What I Learned About Writing By Watching Basketball

A couple of years ago my husband rediscovered basketball. He used to like it as a kid, but grew up and became a bookworm-musician and gave up the television. Like, completely gave it up. Coworkers of his once asked him how he could dislike TV when “it asks so little and gives so much.” He laughed along, but to him TV took way more than it gave. He didn’t even own one until he married me and except for an occasional episode of “The Simpsons” never watched. But after a decade of marriage to me, the story-lover in all its forms, books, TV, feature films, he couldn’t resist its siren song any longer. What lured him the most was NBA and WNBA basketball and only to keep him company, I started watching. (A KU alum my only interest in basketball was near March madness when it was time to break out the blue and red and yell Rock Chalk Jayhawk!) I never expected to enjoy it, but now I’m hooked.

To my great surprise, the game is full of fascinating stories. I’ve been inspired by players (Linsanity!), teams (bad-ass Dallas in last year’s playoffs) and spectacular plays (watch this Rudy Fernandez tip-in at the buzzer). Though watching the game with me is a little like the time Luna Lovegood called one of the Quidditch matches (I probably notice new hairstyles on the players and who’s sitting on the sidelines at the games a bit more than your average sports fan.)

My biggest surprise though has been that basketball has taught me some things that can be applied to writing, including:

Be confident and keep at it. I’m not a Kobe fan by any stretch of the imagination, but damn if he didn’t teach me something in an interview broadcast during a Lakers game. He said something like “If this shot doesn’t go in, I know it’ll be the next shot. If that shot doesn’t go in, it’ll be the next. And if that shot doesn’t go in, I know the next shot will drop.”

How many would-be writers do you know who sit down once or twice and give up when it gets, you know, hard? Hell, I’ve had 5 books published with my name on the cover and I still have moments when I fear this one is going to be the one to take me under. This is when I quit. But, like Kobe, (drat!) I don’t quit, and if I’m really on my game that day, I tell myself, “If this draft isn’t great, the next one will be. And if not, the next one, then the one after that.”

Of course, Kobe can trust his shot because he’s got years and years of shooting behind him. So, another lesson: practice, practice, practice.

Do what works in the moment. Even the greatest players sometimes go cold. Their shots just won’t go in. So they figure out another way to help their teams win. Rebounds, assists, steals. Writers can do the same. If you’re writing a particular scene and it’s just not coming. Forget about it and move on to something else. Can’t seem to write something new to save your soul? Forget writing and edit. Editing is uninspired? Try this: go to an online thesaurus and look for different words. I’m not suggesting substituting fancy words where simple will do best. I find that sometimes a few minutes with a thesaurus will get me thinking creatively again and before I know it instead of replacing words, I’m actually writing. But even if that doesn’t happen, it feels good to know I’ve replaced weak verbs with strong ones or abstract words with more concrete.

Listen to your coach. I envy professional athletes their coaches more than I do their money and fame. To go to work every day with someone there whose sole purpose is to help you get better at what you do? Wow. I doubt if there’s a life coach who’d like to sit next to my desk while I write each morning, and I couldn’t afford it even if someone was willing. Luckily, I have writer friends who help me buck up when I’m feeling low. And I come to forums like Writer Unboxed to keep learning, which if you’re reading this you obviously do to. Listening to professional players discuss their relationship with their coaches is a reminder that regular visits here and chatting with my writer friends is important and necessary.

Do it for love. Women basketball players don’t make near the amount of money that the men do. But so what, says Notre Dame player Skylar Diggins. In a New York Times Magazine story, she was asked “As a high-school basketball player in South Bend, Ind., you were considered a phenom in the vein of LeBron James. But LeBron made $4 million in his first season in the N.B.A. The top W.N.B.A. salary is about $105,000. Does this depress you?” Her wise response: “If it’s about money, you shouldn’t play.” She went on to say women can’t sit on the bench and wave a towel (like NBA players) and get paid $400,000 a year, so female college players know they have to have a strong plan B.

As Sharon Bially said this week, most writers will need a day job to supplement our income. There’s a lot about publishing that seems unfair. Slam dunks are rare. Most of us will be midlist writers or bench players, and like Diggins won’t make much money. Women writers, minority writers, genre writers, literary fiction writers, and poets all have valid complaints. But…so what? We do what we can to raise awareness and try to improve things (see my blog White Readers Meet Black Authors to see what I do) and we keep writing. Because we have stories to tell and we love it.

