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. Read More