Ball Is Cry!! On Katie Heindl’s “Basketball Feelings”
By Liz WolfsonJune 10, 2023
Truthfully, I had forgotten that New Orleans even had an NBA team. The ball club that would rebrand from the Hornets to the Pelicans arrived in the city in 2002, two years after I’d left for college, and my family there didn’t follow the team. But Williamson’s arrival in 2019, combined with a bunch of trades for additional fresh, young talent, marked the dawn of a new era: the perfect time to adopt a new fandom. Thanks to the evaporation of so many things—concerts, exhibitions, work—that had previously commanded my attention, I was wide open to learning the ways of a sport I had previously neglected.
As the bubble season progressed and my obsession deepened, I sought out more and more NBA-related content to fill the non-gameplay hours of my day, gravitating toward podcasts. Predictably, I found many dedicated to the NBA, though also predictably, not many hosted by women, and few that accounted for the power dynamics, the necessary gatekeeping, inherent to journalism of all kinds, sports and otherwise. Rather, most NBA podcasters seemed content to reproduce the style and content of basic cable sports shows and AM/FM sports radio: recitations of player and team statistics, “news” (injury reports, trade rumors, contract negotiations, sponsorship deals, and other financial dealings that I could not care less about) fed to a small cadre of league-friendly reporters, and clickbait predictions based on nothing more than this supposed intel and vibes.
I was thus ecstatic when I discovered Uhh, Basketball?—a (sadly now defunct) podcast co-hosted by Toronto-based writer Katie Heindl—and, through it, Basketball Feelings, Heindl’s weekly Substack where she publishes contemplative, sometimes funny, often moving essays that palpate mostly small, but also occasionally large, moments in NBA culture. (Basketball Feelings is currently free; paid subscribers also receive regular podcast episodes.) Under Heindl’s careful attention, blink-and-you’ll-miss-them on-court exchanges or offhand postgame remarks open like wormholes from the NBA ecosystem into everyday life. Quotidian experiences, like reconnecting with old friends after years apart or glimpsing a New Year’s Eve party through a stranger’s window, glide seamlessly into the league drama du jour.
As I read Heindl’s dispatches each week, I became fascinated by the idea of a basketball feeling, of an affective frequency that Heindl seemed uniquely dialed into and able to tap. What is a basketball feeling, I wondered—what was she picking up on in the same games I was watching that suggested the emotional resonances channeled through each week’s essay?
Unsurprisingly, Heindl couldn’t reduce such a capacious subject to a single, pithy definition when I posed this question to her over Zoom. “A basketball feeling is an overwhelming feeling,” she explained. “It’s something that you see or like right away, either makes you kind of sit back [or] is so all-encompassing that you know it’s going to become something greater.” There are interactions between players that strike her as “sweet and kind of funny moments” that break “that fourth wall of the bravado around a sport,” such as when a player looks awkward or nervous, or a rookie goes for a high five with a teammate and gets left hanging. Then there are the funny moments that, in her mind, can range from genuinely humorous to “effervescent [or] kind of goofy,” as when Celtics star Jaylen Brown theatrically grabbed and stared at teammate Marcus Smart’s left hand after the latter made a clutch, late-game shot in the 2022 postseason against the Brooklyn Nets. Heindl sees these kinds of moments as “entry points into basketball that get missed” but that function as a kind of “glue and ecosystem” that prick at her writerly imagination. “They just sort of tug on me to think, ‘Well, what’s happening there? What is the story there?’”
Other basketball feelings are heavy, made dense by the systemic inequities that so many of us use our fandoms to temporarily block out—which are, of course, baked into the game by the fact of its being a part of the very culture from which we seek respite. “The things that I’ve written that are the hardest, but weirdly the easiest because I’m the most worked up about them,” Heindl told me, “are usually around these domestic abuse and assault cases within the league—the way that fans treat it [and] the way that the league doesn’t really treat it and kind of turns a blind eye most of the time.” She described a cycle in which, after the story of an assault or instance of abuse would break, despite her determination not to write about it (because she’s already written about such reports many times previously, why should she revisit this subject yet again?), she’d notice a discontinuity in the discourse, something that didn’t make sense to her or that, she said, “jostled something in my mind to want to go a little bit further and approach it from a way that I haven’t seen happening yet.” These too are basketball feelings; Heindl describes such an inkling as “that instantaneous, big feeling that evolves into something greater.”
It is this capacity to recognize and hold this full spectrum of feelings and emotions related to NBA basketball that makes basketball feelings, in Heindl’s hands, such a compelling frame for storytelling; it is the rare writer who possesses both the skill and the empathy necessary for such nuanced commentary on professional sport.
One of my favorite Basketball Feelings posts reflects on the end of the Denver Nuggets’ 2021–22 season, part of a series reviewing each team’s trajectory through the past season. With elegant efficiency, Heindl sketches the topline factors that shaped the Nuggets’ performance that year—the particulars of preseason expectations, team geography and the fact that Denver is one of the league’s smaller media markets, and the personalities of its head coach and star players. These dynamics in turn ribbon around an extended meditation on (stay with me here) horses, which the team’s star player, two-time MVP Nikola Jokić, is known for keeping on a farm in his home country of Serbia. The essay opens with a philosophical query: “What’s wrong with a small life?” The question, Heindl knows, is ridiculous within the context of NBA culture, which is nothing if not maximalist, but she goes on to posit Jokić as “the league’s heady, unapologetic champion of a small life, seeming to look forward to his year in reverse—get through the season, get home to the countryside and his horses.”
