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Black Gods of the Asphalt

Religion, Hip-Hop, and Street Basketball

By Onaje X Woodbine

About the Book

J-Rod moves like a small battle tank on the court, his face mean, staring down his opponents. “I play just like my father,” he says. “Before my father died, he was a problem on the court. I’m a problem.” Playing basketball for him fuses past and present, conjuring his father’s memory into a force that opponents can feel in every bone-breaking drive to the basket. On the street every ballplayer has a story. Onaje X. O. Woodbine, a former streetball player who became an All-Star Ivy Leaguer, brings the sights and sounds, hopes and dreams of street basketball to life. Big games have a trickster figure and a master of black talk whose commentary interprets the game for audiences. The beats of hip-hop and reggae make up the soundtrack, and the ball players are half-men, half-heroes, defying the ghetto’s limitations with their flights to the basket.

Streetball is rhythm and flow, and during its peak moments, the three rings of the asphalt collapse into a singular band, every head and toe pressed against the sidelines, caught up in the spectacle. Basketball is popular among young black American men, but not because, as many claim, they are “pushed by poverty” or “pulled” by white institutions to play it. Black men choose to participate in basketball because of the transcendent experience of the game. Through interviews with and observations of urban basketball players, Onaje X. O. Woodbine composes a rare portrait of a passionate, committed, and resilient group of athletes who use the court to mine what urban life cannot corrupt. If people turn to religion to reimagine their place in the world, then black streetball players are indeed the adepts of the asphalt.

About the Author

Onaje X. 0. Woodbine teaches philosophy and religious studies at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, where he lives on campus with his family.


"This timely and groundbreaking book is about basketball as lived religion in some of America’s most dangerous neighborhoods. But more centrally it is about grief expressed and hope conjured, as seen through the lens of a stellar young scholar who has been there and through the eyes of young black men who, though weighed down by the forces of death, somehow rise above the asphalt."—Stephen Prothero, author of Why Liberals Win the Culture Wars (Even When They Lose Elections)

"In this season where Black male bodies are under attack, Black Gods of the Asphalt offers a profound narrative of survival, self-determination and the urban swag of Boston’s inner-city basketball courts as sites where religion is “lived” and spiritual transformation occurs on a regular basis. Woodbine brilliantly posits that the “ritual space of the asphalt” is where memory, hope, and healing converge to fight the systemic oppressive forces beyond the rim. This book is a slam-dunk!"—Emmett G. Price III, editor of The Black Church and Hip Hop Culture: Toward Bridging Generational Divide

"The stories in Black Gods of the Asphalt are rich and powerful, and are woven together skillfully and beautifully. Woodbine switches between his roles as participant and observer, by turns narrating and analyzing with great dexterity."—Rebecca Alpert, author of Religion and Sports

"This narrative is more than academic prose; it is a deeply personal and poetic travel through the author’s own story of racial struggle and the survival tactics of the players he befriends. . . . In this majestic study of basketball as ritual, religion, and culture, Woodbine plunges into the courts of Boston with an insider’s savvy to catalogue the urban sport’s pulsating (and potentially transcendent) dialogue."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

"Woodbine’s got game, on the court and on the page, and here he dunks emphatically. From the time we meet Shorty, a street-basketball legend, through a brief history of the game and its link (religion playing a large role) to young African American culture, we learn of basketball, and the many lives it memorializes, as we have in few other books."—Booklist