Author Hanif Abdurraqib on Writing About LeBron, Loving Ohio, and the Seductive Power of Nike Commercials

Author and poet Hanif Abdurraqib can write about anything. His bibliography spans two poetry collections and three nonfiction volumes, along with a grip of indelible magazine pieces (including a few for GQ). His most recent book, 2021’s A Little Devil in America, bagged Abdurraqib a Carnegie medal and was a finalist for the National Book Award.

Those who follow him on Twitter know that Hanif the Poet is also Hanif the sports fanatic. Next week he follows up his most acclaimed work with one that bridges the gap between the two: There’s Always This Year: Notes on Ascension. The book was initially announced as Abdurraqib’s first collection of writing on basketball, though it’s a little more complicated than that. Divided into four “quarters” with a recurring countdown clock, There’s Always This Year is a formally ambitious work blending sports writing, autobiography, and poetic verse into a free-flowing story about growing up in Ohio in the LeBron Era. Hoops fans may come for extended diatribes on the Fab Five, The Decision, and the 2016 Finals, but readers will stick around for its exploration of the relationship between athletes and the places they represent, and of the one between fans and their cities.

Abdurraqib called GQ from his home in Columbus, Ohio, for a lengthy conversation about what drew him to write a book about basketball, life in Columbus, and why the emotional climax of his latest book hinges on a Nike commercial.

You’ve mentioned a few times on various public platforms that while this is a book you’ve wanted to write for quite a while, the shape that it eventually arrived at changed a lot over time. I’m curious if you could trace where it started versus where it ended up and how it got there.

Hanif Abdurraqib: Early on, I just thought, well, isn’t it wild that I’m around the same age as LeBron James and we grew up playing basketball in Ohio around the same time and his legacy is so uniquely tied to this place?

That’s not a book. That’s not even an essay. That’s just a thought. I kept tacking things onto it until 2020 in one of the early phases of lockdown. He’d let his beard grow out a little bit and there was this video of him at one of [his son] Bronny’s games and it was grayer than I’d ever seen it. This was coming at a time when we were beginning to really talk of LeBron being immortal, being ageless. I thought yes, but isn’t it more interesting that he is mortal? Isn’t it more interesting that he, like all of us, is required to age and deteriorate?

This was also coming in a collision of my own, where I hit a point of being alive for over a decade past the point where I told myself I was going to live. So now it’s not just about LeBron and I being of a similar age and both being from Ohio, it’s about the responsibility both of us have to our own mortality. In my case, it’s a responsibility that requires me facing backwards for a moment and asking myself if I can seek some level of forgiveness for the past versions of myself that did not want to be alive. That was the moment where I thought this might be a book: something more interesting than just going, “Isn’t LeBron James cool? Isn’t basketball cool?”

I think within a few pages of reading the book, any basketball fan will be able to gauge that it culminates in the 2016 Finals. That said, the story often continues on past that. Is there anything you want to see from his last years in the NBA? What would feel like a satisfying ending?

It’s so silly, but I would like to see him get one more ring. One more ring puts him at five. It feels like a good number. Part of me also just wants him to end his career in Cleveland. I feel like what I want to see from LeBron at this point is all narrative. it has less to do with what happens on the floor materially. If he came back to Cleveland and played 15 minutes a game and got a fifth ring with some young stars, that to me would be just as good as him dragging a Lakers team to an improbable championship this year.

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