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'There's Always This Year' reflects on how we consider others — and ourselves

Random House

It's a familiar phrase to any sports fan who realizes that a championship isn't in the cards this season: There's always next year. The statement, combining resignation with optimism, is sometimes said sincerely and sometimes ironically: Hope springs eternal, unless, of course, it doesn't.

Hanif Abdurraqib, who earned raves for his books Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to A Tribe Called Quest and A Little Devil in America: In Praise of Black Performance, puts a new spin on the saying in his latest, There's Always This Year: On Basketball and Ascension. As in his previous books, Abdurraqib uses one subject as a lens through which he views the culture at large — it's about hoops, sure, but it's also about so much more. It's another remarkable book from one of the country's smartest cultural critics.

There's Always This Year is structured like a basketball game, with four sections each time-stamped to mimic the elapsing 12 minutes of a quarter. In the first quarter, Abdurraqib explores the sense of place, writing about his childhood in Columbus, Ohio, and a 2002 game between the city's Brookhaven Wildcats and Akron's St. Vincent–St. Mary Leprechauns. The Wildcats were state champions the previous season, but the Leprechauns had a star player up their sleeve: a towering forward named LeBron James. Brookhaven couldn't pull out the victory.

Abdurraqib's chronicle of the game is fascinating, but it's his analysis of James — as a person, a baller, a phenomenon — that shines: "I have sat at the feet of poets who told me that there is power in withholding. In not offering the parts of yourself that people are most eager to see. In the high school career of LeBron James, there was access to his dominance, but not always access to whatever struggles he might have been pushing through. And it proved hard for people to stay fascinated with dominance, especially if they were on the losing side of it, especially in consideration of who was doing the dominating."

Abdurraqib returns to James later in the book, writing about the star's decision to leave his near-hometown Cleveland Cavaliers for the Miami Heat, a move that devastated Cavs fans who loved having their local legend wearing the wine and gold. "And sometimes people leave because they have to survive," he writes. "Sometimes people leave because staying has run its course, a course littered with failures. I know what it is to leave in hopes that whatever has failed me isn't a part of my own internal makeup, that it is a place dragging me down, beckoning me toward all my worst impulses."

But Abdurraqib isn't only interested in champions. He writes about the newly LeBron-less Cavaliers with sharp insight and an amused affection: "There was pleasure in watching this aimless disaster of a team. Veteran castoffs who had been given up on, young players who seemed, mostly, bewildered by the pace and intensity of the games, forced to play minutes because someone had to, after all. At a certain point, it seemed anyone who could run up and down the court would do." Abdurraqib knows well what Jim McKay memorably called "the agony of defeat," but he knows that the losses — and the Cavs had 63 that season — can tell us more about ourselves, and one another, than the wins.

There's no doubt that basketball fans will find much to love in There's Always This Year, but as great as Abdurraqib is at examining the sport, he's even better when he explores tangents. He writes, astutely, about the films He Got Game, Above the Rim, and White Men Can't Jump, blending analysis with memoir, and the result is vulnerable and genuinely moving.

In one remarkable section, inspired by James' departure from Cleveland, Abdurraqib — a lover of music — is moved to reflect on songs about people leaving, whether via car, train, or airplanes, touching on Gladys Knight's "Midnight Train to Georgia" and Jo Dee Messina's "Heads Carolina, Tails California." "But it's the planes you've got to worry about," Abdurraqib writes. "If someone in a song is leaving on a plane, they aren't coming back. You will ache until the ache becomes so familiar, you forget to feel it at all." He segues into another genre — what he calls "the Begging Song," citing Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye, and James Brown as expert practitioners. It's a perfect example of what Abudrraqib can do so well: carom from subject to subject while never losing sight of what unites them.

There's Always This Year is another brilliant book from Abdurraqib, who has firmly established himself as one of the country's most original and talented authors. It's also a piercing look at how we consider others, as well as ourselves: "We will leave our enemies behind here and never turn to face them again. But this is not a story about heroes, either. Not everyone will die. No one will live forever."

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Michael Schaub is a writer, book critic and regular contributor to NPR Books. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Portland Mercury and The Austin Chronicle, among other publications. He lives in Austin, Texas.