The writers range in their experiences with the game and their understanding of what’s important about it. But, each poem has something important to share about how the sport can unify players, young and old, and bring athletes joy.
Best Basketball Poems
- 1 Slam, Dunk, & Hook by Yusef Komunyakaa
- 2 One on One in Basketball by Ray Fleming
- 3 Makin’ Jump Shots by Michael S. Harper
- 4 Ex-Basketball Player by John Updike
- 5 Urban Renewal XVIII by Major Jackson
- 6 Fall River by David Rivard
- 7 Courtesy by David Ferry
- 8 Loony Bin Basketball by Mary Karr
- 9 Dear Basketball by Kobe Bryant
- 10 Old Men Playing Basketball by B.H. Fairchild
- 11 FAQs
Slam, Dunk, & Hook by Yusef Komunyakaa
‘Slam, Dunk, & Hook’ by Yusef Komunyakaa is a beautiful poem that combines images of youth with those of a basketball game. The writer describes how his speaker and his friends moved their bodies “Like storybook sea monsters.” These movements are what bring the young players so much joy during the game. Here are a few more lines:
When Sonny Boy’s mama died
He played nonstop all day, so hard
Our backboard splintered.
Glistening with sweat,
We rolled the ball off
Our fingertips. Trouble
Was there slapping a blackjack
Against an open palm.
One on One in Basketball by Ray Fleming
‘One on One in Basketball’ zooms in on the moment the ta speaker went “up / effortlessly for the basket” and saw the ball go in. It was like, for a moment, he separated himself from his body and was able to watch his own actions. It had nothing to do with mysticism, he says at the end of the poem:
[…] only basketball.
I gave myself over to winning and
A dropping away (he imitated me),
And reclaimed some of those movements
…momentarily. It was good […]
Makin’ Jump Shots by Michael S. Harper
‘Makin’ Jump Shots’ by Michael S. Harper is a poem about an unknown basketball player playing on what’s clearly a street court. “He” is just as focused on his movements and the ball as he would be if he was part of a real game. Here are the last lines:
A sniff in the fallen air—
he stuffs it through the chains
“traveling” someone calls—
and he laughs, stepping
to a silent beat, gliding
as he sinks two into the chains.
Ex-Basketball Player by John Updike
In Updike’s ‘Ex-Basketball Player,’ the writer describes Flick, an ex-basketball player who learned nothing but how to sell gas, check oils, and change flats. He peaked during his time as a basketball player, and now his life has shrunk down to hangouts at Mae’s Luncheonette.
He bucketed three hundred ninety points,
A county record still. The ball loved Flick.
I saw him rack up thirty-eight or forty
In one home game. His hands were like wild birds.
Urban Renewal XVIII by Major Jackson
In this interesting poem, the poet’s speaker recalls what his life was like as a student and how he wanted to impress, but was scared of, the “arm-locked strutting” girls in “Central High.” He turned to basketball as a way to impress them.
You might say my whole life led
to celebrating youth and how it snubs and rebuffs.
Back then I learned to avoid what I feared
and to place my third-string hopes on a game-winning
basketball shot, sure it would slow them to a stop,
pan their lip-glossed smiles, blessing me with their cool.
Fall River by David Rivard
In ‘Fall River,’ Rivard is one of several narrative poems on this list. The poet describes waking up and looking at a poster, “Bill Russell & Wilt Chamberlain, one on one / the final game of the 1969 NBA championship.” He recalls the memories associated with it. As the poem progresses, the poet alludes to a rift that has formed between himself and his family. Despite the fact that he’s looking at the same poster, he’s in a very different place. Here are a few lines:
It gets tacked
like a claim to some new wall in the next place—
Bill Russell & Wilt Chamberlain, one on one
the final game of the 1969 NBA championship,
two hard men snapped elbowing & snatching at a basketball
Courtesy by David Ferry
‘Courtesy’ by David Ferry is a narrative poem that takes place in August. It describes the narrator’s home and his neighbor’s. There’s a kid and a young man playing basketball in amongst the rest of the events of the day. The latter is teaching the former how to play the game. Here are a few lines:
They’re shooting baskets, amiably and mildly.
The noise of the basketball, though startlingly louder
Than the voices of the two of them as they play,
Is peaceable as can be, something like meter.
Loony Bin Basketball by Mary Karr
‘Loony Bin Basketball’ by Mary Karr follows an unusual basketball game. The players are given first names and character traits that lead the reader to believe that they may be from a mental health facility or the “loony bin,” as the title also suggests. The poem is dedicated to Phil Jackson, the former NBA coach, because, as the poet said, because of his interest in Buddhist meditation and an experience she had at such a class.
The gym opened out
before us like a vast arena, the bleached floorboards
yawned toward a vanishing point, staggered seats high
as the Mayan temple I once saw devoured by vines.
Each of us was eaten up inside—all citizens of lost
and unmapped cities.
‘Dear Basketball’ by Kobe Bryant depicts the poet’s love for the sport. He expresses his appreciation for basketball and how it made him into the person he became. Bryant published ‘Dear Basketball’ in The Player’s Tribune. He used it to announce his retirement in November 2015. The poem takes the reader through Bryant’s emotional connection to the game. He describes what it was like to find it as a child and then to work hard to do the sport justice. His love for basketball shines through in every line of ‘Dear Basketball.’ The poem/letter then concludes with Bryant announcing his retirement. Here are a few lines:
As a six-year-old boy
Deeply in love with you
I never saw the end of the tunnel.
I only saw myself
Running out of one
Old Men Playing Basketball by B.H. Fairchild
In this poem, the poet describes the movements connected to a game of basketball. The poem uses sense imagery in order to help the reader envision exactly what’s happening on the court. There are phrases like “kissing the undersides” and “caught breath” that eventually lead to the realization that these are not professional basketball players but older men who are struggling but still enjoying the game. Here are the first four lines:
The heavy bodies lunge, the broken language
of fake and drive, glamorous jump shot
slowed to a stutter. Their gestures, in love
again with the pure geometry of curves,
Basketball poems are pieces of verse that are dedicated to the game of basketball. These poems describe what it’s like to play, see others play, or remember how the game affected one’s youth.
The most common themes are memories, the past, and joy. Without a doubt, each poem on this list has an element of joy to it. The game brings people together and gives them a way to share a common experience.
Writers create basketball poems in order to celebrate the game and the ways it changes players’ lives. Sometimes they want to share their personal memories or memories they have of other people.
He wrote a poem in the form of a letter. This was directed at the world, shared in order to announce his retirement from the game. The poem is a moving depiction of how the game changed Bryant’s life for the better.
In most poems, the tone is celebratory or mournful. The speakers are often looking into their past and remembering a different time. This could be to celebrate that it happened or to mourn that it’s over. Often, it’s a combination of both.