Who knew jocks and writers had so much in common?

Any basketball fans out there? What have you learned from watching or playing basketball or another sport?


About Carleen Brice

Carleen Brice writes nonfiction and fiction. Her most recent books are the novels Orange Mint and Honey, which was made into a Lifetime television movie called “Sins of the Mother,” and Children of the Waters. She’s currently at work on a novel called Every Good Wish.


  1. says

    As a diehard basketball fan I love this post. There are so many parallels between basketball and writing. One that comes to mind is that individual weaknesses are exposed on the court. In baseball you can hide a bad defensive player in the outfield. In basketball a poor defender will quickly be exploited by the opposition. In writing you can’t hide your weaknesses either. Also basketball is a team sport wherein the whole is often greater than the sum of its parts. That is also true of writing. It takes a team to produce a novel: the writer, critique partners, an editor, graphic designer, etc. As a lifelong Knicks fan I am planning a blog post on Jeremy Lin and what he can teach writers about perseverance. Thanks for your post.

    • says

      Let me know when you do your Lin post. Would love to read it! And can I just say how happy I am for Knicks fans? This from a Nugget fan, mind you. You guys took my Melo and Chauncey (and now Kenyon Martin) & I’m still happy for you! :)

  2. says

    I truly enjoyed this post. As a life-long lover of story and basketball (and not always in that order), I found what you had to say insightful. I coach at the middle school level and your comment about how you wish there was a coach beside you when you write is one I completely agree with. I feel like my writing has gone cold lately, and my search for an agent must feel like the NBA Draft process. Will someone pick me? But, also, the point about motivation might be the ultimate truth here. We do it because we love it. Thank you for sharing these thoughts.

    • says

      David, I’m curious what you’d say to a young player who felt like you did–who had gone cold? If you feel like it, please share it with us. We all know that feeling.

  3. says

    There is wisdom everywhere, if we are receptive to it, but I would certainly never have thought to look to basketball! Though at least people run around a lot, so it’s more interesting than watching baseball. ;-)

    What a thought-provoking post. I wonder what I can learn from my morning meetings now….

    • says

      I’ve even gotten in to baseball a little and that is something I NEVER imagined. But a few years ago the Colorado Rockies went on an amazing run to the World Series. Great lesson in never giving up. As far as your morning meetings go, I bet you keep your ears and eyes open for stuff you can use for your characters?

  4. says

    Haha, fun post! I’m more of an NFL girl than NBA, but I’ve definitely caught the Linsanity fever, so I’ve been watching more basketball lately too. And my boyfriend is a HUGE sports fan (seriously, there’s almost no sport that he isn’t at least somewhat into) and he likes to draw lots of analogies between sports and writing. He even guest-posted on my blog about it once a couple years ago:


  5. says

    I love sports analogies! However, I believe that life imitates baseball. Basketball is too narrow to carry that load. Baseball is more the speed of life than basketball; it’s played on a larger surface, indoors and out. Also, people under six feet are eligible. And women…and women…er…well…er…

    Maybe you’ve got a point here, Carleen.

  6. says

    Very interesting post. Drawing connections between writing and the rest of the world is what helps writers relate to others and therefore improve their writing.

    Another correlation between the two is the constant comparison to the greatest ever. There isn’t a game that goes by where Kobe and Lebron isn’t compared to Michael Jordan in some way or another. Neither of them is as accomplished now, and may never be – but that doesn’t stop them from trying to reach that plateau. Similarly, all writers compare themselves to the greats (Austen, Tolkien, Twain, Dickens). We may not ever be that accomplished, or write with as much allure, but we can certainly glean a lot of tips and tricks from them along the way. This helps us improve as writers. If you don’t have something to aim for, you can often flounder. The greats have laid the groundwork before us, and give us goals to attain.

  7. says

    I don’t watch basketball, but I do like it if someone has it on. Gymnastics is my very favorite sport, and I also like football and baseball. Sports teach us so much about writing (and other areas of life!). One of the biggest things I’ve learned from watching and playing sports is this: It’s never ever over until it’s over! The same is so true for writing. Unless you drop down dead, you have all the chances in the world to make it to the top no matter how far behind it looks like you are. So keep at it! Keep on writing and submitting and writing and submitting some more!

