Of basketball with gratitude: Ross Gay’s paean to Dr. J becomes a multimedia performance

Ross Gay’s ode to Julius Erving and the legacy of Black genius is the basis of a new music composition and performance at Girard College.

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David Gaines gestures upwards.

David Gaines gestures during a rehearsal for "Be Holding" at Girard College. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

The parquet flooring of the Girard College basketball court, in the historic boarding school’s armory building, is emblazoned with the team logo of the Cavaliers, but this week the court serves as a stage for an ode to a basketball hero.

The hoops on opposite sides of the court are wrapped with projections screens onto which a 5-second video clip of Julius Erving, aka Dr. J., performing a spectacular layup during the 1980 NBA championship finals against the Los Angeles Lakers.

A view of the basketball court at Girard College.
The basketball court at Girard College is transformed into a stage for the world premiere of ”Be Holding,” an original performance of Ross Gay’s book-length poem. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

That reverse layup — for which Erving jumped at the baseline, scooped the ball behind the backboard, and delivered it underhanded into the basket — has been called the greatest single shot in NBA history. During the performance, the footage is played back slowly, sometimes held one frame at a time for inspection purposes.

“I found myself watching it again and again, the way you can rewatch something that’s beautiful,” said author Ross Gay. “But in this case I caught myself and I was, like, ‘What are you looking at?’ That’s the prompt: noticing what I was looking at and then wanting to wonder about what I’m looking at.”

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Performer David Gaines walks in the middle of the basketball court/stage.
David Gaines takes center court during a rehearsal of ”Be Holding” in the Girard College gymnasium. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

The “baseline scoop” is the basis of “Be Holding,” a book-length poem by Gay published in 2020, which Girard College is now presenting as a choreographed performance by poets Yolanda Wisher and David Gaines, and a new composition for piano and percussion by Tyshawn Sorey, performed by the music ensemble Yarn/Wire.

Girard College is a presenting collaborator, giving the artists an actual basketball court and administrative support to bring “Be Holding” into reality. The project is part of Girard’s “Campus for the City” initiative to make its walled and gated campus more available to Philadelphians.

Gay grew up in Philadelphia in the ‘70s and ‘80s. He said he does not remember watching the 1980 playoffs as it was happening: He would have been just 6 years old at the time, and didn’t become a diehard 76ers fan until 1983 when they won the championship over the Milwaukee Bucks. He now lives in Bloomington, Illinois, where he teaches.

More than a wonky paean to basketball, “Be Holding” is a stream-of-consciousness meditation on Black genius, diligence and practice, and gratitude.

Gay points to a particular moment in Erving’s spectacular basket, when he turns his head away from the play and seems to be looking past the ball, past the other players into what appears to be the far distance.

“What’s Julius looking at?” he said, imagining Erving was looking back to everyone that made this moment possible. “I imagine that he’s looking into all of these feats of care, of which his is only one.”

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Yolanda Wisher and David Gaines rehearse together.
Yolanda Wisher and David Gaines rehearse “Be Holding” at Girard College. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

The idea to make the poem into a piece of instrumental music and dramatic performance began before the poem was even finished. Gay had been working on the poem while staying with his friend, director Brooke O’Harra, with whom he had collaborated before. Together they were kicking around the idea of creating an opera together.

“We were itching to try to do something together again, maybe on a slightly bigger scale,” Gay said. “I remember, I was turning the corner on it, and we talked about it. There was just a lot of things that made sense to give it a try.”

Gay wrote “Be Holding” for the page to be published as a book, and was not writing the poem to be a performance. “Not at all,” he said.

When O’Harra first read what would become “Be Holding,” then still unfinished, she saw it as a kind of libretto for an avant-garde performance. The text moves freely, as quickly as thought, from basketball to the Middle Passage, to memories of Ross’s parents, to a disturbing Pulitzer-winning photograph of a Black woman and daughter falling to their death from a collapsing fire escape in 1976, to singers like Minnie Riperton and Donny Hathaway — along with many other free-associations.

“Even if it isn’t a narrative, it’s a story about a way of being, about a way of existing with each other,” she said. “It’s not like a story arc, but it is an arc of understanding that desire for Black joy, or all joy in holding each other.”

Director Brooke O'Harra (center) works with performers David Gaines and Yolanda Wisher during a rehearsal of ''Be Holding'' at Girard College.
Director Brooke O’Harra (center) works with performers David Gaines and Yolanda Wisher during a rehearsal of ”Be Holding” at Girard College. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

The basketball court is separated into quadrants, each occupied by a member of Yarn/Wire: two pianos catty-corner from each other, and two percussion kits on the other diagonal. Wisher and Gaines move through the center, trading lines of the poem and, at times, talking over one another.

The poem marvels at the moment, as Dr. J is mid-flight, he instinctively knows when to tuck his head into his chest so as to not brain himself on the edge of the backboard…

the daily evasion of which is,

as you know,
a version of genius

like Donny Hathaway says of Stevie Wonder
before covering “Superwoman,”

on “These Songs for You, Live!”
the Fender Rhodes like water

rocking in wakes above your body
though he says it like this

“From the black pool of genius
we’d like to give you our rendition of.”

Like Dr. J’s feats of instinctive dexterity, which if you weren’t looking carefully could be head-spinning, Gay’s poem swoops and dives without warning into a wide range of tangents, always coming back to make the point.

“How do we behave towards each other?” O’Harra said. “Whether it’s how we look at Blackness, how we image Blackness, or how we just care for each other. That’s really the question of the poem: How do we be?”

Gay says he still follows the 76ers. When asked about the team’s recent playoff loss to the Boston Celtics, the firing of its head coach, and the presumed dissolution of The Process (a plan that was supposed to make the 76ers a championship team) he takes the long view.

“Moses Malone being traded in 1985,” he mused. “We still haven’t atoned for that.”

From May 31 through June 3, there will be performances of “Be Holding” at Girard College at 7:30 each evening to take advantage of the changing light at dusk streaming through the armory windows.

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