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

Photograph: Getty Images; Collage: Gabe Conte

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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.

That said, it would actually really be hard for me to see a LeBron James incapable of playing at a high level. I’ve watched many of my favorite stars go out as really diminished versions of themselves. That would be hard for me with LeBron James, not because I have any fantasies about his mortality but because I've seen him play at a level that is unreal since he was a 15 year old. I wonder what watching him play at a diminished rate would tell me about my own illusions about myself.

LeBron and the Cavs after their 2016 NBA Finals clincher.

TOPSHOT-BKN-NBA-FINALS-CAVALIERS-WARRIORS-GAME 7

LeBron and the Cavs after their 2016 NBA Finals clincher.
AFP/Getty Images

I don't think it's possible to say that your work as a poet and your work as an author don't inform one another, but this book does feel like an intentional blurring of the lines. What compelled you to do something so formally experimental in comparison to your previous books?

When I play basketball I often get in a lot of trouble, because I go against the fundamental rule: you’re not supposed to jump in the air without a plan. But I think what any hooper knows is sometimes we exist outside the confines of rules. Sometimes you're jumping and through the very act of jumping you have a little bit of time that you didn't have before, a time through which something else can be invented that did not exist while you were earthbound.

That was the process of this book. I got past the pregame and there was a moment where I realized it would be ridiculous if this form only existed for this section. I didn't really know how to execute this idea. That was the moment of me jumping in the air and just waiting for something to materialize. What happens, as anyone who plays basketball knows, is sometimes when you jump in the air, yes, sometimes another defender collapses and through that other defender collapsing, a sliver of light opens up through which you can fire a pass and find the hands of someone who’s open. That just kept happening with this book where repeatedly I was like, "I'm going to jump into the air, hopefully a double team will arrive and something will happen.”

You’ve never shied away from sharing yourself on the page, but this book leans into that in a way that feels far more substantial than your prior work. Was there a point at which you made an active decision to effectively write this as an autobiography?

Yes. I think sometimes as a writer you think you're writing several things and then the piece comes out or the book comes out and someone points out to you that you were actually writing a different thing. Though I was aware [what I was doing], I will say that going into the details of being incarcerated and being unhoused was something that I had maybe been a little bit more afraid to do [before]. I think I still harbor a lot of unfair resentment for those versions of myself, or perhaps have resentment for the way those versions of myself impacted the people who loved them. To unearth those versions and put them plainly on the page and to assess those versions of myself attempting to do gently and thoughtfully meant that I had to reformat a relationship with how I felt about my past selves and the people who not only loved my past selves but endured them.

That meant coming to terms with the fact that I am not going to live long enough to be forgiven by everyone I've ever wronged. That is something to me that frightens me. The fact that forgiveness is not this limitless pool that we can reach into and pull from whenever we want to, it frightens me. I think before I sit down to write any book, I ask myself, what have you been afraid of? How are you going to get a little bit closer to that fear by the end of making this? It just so happened that this time out, all of my fears required me to be a little bit more rigidly autobiographical and to ask myself how effectively I could forgive the past versions of myself that needed to be forgiven, but could not get it from everyone they harmed.

The emotional climax of this book effectively hinges on a Nike commercial that you saw while living in Connecticut in 2015.

I'm very excited to talk about this because no one remembers [the commercial]. How could nobody remember that?

I imagine it will get readers thinking about how so much of sports and the narratives we ascribe to it are used as engines of commerce to sell hoodies or sneakers or season tickets. I think it's possible to be moved by a commercial in an uncomplicated way, but is that something that as an author, a fan of the game, and a fan of LeBron—who is as much an industry and a product as he is an individual at this point—you have trouble reconciling?

Every time I watch [the commercial] I feel like I'm being manipulated. Because, like, this is a Nike ad. I'm being seduced into this capitalistic labyrinth of emotion. I'm hyper-aware of that.

But I don't actually care about it as a Nike commercial as much as I do something that came to me at a time where I missed home more than I'd ever missed home. This idea that we all in this place, no matter what this place is, we're all one. Through our collective being, this place rises to a level that it could not rise to before. This place that is just one city on the map becomes the entirety of the map. That means this place is now everywhere you are. For a moment, it felt like Ohio was where I was.

I can forgive myself for being seduced into an emotional frenzy. I can forgive myself for bowing at the altar of that specific commercial because I think what it's actually asking of me, at least as an Ohioan who loves Ohio and longs for it when I'm not there, is how much of a place can you carry with you when you are not in that place.

