“Five Horsemen,” basketball, and the difference between tragedy and injustice


This is a poem/story I’ve been writing for years. At its core, this is about how some of the bad things that happen to us are just bad luck, or fate or whatever… but many of the bad things that happen to us– often the things we THINK are just bad luck or fate– happen for specific reasons.

It’s like… getting struck by lightning is bad luck. Tripping and falling down the stairs is bad luck. But when we start talking about war casualties, hate crimes, sexual assaults, shootings and more, that’s something very different.

A family losing their home to foreclosure isn’t just bad luck. Someone, somewhere, profits from that.

A little kid getting shot while he’s sleeping on the northside isn’t just tragic. Gun violence doesn’t just happen. Poverty, gun control laws, lack of opportunities, a messed up education system– a million other factors play a role.

A trans woman of color being assaulted by a group of white drunks isn’t just an unfortunate circumstance. It’s the product of a culture that encourages, whether explicitly or implicitly, the oppression of people who aren’t straight, white men.

A black teen getting shot by a vigilante isn’t just the work of one horrible racist. It’s the work of a media that demonizes black and brown youth, a messed up Florida gun law and other factors.

A polar bear starving to death because of the destruction of its habitat shouldn’t make us sad. It should make us angry.

A friend or relative giving his or her life while serving overseas isn’t just a horrible thing to have to deal with. It’s the product of a system built on war and imperialism. It’s the responsibility of the politicians who vote for war, the media who promote it, the people who let it happen. It’s bigger than what we can see.

But when we start to see the systems and institutions at work, we can start to fight back. When we see how the little, everyday, concrete, face-to-face elements of our lives intertwine with theses larger, sometimes-abstract institutions, we can find the power that we have to change things. That’s what this poem is really about.

You can’t avoid tragedies. But you can work to change injustices.

As always, please share this– tumblr, twitter, facebook, blogs, email lists, whatever. I really appreciate it. And you can check out my other poems here.

Here’s the text:

Five Horsemen

Finally we find a court free of teenagers and we stand, unsure of ourselves, seven years between us. Then the ball hits the blacktop, and we are snapped back into our loose-fitting lives.

Basketball may lack the storied history of baseball or the bone-crunching majesty of football but it IS the great American sport and this is why: if you pay attention to movies or Saturday morning cartoons, you’d learn that American boys naturally group themselves into circles of five: the leader, the sidekick, the smart guy, the big guy and the crazy guy.

In other words, point guard, shooting guard, small forward, center and power forward. And seven years ago, we wore these skins like oversized throwbacks, loosely, but proudly. We believed. Never played for no high school. Played for our neighborhood. Played for our pride, sharp as the summer, natural as sweat. Played for girls we still dream about sometimes.

Tonight… we play two on two. Seven years dancing over our shoulders, under our feet, swirling in the space between us, the space where your once ever-present laughter would be. Seven years can pass so quickly, like a winning senior season, like OT in a playoff game, like college for me, like bootcamp for you, like that email I never responded to. They can pass like the flash of a roadside bomb.

I’ve been passing a lot, content to just watch my old friends and try to capture something I know I can’t hold on to… Our five went to prison, the only one of us to actually get better at the game, but his play now is harder, triple-teamed by shadows at all times. He travels, and no one has the guts to say anything. Our four lost his health insurance and his hustle with it; he just camps out on the three-point line, waiting. Our three got married, got rich and got soft, and you…and me… Your mind is always a thousand miles away when you find the ball in your hands, wide open.

So I take my first shot of the game, my first shot in seven years, a jumper from just inside the three-point line, top of the key, no problem. I feel the ball rotate out of my hand like God giving birth to a new planet, and watch it sail…over the backboard, over the fence, and into the darkness.

When you died, I needed both hands to count the number of people who tried to tell me how natural it was. How you believed in what you were fighting for, as if that made you right. How losing the people we care about… is just part of growing up. Like paying your taxes. Like turning the music down. When you died, your mother told me: “everything happens for a reason.” I don’t think she was talking about god.

Because when you shed your skin you’re supposed to have a new one underneath. There are some things you don’t outgrow. There are some things you don’t just lose along the journey. There are some things that must be taken from you. And we accepted growing old, we accepted the fact that we would never be seventeen again, but standing here, like the five horsemen of American Apocalypse: Prison, Poverty, Greed, Apathy, and War… we understood: this is what they take from us.

The politicians, the teachers, the cops, our parents, each other—everyone who ever told us that this is natural, that the way things are is the ways things have always been and always will be. This is what they take from us.

Ten points and ten rebounds every game. Those ugly-ass crosstrainers you played in. That smile, like you knew the ball was going in before it even left your hands, like it was…inevitable. There is a difference, between tragedy and injustice. Between losing and being lost. The mosquitoes pinch me awake. I run off to get the ball. You’re the only one of us laughing.

HUGE thanks to Jessica Roelofs for shooting and editing the video. She’s great.