Hanif Abdurraqib
April 2024

In ‘There’s Always This Year,’ Hanif Abdurraqib transcends time

The A Little Devil in America author turns his singular pen to basketball—and how the sport illustrates our struggles and strivings.
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At 40, Hanif Abdurraqib feels time’s passage. “Every hour that I live beyond what I anticipated my life to be feels like I’m just stealing time,” he says.

Abdurraqib has already left an indelible mark on America’s literary and cultural landscape. He is both prolific and diverse, successfully venturing into poetry, essay and music criticism. Whether he is writing about seminal hip-hop group A Tribe Called Quest (Go Ahead in the Rain) or Black performance (National Book Award finalist A Little Devil in America), or such wide-ranging topics as the ’90s rom-com You’ve Got Mail, Bruce Springsteen and public displays of affection, the MacArthur fellow blends observation, analysis and memoir. His writing reveals our most fervent desires and heartbreaks, and at times, his own, such as the untimely deaths of his mother and some of his friends.

“I write in hopes that my larger world becomes a little less lonely,” the author says.

With There’s Always This Year: On Basketball and Ascension, Abdurraqib turns his singular pen toward asphalt courts in neighborhood parks and waxed hardwoods in 10,000-seat arenas. If you’re thinking, “Basketball isn’t my thing,” fear not. By exploring the cultural nuances of the sport, Abdurraqib uses it as a lens through which to grapple with grief and legacy, place and beauty, our struggles and our strivings.

“You grow a legacy and mythology through word of mouth, through storytelling.”

Like a basketball game, There’s Always This Year is structured in four quarters that count down from 12 minutes. Poetic intermissions and timeouts offer moments of pause, sometimes mid-sentence, and a pregame chapter serves as the book’s introduction. This ambitious approach could be a distraction in less gifted hands, but here, the form adds to the immersive nature of the book and the tension of a clock that will inevitably run out. But before it does, Abdurraqib shows us what it means to ascend, like a player who launches himself from the foul line, he writes, “his arm stretched straight up, heavenbound, the basketball, an offering to the sky, but only for a moment.”

There's Always This Year by Hanif Abdurraqib

“I wanted to reframe my relationship with the passage of time,” he says. “Ascension felt like a really great way to describe continually crawling towards and beyond these ages that I had not anticipated myself getting to.”

Abdurraqib homes in on the basketball culture of his native and predominantly Black East Columbus, Ohio, neighborhood. It features the stories of several local and regional basketball players, many of whom never made it to the NBA. He chronicles the careers of local stars like Kenny Gregory, who was welcomed home from games by a parade of kids who followed his car in praise; and Estaban Weaver, whose posters hung in the homes of Eastside Columbus kids “who idolized him then, who idolize him always.” People like Coach Bruce Howard, who led Abdurraqib’s high school’s team to its first title win and who “never forgot a face,” transcend time.

These are names you are unlikely to find in basketball history books, on an ESPN debate show or on basketball Twitter. In a world that only values those who reach mainstream-determined peaks, such figures get left out of the historical record. For Abdurraqib, this reflects a misunderstanding of the nature of basketball culture and the power of storytelling in Black communities.

“I think there is a real purpose in living a life where you build a mythology around yourself that carries through generations,” he says. “It passes through young people saying ‘I saw this thing that you would not believe. Can I tell you about this thing I saw that you would not believe?’ You grow a legacy and mythology through word of mouth, through storytelling.”

For Abdurraqib, the basketball culture of East Columbus was a convener that cut across social and economic lines to bring disparate players and fans into a shared space: “There was this real democratization of the space. Kenny Gregory and Michael Red were high-school All-Americans, but they are playing alongside a guy who’s like a second-string point guard for the high-school team. Everybody’s coming from somewhere different, but that’s the team.”

There’s Always This Year is also about the power of place and community. East Columbus figures heavily in the text—not just as the backdrop for activity, but as a living, breathing organism animated by intergenerational connections, shared worldviews and vital creative energy. “I’m grateful not only to be from the east side of Columbus, but to grow up at the time I grew up,” Abdurraqib says. “I grew up in a neighborhood that was definitely poor or working class. But it never felt that way from inside.”

Though concerned with ascension, this is also a story of rootedness. Abdurraqib’s examination of a local community eschews common narratives that suggest that success for Black people requires an escape from home. Staying, for those from East Columbus, means remaining connected to a culturally vibrant community. “I still live on the east side of Columbus,” Abdurraqib says. “I never wanted this feeling of exodus. I began to think really hard about what it is to not want to make it out and, through that not making it out, redefine staying as something beyond failure.”

Basketball icon LeBron James exemplifies this tension between home and ascension. Known as one of the GOATs of the sport, LeBron’s skilled physical and cerebral play has translated to several NBA championships, personal awards, incredible wealth and one of the most recognizable names in popular culture. Abdurraqib offers an intimate depiction of LeBron’s rise from nearby Akron, Ohio, to global stardom, one that reflects LeBron’s symbolic meaning for Black Ohioans. “I do have an unshakable affection for LeBron’s rise,” says the author. “There’s a miraculous nature to the way his shadow cast over the state that I love.”

Despite his cultural ascendancy, LeBron also stands out as one of the most polarizing figures in professional athletics. A significant body of fans either downplay his accomplishments or want to see him fail. “Not only are there people waiting for him to fail,” says Abdurraqib, “but people are waiting for him to fail in a very specific way that aligns with this kind of thirst for the downfall of the Black megastar. They want these tragic endings that serve as a kind of performance for white audiences who hunger for these kinds of failures.”

“I write in hopes that my larger world becomes a little less lonely.”

In the book, Abdurraqib effectively synthesizes stories that differ in nature, scale and time. He also carefully weaves in details from his own life, using it as a connecting force that affirms and complicates key themes. He shares private episodes of love and loss, his relationship with his father, his experience with the criminal justice system and a period of being unhoused. Through his very public vulnerability, Abdurraqib wants to disrupt our black-and-white moral sensibilities. “I think people enjoy a rehabilitative story of someone who did bad things once and now is in better and giving to the world,” he says. “I don’t think that, internally, I am a better person. I am a more resourced person than I was, but I don’t think I’m better. I wanted to write to upset this binary of bad person makes good. Instead, we should be asking, ‘What are we subjecting ‘good people’ to?’”

The clock does eventually run out. But in the end, There’s Always This Year transcends time. “We go on living,” Abdurraqib writes, “while a past version of ourselves remains locked, peacefully, in a euphoric dream.”

This book is a revelatory addition to Abdurraqib’s incredible body of work, which has touched many souls and reoriented worldviews over the past decade. His own ascendancy is remarkable. His creative drive and cultural impact are the products of a very personal and heartfelt intention. “I feel like my purpose for myself is to reframe this kind of world that a lot of people feel brutally isolated from, or a world that cannot translate people’s desire to be seen within it or be held within it or be loved or thought of within it,” he says.

“I just hope my work does other people kindness. I just hope it shrinks all of our aches and all of our absences and all of our hungers a bit more if it can.”

Read our starred review of ‘There’s Always This Year’ by Hanif Abdurraqib.

Hanif Abdurraqib author photo by Kendra Bryant.

Get the Book

There’s Always This Year

There’s Always This Year

By Hanif Abdurraqib
Random House
ISBN 9780593448793

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