You’re a big Columbus Crew fan, and you called this most recent 2023 squad a “team of destiny.” [Last year the Crew won their third MLS championship.] I think that when you follow a team or an athlete in any sport there is a difference between hope and belief. Everybody hopes for a trophy at the end of the season, but every now and then there is a moment where hope becomes belief—just a certainty that it is going to happen, that they’re going to win it all. What was it about this version of the Columbus Crew that made you believe?

It was the Cincinnati win in the playoffs. Not only was it great to beat a rival to get to the MLS Cup final, but it was also this culmination of the team’s whole ethos of play. The belief with the Crew last year was that this style of play wouldn't translate to MLS because it's so possession-heavy. The defense is special, but a lot of people had questions about the possession-heavy nature that relies on really methodical attack. Cincinnati FC, for example, they're just relentless in attack. I'm not saying they don't play without methods. I'm not going to compliment them too much, but they're just so aggressive. What people didn't seem to understand, which I think anyone who plays the game does understand, is that possession isn't just possession for possession's sake. Possession also means that you have the ball, the other team doesn't, and they have to chase you around the fucking pitch, right? The Cincinnati game was a perfect culmination of that. After that game, I remember telling my friends, it doesn't matter who comes here. We're winning the Cup. I don't care who comes out of the West. For me, that's where hope became belief.

It just felt different this time out. This was the first time we had a championship parade for the Crew. We didn't have one in 2008. Obviously, we didn't have one in 2020. This was the first one the city had ever had. I'm going to remember that for the rest of my life. I've seen three championships in my lifetime for a team I love so much. Most people don't get that. Most people don't get one. It's the same with the Timberwolves this year. They’ve begun to falter a bit, and I worry about the playoffs, and I worry about KAT and the injury shit. But to watch the Timberwolves this year has been so thrilling. It's the most fun I've had watching the Timberwolves basketball since 2003. I have to move past this sense of entitlement that I think comes very easy to this relationship we have with fandom, and instead move straight to this really extreme gratitude that I want to feel for what I'm able to witness.

The Crew in all their glory.

Los Angeles Football Club v Columbus Crew - 2023 MLS Cup

The Crew in all their glory.
Zach Sanderson/ISI Photos/Getty Images

I think as much as There’s Always This Year is about you, as much as it’s about LeBron, at its core this is a book about Columbus, Ohio. They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us, the book that sort of launched this phase of your career, came out in 2017. In the years since, there’s been a mural of you painted in your hometown. You recently participated in the photo shoot for the Columbus Crew’s 2023 jersey launch. How does becoming a figure who’s so tangibly embedded into the culture of your city affect your relationship with it?

It’s important for me to note that I was once unhoused in this city. I think when you're unhoused in any city that has any population at all, you are either invisible or you're a nuisance. It's interesting to transition to this hyper-visibility. [The mural is] four blocks from my house. It sits at the gateway to the East side of Columbus, where I'm from. It is not lost on me when sometimes people send me pictures of their young Black kids in front of it. All that stuff matters both materially and emotionally.

I also think that what I love about this city is that these have always been my folks. I like that when I'm in Whole Foods, people come up and talk to me about albums they like. I like that when I'm at the florist, I can have a conversation about my dog and the florist's dog. I like that when I go to my bakery, they already have what I like boxed up for me, not because I'm special, but because I'm there, because I've been there, because I'm tenured. My affections are tenured in this place, but also my real presence has a tenure to it. I get hesitant about anything that might separate me or build an artificial or very real hierarchy between me and the people who live here, because we all know better than that. I don't want to be separate from, I don't want people to ever be afraid to come up and talk to me because they saw my picture in the New York Times or whatever.

I am not only a part of a community, but any success I have begins here. I would like to build a world in Columbus where people are not interested in me because of what I produce. Here, if my lasting legacy is only what I've produced, then I think I've maybe failed as a community member. If in Columbus, after I'm gone, what people say is he wrote some books I loved, then I've really failed as a person who purports to love this place and love the people in it. Because, yes, I love Columbus deeply, but I'm not in love with the fucking skyline. I'm not in love with the bridges. I'm in love with the people. The people are the architecture of the place. I owe the affection I have for that architecture and those people who really built this place to shine through.

Originally Appeared on GQ