met around 1995-96 at an Idaho writers conference, each fresh off bestsellers. She was celebrated for her memoir “The Liars’ Club” about surviving a jagged-edge Texas youth filled with firearms and waving liquor bottles. He had just published “Sacred Hoops,” his journal of self-discovery from a hyper-religious Montana childhood to an NBA coaching career transformed by serious-practice Buddhism.
At a cocktail gathering for authors, Jackson stood put like a solitary obelisk, tall and still, while around him swirled Michael Ondaatje, Mona Simpson and Frank McCourt. “Nobody knew who he was,” Karr says.
Karr knew — she had a 12-year-old son who was a basketball nut, and she had been a fan of the Knicks in the 1970s when Jackson played for them. She walked up to him, at 5 feet 5 meeting him at belt level.
“Hi, I’m Mary Karr,” she said.
“I know who you are,” he said.
“I don’t want your autograph,” she said. “I want you to write a check to my son for a million dollars. His name is Dev.”
Jackson said: “I know his name. I’ve read your book.”
That’s not really where “Loony Bin Basketball” started, though; it’s more of the end point. The start was years earlier, in the 1970s when Karr was a 22-year-old bartender in Minneapolis. At night she took workshops from Etheridge Knight, a poet acclaimed for his stomach-punching “Poems From Prison,” but so addicted to heroin he shot it into his jugular. Karr’s own first efforts were indecipherably abstract and filled with Nietzsche, so Knight’s tutoring consisted of stripping away her pretension. One evening, Knight took a pen, and tapped it on her sternum. “Your heart, Mary Karr,” he said. “Your heart knows what your head don’t.” The tap on the sternum felt more like a javelin blow, she observed.
She took a part-time job teaching poetry in a home for mentally disabled women. On her first day of work she read them Pablo Neruda’s “Walking Around,” and she could sense the imagery, like “sulphur-colored birds,” seize their attention. By the time she reached the final phrase about shirts on a clothesline “from which slow dirty tears are falling,” they applauded and stomped their feet with appreciation. But lesser poems didn’t have the same effect, she discovered. Curious, Karr decided to hold a contest, pitting poems against each other like games of one-on-one. She’d recite a great work and follow it with a poor imitative one. Unschooled, synapse-challenged, her audience nevertheless could tell the difference; they knew the distinction “between Beethoven and the Hokey-Pokey.”
“Loony Bin Basketball” is not strictly about basketball, it’s more about that latency of the soul, buried in even the most inoperative-seeming people. It describes a gym class at the McLean Hospital, where Karr checked herself in to keep from committing suicide. In her third memoir, “Lit,” she describes the crackup and reckoning that brought her to that psychiatric ward, “something I had feared all my life,” she says. But it was there Karr “surrendered,” found God and meditation, and began to write from her sternum.
In the poem, “the bleached floorboards yawned toward a vanishing point,” and “psych techs in Cloroxed white were giant angels who set us running drills.” One of the patients was a schizophrenic, a shoulder-curled man named Catatonic Bill. But when they went into the gym, he came alive. She watched, agape, as he became “a lithe and licorice boy, eeling past all comers, each shot sheer net.” Catatonic Bill had game, such beautiful game that “his midair pirouettes defied the gravity that I could barely sludge through.”
Karr dedicated the poem to Jackson because it reminded her of the “pure presence” he sought to teach his players in the triangle offense. At the heart of the friendship with him is recognition of a like-minded teacher: Jackson is the same tap at the sternum, demanding his players surrender false ego, go all in, and lose themselves. “I felt watching this guy in the looney bin that he became alert and present in the way any kind of spiritual practice would permit you to do,” she says. “It was moving to me, and seemed to me a very lovely thing.”
Jackson, as it happens, sees something similar in Karr’s writing. A couple of years after he met Karr in Idaho, he told her that he had begun regularly giving her books, including the “The Liars’ Club,” to his players.
“Why in God’s name would you have your perfect athletes read that book?” she said. “All it teaches is how to take an ass-whipping, and you don’t want them to learn that.”
He said, “It teaches courage.”
Pat Summitt heard “Loony Bin Basketball” over the phone about a year ago.
Guides to Alzheimer’s recommend reading poetry, which seems to speak to people with the disease even if they’ve never cared for literature before. Reading to Pat was a long habit; in ghostwriting three memoirs with her over 20 years, we’d become close friends partly through the pleasantly bonding habit of reading aloud.
We didn’t have much in common at first. I’m a New Yorker, and she’s a Tennessean, and when I went home with her to the family farm I got my foot caught in a cattle guard, and pointed at some tall stuff growing in a field, and asked her, “What’s that?” She said, “Grass.” But we entertained each other and loved the improbability of the friendship. I’d turn in a chapter, and talk about story arc, and she’d tell me I was “handy as a pocket on a shirt.”
One day Pat taught me the triangle offense. She drew it up with beautifully disciplined handwriting, her lines and arcs as straight as if she had ruled them with geometry tools. She showed me how three players on one side of the floor formed a triangle, and all the options that could result. If they collaborated unselfishly, an open shot should result. But the key was, “You have to give something up to get something back,” she said. When it worked, it not only made a team better than its most excellent player, it became beautiful. Maybe even art.
The triangle was one of the many things Pat gave an unfinished young person who had come to her with uncertain habits and a tendency to dress like a hobo. Trying to become a writer is a little bit like learning to sing — you want to issue a song, but you open your mouth and a flat note comes out. Or, no note at all. You spend most of the time hesitant to even try your voice. “I know what you’re afraid of,” Pat said once, in a throaty commanding tone I couldn’t help but listen to. I was afraid, like most people, of wholly engaging, she explained. Pat was my tap on the sternum.
After she was forced to retire, reading to her became harder as the disease progressed. One afternoon I followed the advice in the Alzheimer’s guide and tried a short poem. I read about Longfellow’s arrow, streaking through the air and coming down he knew not where, “For who has sight so keen and strong that it can follow the flight of song.”
The search for a good basketball poem for Pat at first was a cringing exercise. Most sports poetry is bad because writers try too hard to make the words perform like athletes, and instead they land heavy-handed. But Karr’s light and sure touch made a pickup game in a psych ward elevate in print.
If “Loony Bin Basketball” is an appreciation of unconscious athleticism, the real point of it is that we all “hold excellence and quality in ourselves no matter how defunct we may seem,” as Karr told Poetry magazine. As the Alzheimer’s progressed, Pat might falter in finding the right word in a conversation, but if an old country song came on she could sing all of it. There was another way, too, in which words never seem to fail her: saying Grace. “Lord,” she said on one occasion, “Bless this food and thank you for this fellowship, and use me how you will with this disease.”
As I read “Loony Bin Basketball” to her, I could sense it command her attention and draw her upright. For a few brief minutes, Catatonic Bill attained loft. “’Lucky we were to breathe his air,’” I recited. When I finished, there was a pause, and then an exhalation that sounded a little bit like awe.
“Who wrote that?” she demanded.
For more by Sally Jenkins, visit washingtonpost.com/jenkins.