paddy on the hardwood

Reviewed by Richard Kortum, East Tennessee State University

FEBRUARY 14, 2007       archive

Dr. James Naismith once proudly remarked of his invention, "I am sure that no man can derive more pleasure from money or power than I do from seeing a pair of basketball goals in some out of the way place - deep in the Wisconsin woods an old barrel hoop nailed to a tree, or a weather-beaten shed on the Mexican border with a rusty iron hoop nailed to one end."

Driving across the treeless Mongolian steppe five years past, I glimpsed a most incongruous apparition. I had to rub my eyes. About a mile off the track there stood a lone sentinel: a tall wooden post with a single rough cross board and basketball hoop attached. Venturing off the beaten track in Mongolia requires that one be ready for just about anything. It's the closest thing to being on another planet. But a basketball hoop? In the middle of nowhere? The seasonal encampment of nomadic yurts was long gone. The horse and yak herders had moved on to greener pastures. Across the silent grassland I could see easily for 20 miles in every direction. The iconic basketball goal was the only thing in sight. A photo, I thought, would make a spectacular poster ad for the NBA or FIBA, attesting to the sport's international appeal. The caption would read simply: "Even here!"

Ireland, of course, is not quite so far removed as Mongolia from the polished indoor hardwoods of the United States. But as far as professional basketball goes, it's pretty much a Third-World arena -- as Rus Bradburd abundantly illustrates in his first book. Anyone with the least experience in American b-ball -- even if only through watching a young child's Saturday morning rec league game -- will be moved by Bradburd's first encounter with an Irish gym: dark green walls, inadequate lighting, wooden backboards, non-regulation, unequal, and uneven hoop heights, the confusion of boundary lines for other sports. Having walked-on at Duke and having extended my career at Oxford, England for another three years as player-coach, I can relate. We even played on one floor covered in a green indoor carpeting. Take nothing for granted and please, please do not whine like a spoiled Yankee.

But Bradburd's personal tale will appeal to a vastly wider audience than us gym rats. It's a book of Romance; for all its Xs and Os and end-game strategems, for all its detailed observation of individual personalities on and off the court, it's a book of Dreams. It is also a book of Lost-and-Found, and ultimately of Reconciliation and Redemption. Large themes and ambitious, to be sure, especially for a born-again hoopster and (erstwhile) wannabe author. Bradburd succeeds, happily, and admirably; and he does so in large measure because as with his basketball playing abilities he is fully aware of his limits and refuses the temptation to try to go beyond them. His carefully constructed conglomeration of tales is a revelation of character -- his own, his players' and managers' and sponsors', the fiddlers', and the enigmatic Emerald Isle's -- as much for what he leaves between the lines as for what he says explicitly. -- In the way of Irish fiddle playing. And Bradburd helps himself to a homeopathic dose of understated Irish wit, to which his ear became increasingly attuned as well.

The writing is spare, as it should be. Not perfect, perhaps - not Dubliner Joycean. But neither is it amateurish or novice. Far from it. Bradburd encourages one to indulge events that present themselves on their own terms, as one leisurely savors the head and body of a fresh draught of Guinness or Irish whisky. Indeed, the occasional odd or jarring note seems to be wholly in sync with the immediacy and the liveliness of the fireside Irish pub music that Bradburd patiently stalks, passionately embraces, and graciously shares with his readers. Like his persistent weekly fiddle apprenticeships, it's painstakingly practiced. And every bit as hard won. So that one wonders whether the very occasional "flaw" might not very well be intentional - or conscious, at least -- like an authentic handwoven Navajo rug. (After all, although he traveled to Ireland to fiddle and to write, Bradburd first launched upon his literary craft in New Mexico.)

My only real beef with this book is the poor quality of the half-tone photos. They needn't be Hollywood glossy, mind you. That simply would not suit the story. Still, for my taste they're too grainy, cheap, and amateurish, especially for a book of this caliber. This minor blemish aside, Bradburd as Irish bard weaves for us an intimate, captivating firelit tale, of adventure and quest for meaning. Prompted by his searching voice, the reader undergoes the inevitable, but potentially self-illuminating, clash of cultures through which may be experienced first-hand, then, the transformative power of a newfound love of things "foreign" -- or of things initially perceived as such.

Bradburd's rocky, risky voyage brings to body all the roller-coaster vertigo & centrifuge, bloods the hilarity & melancholy, and distills the spirit of traditional Irish slow airs (themselves a wordless flow), as played against a backdrop of a cross-town odyssey on foot in Belfast. As hinted by the series of subtitles throughout, for maximum effect his tales ought each to be accompanied by a fitting fiddle tune. A companion CD of Bradburd's own sawing (with or without the accompaniment of his Irish masters) would therefore not be unwelcome. But never mind the absence of actual music. Even performed a cappella, these nicely nuanced "paddies" will engross and delight the imagination of all those who root for underdogs and who applaud unlikely heroes, who care for the conservation of ancient customs, and who, as the shot clock winds down, in their own lives hanker not so much for victory as for completion and resolution. These delightful pages pretty much turn themselves.

"They say that nobody is perfect," remarked Wilt Chamberlain. "Then they tell you practice makes perfect. I wish they'd make up their minds."

Paddy on the Hardwood: A Journey in Irish Hoops, by Rus Bradburd. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2006. ISBN: 0-8263-4026-1. $24.95 hardcover. 200 pages, 12 halftones.

Copyright © 2007 by Richard Kortum.

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