Writers Talking About Anything but Writing

An Interview with Hanif Abdurraqib on 90s NBA, Antique Shopping, and Animated Movies

Writers Talking About Anything but Writing is a series of interviews in which we ask writers to take a break from trying to document the world and just kinda chill out in it for a while.

Laura Villareal (LV)

Admittedly, I don’t know much about basketball, but I feel like I remember 90s NBA with a lot of nostalgia. I remember Michael Jordan being all over the place, Space Jam, and it being the David Robinson and Tim Duncan era for the San Antonio Spurs. What do you remember? What gets you excited about this decade of basketball?

Hanif Abdurraqib (HA)

Well, I grew up in a house of Knicks fans. Both of my parents were from New York, and weren’t overly intense about basketball, but definitely loved the Knicks in the 90s, when they were at their most competitive and thrilling. My brother’s favorite player was John Starks. My mother liked Charles Smith, because she said he seemed like a nice person. 90s NBA basketball was sort of a unifying force in my household when I was younger. We didn’t often have cable, but we’d have the regular broadcast channels. And at the time, the NBA on NBC was huge. Every Sunday, there’d be a game, sometimes two. Those were some of my fondest memories. I fell in love with the game in small, weekly increments. The thing with so many people of my NBA-watching era now, I think, is that so many of us romanticize the way the game was played more physically/violently. Which, sure, was a part of it. But what drew me in were the rivalries. To watch the games in the era before social media meant, for me, that my imagination could do the work of building the highest stakes into a narrative. I had no idea whether or not players were actually friends off the court. When the Knicks played the Bulls, or when the Spurs played the Suns, I got to imagine that these players were actually mortal enemies, because I wasn’t seeing them hanging out in the off season, or getting dinner after the game. I’ve always been as big a fan of narrative as I am of sports themselves. 90s NBA was teeming with narrative, with cartoonishly beautiful jerseys, with the best commercials. The commercials aren’t good anymore, Laura. I thought of this while watching the NBA finals this year. I miss the commercials.

The thing that gets me excited about this decade of basketball is that, much like the older decades, it is a point of connection for me and so many of my pals. I’m in this group chat with poets who are NBA fans. It started with us just talking basketball, but now, of course, it has become a catchall for our lives. Our triumphs and less-than-triumphs. But mostly, a way to stay in touch.


Wow, yeah I never thought about how much of 90s NBA was invested in the narrative but I totally see what you mean. Thanks for sharing a couple commercials. I really like the Michael Jordan one. Do you have a memory of a game that you were especially invested in?


Well, I think my clearest memory of a game from my childhood revolves around interruption. I was ten years old when game five of the 1994 NBA Finals was interrupted by the infamous OJ Simpson White Bronco Chase. I had never seen anything like it. For me, basketball was the biggest thing in the world at that age, and I couldn’t understand this idea that something could be bigger. I only peripherally understood the OJ Simpson case, at that point. I knew that it held the attention of my parents and my older siblings. I knew that OJ Simpson was an actor who once played football, and that he’d maybe killed people. But I wasn’t glued to the news in the way that I would become glued to the news in the coming months and years. Also, we lived in Ohio, where the local news coverage wasn’t dominated by it.

But, because of the aforementioned Knicks affection vibrating through my home, the Knicks being in the 1994 NBA Finals was an impossibly large deal in my house. The 1994 NBA Finals were great. The games were competitive, and it seemed—with Michael Jordan taking a temporary leave from the NBA—that the Knicks might finally find the glory that had eluded them.

I remember when the game got interrupted because the score was close, and the viewers in my household were on edge. There was a special report, and then a cut to OJ’s slow-crawling Bronco, bathing in the final moments of California sunlight. It was all so odd. They went to a split screen, showing the game on half, and this car chase (a chase in name only) on the other half. The Knicks won the game, but lost the series. They’ve only been to the finals one time since. You might have heard the news, but they’re bad now.  


Tell me about antique shopping. When did you get into it? What’s the best item you’ve found and/or bought?


