The Warriors according to legendary writer Ishmael Reed

The Warriors had lost, again. It was another one of those losses that have seemed to blend together in this spiraling season. Reeling from the defeat in his Oakland home, Ishmael Reed couldn’t sleep.

The 85-year-old tossed and turned until 5 a.m., stewing over the criticism of the team from broadcasters and others. Then he finally decided to do what he has done his entire life: write. He took out his iPhone and tapped away.

“Every shock jock with an expense account and / Every son of a gun / are saying that the Golden State Warriors / are over the hill and done,” Reed’s poem, later published by Alta magazine, starts.

Ishmael Reed, an acclaimed author, poet, and Warriors fan, with a custom jersey that the Warriors made for him in 2018, at his home on Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2024, in Oakland, Calif. (Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group) 

Reed is a poet, novelist, playwright, songwriter, satirist, commentator, musician, essayist, publisher and professor. He’s also a diehard Warriors fan — an optimistic one at that. To be as rosy about the Dubs in 2024 as he is, you also have to be a bit of a romantic.

In his illustrious literary career, Reed has written about racism, politics, philosophy, nazism, history, poverty, the Bay Area, capitalism, religion and love. An intellectual of his stature writing about the Warriors is like if Mark Twain worked a side gig as a Fangraphs contributor. But as the longtime Oakland native sees it, there’s a long history of sport in art — poems, songs, movies, television shows — and basketball can be as worthy a muse as any.

“I see basketball as an allegory,” Reed said at a coffee shop in Oakland’s Temescal neighborhood. “You get more types than in, say, boxing, when sometimes it’s black and white. When (Max) Schmeling fought (Joe) Louis, Schmeling was the bad guy, Nazi. Louis was the good guy. So it’s very simple. Basketball has more nuance.”

In his poem, Reed captures some of those nuances by describing the personalities on the Warriors. Chris Paul the sage veteran, Steph Curry the victim of hostile defense, rookie Brandin Podziemski “the opponent’s pest.” Reed’s mind seems to work in metaphor.

“You get tricksters like (Patrick) Beverley,” Reed said. “You get wise guys like Chris (Paul). Anarchists like Draymond Green. You get the whole panoply of human characters that date back to time immemorial. And you could call basketball like a picture in rhythm, or moving fiction, because it tells a story. There’s a story in every game.”

Ishmael Reed, an acclaimed author, poet, and Warriors fan, at his home on Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2024, in Oakland, Calif. (Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group) 

Green in particular has captured Reed’s attention, as he has so many during this tumultuous season. His character has bordered on caricature, which Reed compared to the “angry Black man stereotype.”

“There’s always been that type,” Reed said. “All during slavery, and during the Civil Rights movement, there were certain Black guys you didn’t mess with. People don’t know about this, but (author) Richard Wright wrote about Black guys who always sat in the front of the bus, regardless of segregation. And people wouldn’t mess with them because they were ‘crazy N-words.’ So Draymond plays that role.”

Reed has never been afraid to share his opinions, no matter how controversial. The trait has created both friends and enemies. Although he’s a world-renowned author of over 30 books, he has been quoted as a self-identified “writer in exile,” partly due to a lack of support from major commercial publishers.

Reed broke onto the literary scene in the 1960s in New York. He was a member of the Umbra Writers Workshop, a collective of artists who helped pioneer the Black Arts Movement. Nobody was tapping out poems on cell phones.

Ishmael Reed’s 2018 poem, “Warriors,” on Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2024, in Oakland, Calif. (Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group) 

Reed’s work is as varied in genre and style as imaginable. He has written a Muhammed Ali biography; a play that serves as a critique of Lin Manuel Miranda and his hit Broadway musical, “Hamilton”; and “Yellow Back Radio Broke Down,” a 1969 satire on the traditional Western that influenced the Mel Brooks hit “Blazing Saddles.” Reeds’ most acclaimed novel, “Mumbo Jumbo,” was a finalist for the 1973 National Book Award.

Reed became a Warriors fan when he moved from New York to Berkeley in 1967. He often watches games with his daughter, Tennessee, and his, his wife of 54 years, Carla Blank — an artist and the biggest fan of the family.

“I get his play-by-play,” Tennessee said with a chuckle.

Reed is more than just a fan. He sees art, and himself, in the Warriors.

“Writers have always been fascinated by sports,” Reed said. “People say that I was the one who coined the term ‘Writing is fighting.’ But it was really Muhammed Ali. I get credit for it, so I accept it. Writing is fighting. Writing is really a combat sport, at least I see it that way.”

Reed hopes the Warriors, like himself, aren’t done just yet. Reed still works frequently, which he credits to his “restless DNA.” He still writes, publishes, and champions other artists in the Bay Area and around the world. His art is a staple of the Bay; one of Reed’s poems, “Moving Richmond,” is on display in the Richmond BART station and another is installed in the north gate of the SFJAZZ Center.

Reed’s most recent Warriors poem was published on Dec. 21, shortly after Green was suspended indefinitely with the Warriors mired below .500. Green is now back and playing well, but the Warriors remain under .500 as the trade deadline approaches.

“But what’s being said now / has been said before / And the Warriors have more / than once evened the score / So, when you count them out / You’d better be sure.”

Rhyming poems, like Reed’s, have fallen out of style this century in favor of free verse. But rhyming comes so naturally to Reed, he has continued to employ it.

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Many of Reed’s poems read as if they’re musical. That’s not a coincidence. Reed has been a jazz musician for decades, and is currently working on composing “Who Are The Jazz Martyrs?” — the centerpiece of his 2019 poetry collection — with a score. He has done so in the past with his work, including the poem “If I Am A Welfare Queen, Where are My Jewels and Furs.”

The Renaissance man Reed still believes in the Warriors, not just in his prose. Even the Warriors’ homer-ish announcers are often too critical for Reed’s liking. He hated it when the Chase Center crowd booed the Warriors to cap a disappointing home stand (“Oakland fans would never have booed”), believing fans should be more grateful for the titles they’ve brought to the Bay.

“They could surprise you,” Reed said. “They beat the Celtics. They’ll pull out a win. That’s why I wouldn’t count them out because they’ve been counted out before. Even though they’re having an uneven season, they might sneak through the playoffs. You can never tell in basketball.”

For Reed, you can write about the Warriors, but don’t write them off.

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