This thesis, pregnant with projection and speculation, is not the kind of argument one typically encounters in contemporary sportswriting, with its hard journalism pretenses, but Heindl leans into this audacity. “The pleasure of horses is an experience of small repetitions,” she continues. We are then taken through the minutiae of caring for horses (“Tacking up is its own infinitesimal galaxy of specifics and order”), each step so vividly described that, after reading, I feel completely competent in horse cleaning and care, despite having only ridden twice in my life. “First the rubber curry in slow and small but vigorous circles, loosening dried mud, sweat, grass stains, then the hard brush in short, pressured flicks of the wrist,” she explains. From the body, one moves to the horse’s face, “down the long forehead between those plum-sized eyes to the peach fuzzed nose, huffing gently if they like this, jerking their head up if not.” Then the hooves, where we’re cautioned to avoid “the frog, that V-shaped island of soft sensitivity in the hard bed of the foot, clumps of mud and manure freed in satisfying, hard-packed segments.” Lastly, we’re reminded not to forget to attend to “the fetlocks, the little gully between the hoof and the ankle, with the hard brush if you forgot the first time you had it out.” I am undoubtedly the kind of person who would miss the fetlock the first go-round, so I appreciate this extra tip.
It’s not just the mechanics of the horse-human relationship that Heindl captures so well but also the physical sensation, the way this relationship plays out in and through the body:
Walking out to the fields, the muddy yards, the plain corrals where they wait, unaware of your existence until they scent it, see your form growing larger in their vision, closing the gap between the two of you. And you, you shrink yourself. Make yourself quieter, speak softly if you do at all.
Or later, a looping, many-claused sentence describing the experience of interacting with a horse in another country:
When you call to a horse out in its field, when you are in another country with horses that somehow just seem different, and press up against the barrier between you and them and click your tongue, resort to sheepishly saying a human word out loud and they still don’t come, or they do, to a point, trail behind you on an empty beach until you turn back toward them and they still to watch what you’ll do next, what it is you want of them, that is an acute, naïve, private and deeply specific kind of disappointment. The rational brain recognizes it as foolish but you feel it, very intensely, all the same.
Heindl’s gift for identifying and crafting meaning out of life’s affective swells not only makes Basketball Feelings pleasureful reading; it also demonstrates how writing about sports can contribute to our understanding of affect’s role in social life and cultural production, how it flows within and between bodies as the protolinguistic glue that primes human activity for the stickiness of meaning.
In their 2019 book The Hundreds, affect theorists Lauren Berlant and Kathleen Stewart posit that “[w]hat draws affect into form is a matter of concern.” This multidirectional statement both points to the immediate context of the book—affect, it’s implied, is a matter of concern here—while also making a more general argument about affect’s properties, the ways this protophysical force becomes something tangible, material. The authors immediately draw a distinction, however, between form and shape, arguing that form “is not the same thing as shape: and a concept extends via the tack words take.” In other words, concern (i.e., interest, that which captures our attention) concentrates affect, rendering it discernible but not necessarily legible; legibility—shapeliness—comes later, flowing from affective concentration through linguistic choice the way snowmelt carves rivulets into soil. In the same way that such melts over time accrue into a steam or river, “[a]mplified description gets at some quality that sticks like a primary object, a bomb or a floater.”
The many small essays that make up The Hundreds, constructed around the conceit of writing in multiples of 100 words, are exercises in this method of “amplified description” that direct a microscopic lens onto scenes of contemporary sociality drawn from the authors’ own lives. This autoethnographic approach (borrowed from Stewart’s home discipline of anthropology) helps the pair generate an affective feminist ontology that shies away from the tendency toward deterministic social diagnosis that cultural studies has inherited from the Marxist intellectual tradition. “If our way is to notice relations and varieties of impact,” they explain of their elliptical discursive style, “we’re neither stuffing our pockets with ontology nor denying it: attention and riffing sustain our heuristics.” Attention and riffing are also Heindl’s bread and butter in Basketball Feelings.
To highlight the affective dimension of a project whose title includes the word “feeling” is to state the obvious. But what’s notable about Heindl’s Substack is not so much her concern with feeling as subject as her sense of feeling as method, as well as feeling as social force, the thing that makes NBA basketball meaningful for everyone who participates in the culture, from fans to players. Credentialed sportswriters with access to teams, like beat reporters and sideline reporters for major media outlets, ask players about their feelings all the time; it’s a cornerstone of the postgame interview that provides the fan access to the player’s emotional landscape.