I used antiques to distract my way into healing, I think. I was preparing to leave Connecticut on the heels of a really all-consuming heartbreak. To give myself some space from an apartment drowning in packed boxes, I would do these weird trips to these corners of Connecticut that had little clusters of antique stores. I loved how easy it was to get lost. When you’ve lived a portion of a life tied to another person, there are certain things you imagine you’ve gotten figured out. When that rug got pulled out from under me, I felt emotionally lost, and so it made sense for me to go to a space where I could become physically lost. I like an antique store with no order to it. Shelves packed with whatever fits, or glass cases with valuable things and cheap things. I’d wander aisles, holding things and trying to imagine the lives they once had. What makes someone part ways with an item they loved once? Did the old engraved silverware set belong to a person who is no longer with us, and their family just couldn’t bear to have the reminder in the house? I began to think about how even parting ways with something can be an act of affection. In hopes that the love we once felt for an item can be felt by someone else. If I’m being honest, I have no real use for the old nutcracker I got from an antique store in Ohio’s Amish Country last winter, but I’m so glad to hold it, because I can imagine that it meant something to someone once.

Like anyone who shops for things they don’t need, I’m concerned primarily with attractiveness. But also, I like sports bobbleheads. When I go antique shopping now, I seek those out first. I have a small collection in my office that is growing slowly. There are great online antique shopping communities that I participate in, mostly from the outside. Forums that point people to the best shops in areas, or summaries of what can be found in certain places. I’m growing a good bit a gratitude for that community, as well.


I’m speechless, Hanif. What a beautiful description of the evolving emotional lives of objects. Do you have any tips for people new to antiquing?


Honestly, I think the greatest tip I have is to find the smaller stores first. The big, warehouse-style stores have more items, of course. But they don’t always have the better items. And they don’t always have a person who is eager and willing to explain something you’ve fancied while they turn it over slowly in their hands. Trust me, I don’t mind the behemoth antique shops for the ways I can get lost in them. But whenever I’m in a new town, I’m often on a hunt for the places where I know I can get a side of history with my wandering.


What are a few of your favorite animated movies? What did you like most about each?  


Fantasia was the first movie I ever saw in theaters, and it frightened me a great deal, for all of its marching instruments and anthropomorphic whatnots. But there was a real beauty in it that I remember reshaping my ideas around what is possible. I just saw Toy Story 4 (which was fine) and it reminded me of how long the Toy Story franchise has been around. I was a kid when the first one came out, and the movie meant so much to me—I had very few toys that I loved when I was young, and I hadn’t yet grown out of them in ’95, but I was getting close to it. Toy Story helped me live those last moments of toyhood in the best way possible. I also loved the first Secret Life of Pets, but not the latest one. Still, as a new dog owner, I love the idea that when I leave my apartment, my dog is living a full and flourishing life without me.


What are your thoughts on the shift to live action versions of animated movies like Aladdin, Dumbo, and The Lion King etc.? In the past most haven’t been very good. Do you think the magic of animation is lost or mistranslated when brought into reality?   


I haven’t watched any! I think that I’ve come to the very early realization that these aren’t being made for me, but for a generation of young folks who are being reintroduced to these worlds and stories. So I’ve been pretty fine sitting them out. I kind of don’t want or need a live action Lion King, for example. The fact that the animals weren’t real and could be kind of exaggerated and comical worked for me. But I think people like even their old myths to feel touchable. So, live action it is.

Laura Villareal and Hanif Abdurraqib

Hanif Abdurraqib is a poet, essayist, and cultural critic from Columbus, Ohio. His poetry has been published in Muzzle, Vinyl, PEN American, and various other journals. His essays and music criticism have been published in The FADER, Pitchfork, The New Yorker, and The New York Times. His first full length poetry collection, The Crown Ain't Worth Muchwas released in June 2016 from Button Poetry. It was named a finalist for the Eric Hoffer Book Prize, and was nominated for a Hurston-Wright Legacy Award. With Big Lucks, he released a limited edition chapbook, Vintage Sadness, in summer 2017 (you cannot get it anymore and he is very sorry.) His first collection of essays, They Can't Kill Us Until They Kill Us, was released in winter 2017 by Two Dollar Radio and was named a book of the year by Buzzfeed, Esquire, NPR, Oprah Magazine, Paste, CBC, The Los Angeles Review, Pitchfork, and The Chicago Tribune, among others. He released Go Ahead In The Rain: Notes To A Tribe Called Quest with University of Texas press in February 2019. The book became a New York Times Bestseller, and was met with critical acclaim. His second collection of poems, A Fortune For Your Disaster, is being released by Tin House Books in September 2019.

Yes, he would like to talk to you about your favorite bands and your favorite sneakers.

Laura Villareal earned her MFA from Rutgers University-Newark. She is the author of The Cartography of Sleep (Nostrovia! Press). Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Palette Poetry, Black Warrior Review, Waxwing, and elsewhere. She has received scholarships from Key West Literary Seminar and The Highlights Foundation.


Art credit: Prettysleepy2 from Pixabay