The Greatest Game in Literary History: chatting with author Mitchell Jackson about Books and…

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In a few days — Saturday, June 20th at 3pm — the National Book Foundation is putting on a basketball game. Let the strangeness sink in: the presenter of the National Book Awards is pitting writers against editors, publicists, festival organizers, and a host of publishing people in…a basketball game. The event is going by the name, “The Other NBA,” because, apparently, I’m not the only one who gets a little frustrated with the book world for throwing around the NBA acronym every November when there is, very clearly, already a fully-functioning, some would say thriving, Lebron-and-Steph-buoyed institution going by that name. The proceeds from the game are going to the National Book Foundation’s reading program, BookUp, which is in the midst of an expansion to Detroit. (Pistons fans, feel free to imagine here an elongated, singsong “De-troit Bas-ket-ball.”)

I decided that (1) I should somehow get involved in the game, and (2) I should talk with Mitchell Jackson, the unofficial captain of the Writers Team and a proud member of the Book Up family.

Dwyer Murphy: First off, this is an event being put on by the National Book Foundation. Does that mean it’s going to be black tie? Is Cipriani’s involved?

Mitchell Jackson: Oh heck no. This is super casual with St. Francis College involved. There’s no dress code, though I will suggest being camera ready, otherwise known as social most post worthy. We’ll be snapping.

DM: The game is being billed as “the greatest basketball game in literary history.” Tell me about your training regimen. I assume you’ve been working with a shot doctor, sleeping in a hyperbaric chamber, consulting with Dr. James Andrews, eating a lot of pasta dinners, that sort of thing. Typical greatest game ever stuff.

MJ: I actually have been working out a bit. I went to an indoor gym and shot around a few weeks ago. It was the first time I’d done so in over a year. Then just this past week, I went to a park in Battery City and played four-on-four half court. I felt things aching that should not be aching, but it also felt good to compete. Not sure how much practice everyone else is doing, but I hope at the least everyone stretches. We sure don’t want any Kyrie Irvings or Kevin Loves out there.

DM: You’re raising money for BookUp, an after-school reading program. I hear you’re a faculty member. Can you tell me about the program and what you do?

MJ: BookUp is a program that sends authors into schools and gets kids excited about reading. We read, write, play games, whatever we can to get them engaged. Then twice a quarter we also take them on literary-related field trips, outings at the end of which they get money to buy books. It’s an amazing program. I love seeing kids excited about reading.

DM: And now BookUp is expanding to new cities?

MJ: Yes, the game is to help raise money to bring BookUp to Detroit. And with all the turmoil in Detroit in the last few years, I can’t think of a city that needs it more. I’m of the mind that reading helps build dynamic kids. And that dynamic kids have the chance to transform their circumstances.

DM: Okay, so the game is between a team of writers and a team of publishing people. I’m looking at your squad. Seems pretty decent. Alex Gilvarry’s rangy. Valeria Luiselli gives you rim protection. Where do you fit in? Secret weapon?

MJ: I haven’t seen anyone play yet, so I can’t say how I fit in. But I’ve played a few games in my life, so I’ll see where I can help and try and help. Alex is a young guy and I’m hoping he has young legs and plays doggish defense. Valeria has lived in some tough places, so I’m banking she’s got some scrap in her too. We’ll be like the Bad Boy Detroit Pistons.

DM: How about the publishing team? We should probably get the trash-talk started now. John Freeman’s too pretty to really bang around in the post, right? How about the rest of the team?

MJ: I get the feeling John Freeman can play. I haven’t seen it, but he looks pretty athletic. But at our age athleticism is all but out the window, so he’d better be a smart player too. I think Steph Opitz is athletic. We’ll see what the jump shot is looking like though. As far as trash talking. This used to be how I felt (maybe there’s still some residue of this in me too): if you didn’t get paid to play professional basketball somewhere in the world, then you can get dealt with. So unless there’s some retired semi-pros on the other side, I feel good about my chances playing against just about anyone. Plus, word on the literary streets is Jess Walter can play. Maybe we can get some Northwest buddy-ball going.

DM: Final pitch? Why should people come out to the game instead of, say, going to the park to celebrate the summer solstice?

MJ: You can go the park almost any weekend in the summer and see the same thing. But this game, this could be the first and the last. Don’t do for us. Do it for those kids in Detroit. Don’t forget we have Pulizter winner Greg Pardlo’s playlist. Where else can you hear his DJ skills?

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