A philosophical journey leads back to basketball

Onaje X. O. Woodbine, a former Yale basketball player, now teaches philosophy and religious studies at the Phillips Academy.

ANDOVER, Mass. — On a clear Sunday in mid-March, Onaje X.O. Woodbine sat down to an elegant brunch at the Andover Inn, the hotel adjacent to the famous prep school in this northern Massachusetts town. He was eager to talk about his new book, but there was another question first: What did he think about the Yale basketball team, which had just made the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1962, even as its captain had been expelled amid accusations of sexual assault?

In 2000, as a Yale sophomore, Woodbine had been the basketball team’s leading scorer and greatest hope. But this March, he did not even know that his old team had won the Ivy League title.


“I don’t follow that stuff anymore,” said Woodbine, a Yoruba shaman who teaches philosophy and religious studies at Phillips Academy, or Andover, as it is known.

Last week, Columbia University Press published “Black Gods of the Asphalt: Religion, Hip-Hop, and Street Basketball,” based on Woodbine’s doctoral dissertation at Boston University. The work draws on scholars like Pierre Bourdieu, Clifford Geertz and Henry Louis Gates Jr. to describe how street basketball functions as an outlet for mourning and healing for urban youths. But while the book speaks of basketball with love and reverence, it came about only because Woodbine, who is black, once quit basketball in disgust.

Woodbine, 36, grew up 30 miles from Andover, in the poor Boston neighborhood of Roxbury, where he showed basketball promise at a young age. A high school standout at Newton South High School, where he was bused as part of the region’s racial integration program, he arrived at Yale with dreams of NBA stardom.

“He was a terrific player,” said James Jones, Yale’s coach, whose first year was Woodbine’s sophomore season. “He could get to 15 feet and score with best of them. He talked a lot about wanting to be Allen Iverson when he was here.”


But while Woodbine excelled on the court, he was miserable on the team. He felt that his teammates resented his tougher, more passionate style of play. The white players also belonged to a fraternity that none of the black players had joined. Woodbine said he was also disturbed by “a locker-room culture that encouraged misogyny, reveling in the sexual conquest and denigration of women,” as he wrote in a recent essay for The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Above all, Woodbine said, he felt valued only for his basketball skills. Jones, who is also black, “didn’t build any relationship with me whatsoever throughout the entire year,” Woodbine said. “None of the coaches did. And my teammates were the same way. And that’s why it was easy to leave.”

When Woodbine told Jones that he was leaving the team, the coach was “in tears,” Woodbine said. Woodbine said a white assistant coach had told him, in an email, that his leaving the team could negatively affect the admission chances of future minority recruits.

Still, Woodbine carried through with his promise to leave, and he wrote an opinion column for The Yale Daily News about his decision, saying he was leaving sports to focus on the life of the mind. His father, who did not raise him but with whom he had reconnected when he was 15, is a Buddhist tai chi instructor and an acupuncturist, and in long conversations he had given his son an interest in spirituality.

“When I look two years down the road,” Woodbine wrote, “do I want to say I played basketball for Yale but did not get to meet with my teachers, did not get to read all of my class materials?” He said he felt called to “study philosophy and religion, to expose the contradictions that people of African descent face in America every day, to give my life to humanity.”


The column was reprinted by the Yale Alumni Magazine, where it was read by the wife of Robert Neville, then the dean of Boston University’s School of Theology. She showed it to her husband, who was so impressed that he drove to Yale to ask Woodbine to apply to Boston University for graduate school. He did.

In 2001, Woodbine went to Africa for the first time, to Ghana; in 2004, he traveled to Nigeria. The Nigerian trip “changed my life,” he said. “I sat on the ground with some shamans, and they read me like a book, and they debated about me, and my life, and my philosophy.”

In Nigeria, he began studying to be initiated as a Yoruba shaman, a process he completed in 2012. On his second trip to Nigeria in 2005, he had met his wife, Folasade, whom he married the next year. They are expecting their second child in October.

Back at graduate school at Boston University, he came full circle with his dissertation, back to basketball, back to the courts that had shaped him, now a short trip from campus back to his old neighborhood.

It occurred to him, as he read deeply in theories of religion, that there was something profoundly religious about what he and his friends had experienced playing basketball. The courts were sacred spaces, separating sacred time from profane, allowing them to enact rites of jubilation, transition or mourning.

“The overall thesis,” Woodbine said, “is that on the one hand, African-American men are pushed toward basketball by poverty, by predominantly white institutions, by racism. But on the other hand, once they get on the basketball court itself, the experience of playing becomes a mode of resistance to their dehumanization. And this happens on the level of the religious consciousness.”

In “Black Gods of the Asphalt,” Woodbine pays particular attention to urban street-ball tournaments, which he attended regularly from 2010 to 2014, doing field research. The tournaments are often named for players who have been killed, and thus function like Yoruba rituals.

“In Yoruba tradition,” Woodbine said, “there are perennial human problems — death, loss, disease — and there are things that are good in life: vitality, energy, relationships, children. I saw these tournaments were expressing the same idea. They were about death, loss, fighting, but the goal was to transform those things: death to vitality, a loss to grieve, to reconnect with that individual.”

A play based on “Black Gods of the Asphalt,” written by Woodbine, will be performed at Andover in May, and at the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa in June.

In the meantime, he keeps busy teaching at Andover, where he coaches the girls’ junior varsity basketball team.

Woodbine still plays pickup games with some old friends. And when he finds time to think, he thinks back to how important the game was to him as a youth in Roxbury.

“There were a few times when people came onto the court and somebody had just been shot, and they would play basketball as if they were playing for that person,” Woodbine recalled. “And they couldn’t miss. Every shot would go in. At end of the game, they would just fall out crying. It became this other place, this place outside the violence of the ghetto. I always kept that with me.”