In his column Notes on Hoops, Hanif Abdurraqib revisits the golden age of basketball movies, shot by shot.
I can always tell which one of my friends didn’t grow up around hustlers by how they look up and lock eyes with the person at the mall kiosk, who—by virtue of that enchanting eye contact—doesn’t even have to wave them over. They drift into the grasp of the salesperson without even being aware of it. And that’s when their money is no longer theirs. On the street in a city my pal had never been to, a woman sells her a bracelet before she even knows what’s happening. Compliments her skin tone and lays the bracelet over it. Leans in to get a good look and then stands back as if she is witnessing a gateway to the promised land creaking open right there on the sidewalk.
And let me be clear: I am not opposed to hustles, and I am certainly not opposed to hustling. When I say I came up around hustlers, I mean that I know what it takes to keep the lights on and so I’ve rarely been in the dark. I have exchanged cash for some things I don’t want to know the history of. I’ve spent time on both sides of the hustling coin before and certainly will for whatever time I’ve got left on this twirling rock. A rock that, by the way, is spinning faster now than it was before. I don’t understand the science, but I know that time itself is a hustle. Spend a few days in Franklin County corrections and you might come to realize, urgently, that time is a currency. Silence is a currency. Any currency that can be interrupted can be the source of a hustle. Which brings me, again, back to intimacy—though I promise I won’t linger here too long, except to say that not all hustles are intimate, but the best ones have an undercurrent of intimacy. I’m not only talking about physical or romantic intimacy, though the tongue and the song and the tips of fingers and the voice in an ear are all mighty vessels for the hustle. What I’m getting at is how the hustle requires a type of knowing. Knowing of oneself, of course. But also a reading of an other, rapidly, before they can realize that you are acting upon that knowing. I am not the best hustler because I do not know myself as well as I want to, which leads to a series of ongoing self-hustles. Like setting my alarm for seven thirty when I’ve already crossed well beyond the midnight hour, immersed in the glow of my phone. But it’s the promise I think I’m chasing. Like my dear pal, looking at a bracelet reflecting off the sunlight, dancing on her skin.
White Men Can’t Jump dissects the hustle solely as a game of optics. Billy Hoyle used to hoop in college but now makes a living hustling streetballers. He’s white, wears baggy shirts and a backward hat to the courts populated by Black players who are taller, fitter, dressed for the game. But, most importantly, he’s white. Sidney Deane is Billy’s initial, primary target. Sidney is talented, loud, boastful, approaching a caricature of a nineties streetball archetype. Depending on the viewer, one might relish in the moment when Billy beats Sidney twice in their first encounter. The second time, revealing himself, whispering, “I’ve hustled a hell of a lot better players than you” in Sidney’s ear before Sidney misses a jump shot.
For all of its other moving parts, White Men Can’t Jump relies on teasing out the part of a hustle that I am most fascinated by in real life. The part that relies on looking, and how a person responds to that looking. There are many ways people tell on themselves, one of them being how they choose to react based solely off of what their eyes tell them, and how that connects to what they inherently believe. In the film, we are to understand that Billy’s hustle is effective because the Black players are incapable of seeing who he is, and by the time he has been fully rendered, it is too late. The Sidney/Billy pairing works because of this—on every court, Sidney convincing two opponents to saddle him with Billy as a teammate, Sidney sinking into the performance of begging to not have to play with the white chump who looks like he can’t make a shot, and so on.
The theme of optics and perceptions appears again in the plot line of Gloria Clemente, Billy’s girlfriend, often fed up with his reckless behavior, which has them on the run from people he owes a gambling debt to. While Billy and Sidney clear money off the courts of the city, Gloria studies to go on Jeopardy!, where she eventually makes it and nestles herself in between two white men. She gets a question wrong and then gets one right. The thickness of her accent envelops the answer “What is Mount Vesuvius?” but the judges give it to her. She then goes on a run of correct answers, hitting her stride with “foods that begin with the letter Q.” When she gets into an exceptionally good groove, one of the white men throws up his hands, not angry but exasperated. She has come into focus for him in that moment.
