Loss must linger on the minds of the 28 NBA teams not on the court last night when the Oklahoma City Thunder beat the Miami Heat in the first game of the championship series. LeBron James of the Heat and Kevin Durant of the Thunder are in their 20s, certain to dazzle for years to come on their way to the Basketball Hall of Fame. But neither superstar is likely to usurp Michael Jordan as the greatest NBA player ever.
So why did Quincy Troupe, poet and former professional basketball player, write a villanelle for the winning shot Jordan sank with six seconds left for his sixth NBA championship as a Chicago Bull in 1998? Doesn’t a form often associated with loss seem a strange fit for the reigning champ of champs?
Troupe offered two excellent explanations at a craft talk this spring at Poet’s House where he compared the Jordan villanelle “Forty-One Seconds on a Sunday in June, in Salt Lake City, Utah” to a free verse poem for Magic Johnson, the improv king of NBA point guards.
To Troupe, the villanelle’s echoing lines matched Jordan, so often returning to the championship to terrorize his opponents. No one who guarded Jordan would need evidence of the link to loss found in these four villanelles by Dylan Thomas, Edward Arlington Robinson, Sylvia Plath, and Elizabeth Bishop.
Troupe also described Jordan as a mechanics player who over and over again literally soared above opponents with a 48-inch vertical leap. Players knew exactly what Jordan was going to do; they just couldn’t stop him. The repetition of a villanelle is precisely that predictable. The resonant image of a Jordan dunk or jump shot is the hang time. The first line of the Troupe villanelle, by form repeated three more times: “rising up in time, michael jordan hangs like an icon, suspended in space.”
In contrast, Troupe’s first basketball poem in 1985 heralded an improv player, Magic Johnson of the Los Angeles Lakers, an agile and innovative point guard, the epitome of surprise.
Was Troupe an improv or mechanics basketball player? At 72, he still answers with his body as well as his words, as if he is trying to twist around an opponent. He wasn’t a tall point guard so “you’re going to learn improv or you are going to get stuffed.”
Troupe’s segue from basketball to poetry? Jean Paul Sartre and a busted left knee. Seriously.
Troupe joined the Army in the early 1960s and went from boot camp to basketball for Army and All-Army teams in France (nice work if you can get it) and a French pro team. Then he blew out his left knee. So Troupe tried writing “an awesomely bad novel” -- the sexual conquests of a pro athlete touring Europe. A French girlfriend said a family friend might have some advice.
That writer, “a little French guy with glasses,” turned out to be Sartre, who suggested Troupe learn control over language by reading poets.
Practiced control, passionate practice – Troupe already knew from basketball. His competitive juices kicked in too. Just as kids in playgrounds and backyards still want to imitate a Magic Johnson no-look pass, Troupe wanted to make poems like Pablo Neruda or Dylan Thomas. So he taught himself to write in various poetic forms, including the villanelle.
“I found I loved writing just as much as I loved to play basketball,” Troupe said at Poets House. “I could do it all day long, and want more.”
Troupe also already knew much about music, having absorbed lots of jazz, gospel and Latin music during his childhood in St. Louis, Missouri. By the time he wrote a break-though poem on John Coltrane, Troupe appreciated that those who soar in improv are building on solid, honed fundamentals, whether in basketball or jazz or poetry.
Flash forward to lots of writing success but still not a poem that satisfied Troupe about basketball. Then he moved from LA to NYC and the sounds of his new city started to alter his line from a long 12-syllable hexameter to something shorter and quicker and more unpredictable. Which led to a start and many revisions to the ode to Magic.
“I wanted a line close to a jazz riff,” said Troupe, who coauthored with jazz musician Miles Davis, “Miles: The Autobiography” in 1989, which won the American Book Award.
Jazz and basketball, like poetry, all offer Troupe a way to express American affinities. “I was hell-bent on establishing an American form, rooted in my own experiences,” he said.