Childhood Dreams: Frank X Walker's "Death by Basketball"

by Kerel Whitehead

March 2007

Linking American Literature with the Ferrum College Women's Leadership Conference

Professor's Note: This essay was written for English 206, American Literature II in Spring 2007, after Dr. Tina Hanlon's class attended a session called What Would You Stand For? at Ferrum College's 10th annual Women's Leadership Conference. This activity was inspired by the book The Great Silent Grandmother Gathering, by keynote speaker Sharon Mehdi. A number of students chose to write papers about poems by Appalachian writers such as Marilou Awiakta (on humanity's relationship with Mother Nature), Bob Henry Baber (on strip mining), Patricia A. Johnson (on racial prejudice) and Affrilachian poet Frank X Walker. Click here for guidelines for the American Literature paper assignment. In the photo below, Frank X Walker greets students at Ferrum College in 2001. Students in other Ferrum English and sociology classes have explored Walker's poetry in a variety of academic and community service projects.

Students, other members of the Ferrum community and guests display posters about an issue they stand for.

Tina Hanlon (left) and American Literature student Rebekah Staples explain their posters to the group.

In the poem “Death by Basketball,” Frank X Walker describes a young child who dreams of one day becoming a great professional basketball player. This little boy, like many other young males today, is preoccupied with the idea of becoming an athletic superstar, instead of becoming a good student who attends college one day. Many young males fall into this trap of deception due to the way in which athletes are glamorized in the media and through advertising. They receive multi-million-dollar salaries, and believe that professional sports are an easier way to help their families achieve financial security.

Like many young boys today, in the poem the character’s academic potential was short circuited during his most formative and impressionable years in elementary school.  In today’s society children are constantly bombarded with powerful advertisements that are targeted directly towards them from television and radio commercials, sports magazines, and the internet. These different forms of advertisement all glamorize the fame and fortune of professional athletes. Young boys receive the underlying message that they can become someone of importance if they possess the money, the fans, and the materialism of a professional athlete.

Many young boys are so driven with the dream of making it big in professional sports one day, that they actually believe that it is more important to practice every day and every night to develop their athletic skills than it is for them to develop academic skills in order to excel in school. The little boy that Walker describes practices on the basketball court every night, and he imagines that he is the best player in the world. He even imagines himself on the cover of the Wheaties box. In his mind he actually sees himself signing an NBA contract, and advertising for Sprite and Nike. In his preoccupation with developing all the skills that he believes will ensure his athletic success and ability to receive a multi-million dollar salary one day, he ignores the most powerful skill of all that is the key to assuring his success in life; that is the ability to read.

Oftentimes, not only are young kids mesmerized with advertising that glamorizes the lifestyle of professional athletes, they are also pressured by well intentioned parents. I feel that some parents try to relive their athletic dreams through their children. Some parents recognize at an early age that their child may have exceptional athletic skills and believe that this child’s athletic ability will help their families achieve financial security. These parents have easily fallen into the trap of hoping that their child will be among that less than one percent who will make it in the professional sports arena. 

I can identity with the little boy that Walker describes in his poem “Death by Basketball.” Although my sport of choice is football, at one point in time my dream of becoming a professional football player was the only goal that I wanted to achieve. I am very grateful that I have parents who taught me how to balance my athletic dreams and the importance of my education at an early age. They also instilled in me that a solid education will carry me far in my life and will assist me in any academic and athletic endeavors that I pursue.

Work Cited

Walker, Frank X. "Death by Basketball." Affrilachia. Lexington, KY: Old Cove Press, 2000. 24-26.

Success in Basketball, Study, and Service to the Community

Shelby Irving, the alumna speaker at the 2007 Women's Leadership Conference, has combined athletic, academic, and professional success. A 1984 graduate of Ferrum College, Irving excelled in basketball as a student player and later as a coach. She also became the first female assistant fire marshal in Danville, Virginia. (See Alumni Profile article in Ferrum Magazine Winter 2006, p. 21).

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