Much of White Men Can’t Jump’s playing with racial dynamics loses my interest when it moves away from the way appearance can be used to hustle and into attempting to unravel cultural differences. White people listen to music but don’t hear it, and so on. Billy’s inability to dunk isn’t all that fascinating (the title of the film shows its hand, after all) but his desire to prove to Sidney that he can dunk is, that desire so overwhelming that Billy wagers $2,500 on it, only to miss three times. One thing about a hustle is that if you are in too deep, for too long, it is possible that you might gain a misunderstanding of your limits. If you make a life around the rush that exists at the end of the trick, it can be easy to lose yourself in that feeling, in how people must see you, walking off on the shoulders of your victories.
One of the last public readings I did was in Wisconsin. I have this vintage Allman Brothers sweatshirt that I like, essentially just the cover of their album Eat a Peach blown up to an almost overwhelming size. Eat a Peach isn’t my favorite Allman Brothers album, but it has some of my favorite Allman Brothers songs on it. I wore the sweatshirt to the reading, and during the Q&A, an older white man asked about the sweatshirt. Rather, he asked about the person wearing the sweatshirt. “Is that an Allman Brothers sweatshirt you have on?” was the first part. And then, pulling the curtain back, “What’s the deal with you wearing it?” And, though I promise not to linger here too long either, I know the move, even when people believe that they’re nudging gently. The people, always white, who want to quiz me on “certain” music and then feel flustered when I don’t oblige. The people, always white, who insist that I rework an articulation of appreciation for a musician to fit their own understanding. I take this and come to the conclusion, once again, that hustling is easiest when you are in a room people don’t believe you to be in. All you have to do is show up and refuse to give the people what they want.
But, of course, Billy dunks at the end of the movie. A game-winning dunk. A triumphant dunk. I don’t think this scene has ever been surprising, even as I think back on it today. Billy becomes who a viewer might have wanted him to be the whole time. This is the part of the movie that turns on a familiar axis. Whether or not it is openly admitted, it appears, often, that there is a hunger for a white, American-born basketball star in the NBA. Among the media, among some basketball fans. And I don’t mean just a good player. I mean a great player. It is the Great White Hope syndrome, baked so firmly into the DNA of American culture that there are people unaware of when they’re bowing to it. When a white player emerges who might fit this mold, words like swagger start getting bandied about.
I’ve been thinking through this a lot, not just because the NBA finds itself firmly in the midst of this cycle again, thanks to the play of Tyler Herro, of the Miami Heat. This one small and specific piece of the larger machinery of an American hustle requires an elevation and a prioritization of whiteness. To set the trivial nature of basketball and its great white hopes aside, I have noticed people talking about empathy again. “Radical” empathy, I believe it is being called from time to time, though I’m not entirely sure what that means. I’m supposing it means overcoming the threat of personal harm for the sake of niceness. Niceness, too, is a hustle, though I will maybe have to approach that another time, when there aren’t tanks lining the downtown of the city I live in, awaiting armed fascists who might seek to break into the statehouse or who might seek to yell on a sidewalk, or who might seek something in between those two extremes.
The incoming president said, “America is not what we saw today” on a day when there was violence. As the aforementioned tanks poured into town, my city’s mayor stood behind a podium and said, “This country is better than what we’re seeing today.” The hustle is that everyone talks about the today as a single day that materialized, untethered, with no connection to any history before it or any history that will come after it. As if a moment is not within a braid of moments that define a place. As if a place is not defined, at least in part, by how eagerly and comfortably it retreats to violence as a type of language. To make a myth of a country is a misguided extension of kindness, but it is also a hustle. People who believe so richly in the inherent goodness of whiteness that they believe empathy alone will grow the hearts of fascists are both hustlers and easily hustled. Trapped within the mouth of a predator, a true hustler will talk about the glow of the predator’s teeth as soft, romantic lighting. I suppose I now have to take back what I said about not being opposed to hustles. The stakes were different then. I thought we were here together, simply talking about Billy Hoyle. And then about the ways that optics can fool the willing, and how America is almost always willing. I would apologize for us ending up here, but I’ve already told you: I’m a bad hustler. I don’t even trust myself.
Hanif Abdurraqib is a poet, essayist, and cultural critic from Columbus, Ohio.