  8. says

    I love the analogy. And Kobe’s comment about “the next one” is great advice for us writers. After writing my third book I hit a wall and couldn’t imagine getting inspired for the next one. But it DID happen and I just have to have an “attitude” that it will happen – every time.
    Thank you for this post.

  9. says

    More musician than sport’s fan, permit me to free associate. Competing, loving something that much, winning, goals, playing, cooperating with a team, deadlines, (and lucrative contracts! LOL) inspire tenacity and perseverence and are reasons I watch the Olympics and the occasional basket/baseball game. But the singing contests really do it for me — America’s Got Talent (jugglers and fire eaters aside) American Idol, The Voice — I love the individual backstories and rooting for a persevering underdog. Reading and writing memoir is my first love but David Shields involved me in basketball with his book Black Planet about race and basketball players. I played a guard in eighth grade and while I was tall, laidback and shorter girls were tougher and moved faster. My brother had a huge peer group when we were kids on the block in the Bronx, but he was the only one with a kid sister tagging along. I remember how it felt getting ploughed over and scraping my knees again and again trying to get into their game. In my adult years, I discovered what the last ten minutes of a basketball can do to get the adrenalin going — like you got mine going this morning with this prompt. Go team.

  10. says

    Very glad to know about White Readers Meet Black Authors. I’ll be stopping by regularly, thanks.

    Great post, too. Got me wondering what we can learn from other sports. Baseball–teamwork. Yoga–stretch. Yachting–tack into the wind shifts. Squash racquets–stay centered. Golf…

    …uh, not so sure about golf. Nap often?

  11. says

    Thanks to Don Maass for sending this article to me. I have an unhealthy obsession with college basketball. Carleen, your Jayhawks are a hell of a strong team this year. To me, one of the top two or three in the nation. Especially when it matters.

    I read years ago a fabulous memoir by Pat Conroy titled My Losing Season. One of the chapters is titled The Point Guard Finds His Voice. That chapter I read while living in New Orleans and it was about three of my favorite topics: writing, basketball, and NOLA. That might be, from a personal angle, one of my favorite chapters of anything ever written.

    I would argue you could learn much about life in general from the best in the game (especially the college game, when money has little to do with it for men or women). And, your point about players having a coach at their side daily… I have shared that envy for years. Especially those who have the best coaches at their side.

  12. says

    Great post. Read it, re-read it, bookmarked it for myself and my writing group.

    I love how insight can be found in the most unusual of places. :) Thanks for posting.

  13. says

    Sport + writing = Good times. Find a way to put music in there somewhere and you have my passions :)

    Nicely put though, and agree with what you say. Sport is an art, and those who truly are great tend to work very hard, despite having some natural ability. You need to practice your craft, and only then will you become what you want.

    Money and fame are just add ons, but going to bed happy and proud is what the true aim should always be

    Matt (Turndog Millionaire)

  14. says

    Confidence is definitely the biggest thing to take away. So many writers are plagued with uncertainty; developing some swagger is necessary! “If this shot doesn’t go in, I know it’ll be the next shot. If that shot doesn’t go in, it’ll be the next. And if that shot doesn’t go in, I know the next shot will drop.” That’s a quote worth putting up in the cubicle.

  15. says

    I’m not a fan of watching sports on TV, I prefer to be there in person. But it’s amazing that inspiration for writing can be found in something like basketball. :) If you look close enough, you can really find it anywhere.

  16. says

    It’s amazing where inspiration or a lesson might come from. I learned a great deal about writing from, of all things, professional wrestling. Yes it’s all staged and a bit silly, but as a very physical form of theatre, it effectively demonstrates the required ebb and flow, give and take required to hold an audience’s interest. The greatest wrestling matches, as with any sport, are the ones that tell a story.

    • says

      I’d be curious what you learned about storytelling from wrestling? I believe there’s a lot about the good buy vs. the bad guy there. What else?

  17. says

    Fantastic post! I know zilch about basketball but the Life Coach idea really got my attention. I gotta get me one of those! Seriously, writers tend to be a needy lot. We need praise, stroking, encouragement, constructive criticism…Thank goodness for writer friends. They are the greatest.
    We can apply any impressive work ethics to our writing. It takes dedication and determination. Those rejection letters are simply missed shots. Change it up and try again! Really enjoyed your post.

  18. Gayle Lin says

    Good post, Carleen! This basketball season as two of my grandchildren excelled at the game, and two of my children coached high school teams, one to the District Finals and one going to the Alaska State Tournament next week, we’ve really had fun with the