Most often, these postgame interviews don’t deliver much meaningful insight into the 48 minutes of competition that just transpired. Players’ responses tend to be flat and polished PR answers trotted out game after game, multiplied by 82 games across a regular season. The blandness of these interviews is understandable; it’s hard to spontaneously put your emotional interiority on display. Anyone who’s gone through talk therapy knows it can be exhausting to narrate feelings, to craft coherent sentences that effectively describe emotion, and that’s when sitting on a couch or armchair—it’s hard to fathom doing this after you’ve just pushed your body to its physical limits.
With Basketball Feelings, Heindl shows there’s another way to tap into the deep vein of affect that courses through sports fandom (as with fandoms of all kinds), one that uses close reading, affective attunement, and autoethnographic narrative strategies to sidestep the economy of access that undergirds contemporary sportswriting. It’s easy to see the roots of Heindl’s novel approach in fan fiction, which provided her initial entrée into writing about basketball. Despite Heindl’s deep knowledge of NBA basketball, developed via a fandom for the Toronto Raptors that started with the team’s arrival in 1995 when she was still a child, and her track record of publication on politics and culture for outlets like Vice, Hazlitt, and Canadian Art, she felt nervous about expanding her practice to basketball, even as she saw compelling stories in the game—the same kinds of stories she was already telling about art and politics. “There’s so much about basketball, around basketball, that people don’t talk about or write about, but it seems to me that’s the most interesting thing about it,” she told me over Zoom.
And I love this sport; I also love just watching basketball. But to me, it’s human stories, and kind of like the nuances, and whys—that’s always what I’ve been interested in writing about anyway, whether it’s been about basketball or something else. And it just seemed to me like the league was so rife with that.
Heindl knew there were stories in the league for her to tell, but as a woman, the barrier to writing about sports felt daunting, as if there were a baseline level of knowledge demanded of her that she lacked. Fan fiction presented a lower-stakes way to follow her writerly instinct into unfamiliar territory. If she wrote a story about Paul Pierce as a vampire or launching Jason Kidd into Lake Michigan, no one could call her out for messing up a stat or getting any facts wrong—it was fiction, after all.
Publishing NBA fan fiction on the sports website The Classical, under the editorial guidance of David Roth (formerly of Deadspin, now of Defector), gave Heindl the confidence to eventually pitch more “serious” (scare quotes hers) basketball stories. She became a contributing writer for Dime, Uproxx’s basketball vertical. But even as the bylines came, she found herself “missing writing about basketball in a way that I just wanted for myself,” she recalled. Plus, the creative pleasure she takes in fiction writing just wasn’t there in the basketball writing she was doing: “I find it’s the way I write freest; I don’t really second-guess myself as much as I do necessarily in some of the basketball writing.”
This dissatisfaction with the conceits of traditional sportswriting prompted Heindl to launch Basketball Feelings in 2018, initially as a weekly newsletter through TinyLetter. Substack co-founder Hamish McKenzie soon reached out to her directly to recruit her to join his new platform. Today, Basketball Feelings has around 2,500 subscribers, and Heindl recently published a story in The New York Times Magazine on the magic of the NBA’s Slam Dunk Contest, complete with an etymology of the word “dunk,” descriptions of recent contest highlights, and references to pivotal moments in dunk contest history. The essay doesn’t dive quite as deep into some of these details as Heindl probably would if it were a Basketball Feelings post, but many of the project’s trademark rhetorical moves—close readings, treatment of basketball moments as cultural objects, self-referentiality—are there. “As a forum for this kind of epic, athletic drama, the Dunk Contest allows contestants to lean into basketball’s theatricality, and the audacity it takes to fly and potentially fail at a high level,” she writes. We learn that she finds dunkers’ necessary commitment to “always go big” so inspiring that she had the words “DUNK CONTEST” tattooed on her arm. “The act of slamming a ball in one vociferous swoop is one of the stagiest things a player can do,” she continues. “Dunking puts the player in league with great performers of all kinds: actors, wrestlers, rappers. It is literally over the top.” Here, Heindl captures exactly why I fell in love with basketball: the drama that to me is more compelling than any soap opera or reality TV show.
Will Basketball Feelings’ affective approach to sportswriting single-handedly transform NBA coverage in all the ways I’d love to see it change—less emphasis on money and data points, less need for access with all the ethical compromising it necessitates, more emphasis on flights of fancy and imaginative interpretation of the game’s culture, and greater inclusion of women and other writers traditionally marginalized in the field? I mean, maybe. By taking the road less traveled into basketball writing, Heindl has developed a truly unique voice and approach to the subject, modeling a way for meaningfully engaging with competitive athletic culture at the highest level, unconstrained by the privileged claim laid by corporate media entities to the narrative-rich cultural enterprise that is NBA basketball. As Basketball Feelings’ tagline puts it, “Ball is cry!!”—the most succinct summary I’ve yet encountered for the emotional rollercoaster that is sports fandom. Long live the feels.
Liz Wolfson is a culture writer and the managing editor of Sauce Magazine in St. Louis.
Featured image: Paul Klee. Persische Nachtigallen (Persian Nightingales), 1917. The National Gallery of Art, Gift of Catherine Gamble Curran and Family, in honor of the 50th anniversary of the National Gallery of Art. nga.gov, CC0. Accessed June 7, 2023.
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