Home > Research > Interviews > The Street Side of the Game (1995)

The Street Side of the Game

JIM CARROLL, THE AUTHOR OF THE BASKETBALL DIARIES - a book that covers everything from shooting hoops to shooting heroin and that finally makes the leap to the big screen this month - talks about bouncing between the literary, jock, rock, and drug cultures

JIM CARROLL: Are you like a no-smoking guy, man?

JON STEWART: [shows JC ashtray] Ah, no, [both laugh] I was kind of wondering the same thing about you. So, it's good to meet you.

JC: Yeah. You, too.

JS: Now I know that the movie of The Basketball Diaries is about to come out. I read that book as a kid growing up in Trenton. I was about fourteen, I guess, and I lived a more suburban, sheltered existence. And I was amazed at how easily I related to your story, since you were tall, athletic, Catholic, educated, open, and independent, and I was the opposite when I was kid. I was little. I wanted to be a basketball player. I wanted to be open. I wanted to be able to sing. But I wasn't aware of it. When you grow up in the suburbs, you see everyone as the same as you, because it's all people from similar backgrounds in one little neighborhood. So reading this book was like a travelogue to me. I saw this kid who was, first of all, great at basketball, and who was using that to go places, to live these really amazing experiences, and then to tell the story.

I know. And that was one of the strange things about the book. Because, as you know, the way I got into writing was Catholic grammar school. It was the one good thing that I got out of the nuns and Brothers that taught me. Like, this one Brother, he was an odd dude as far as Brothers went. He was kind of a hip guy, into some weird occult things - I think he was a closet Manichaean or Zoroastrian or something! But he was also into the arts and he got me into being the sports editor of the school newspaper. Which was how I realized I had this natural ability and love for writing.

JS: When did your interest in writing - and where that took you - surpass your interest in basketball? Did you ever look at it like, "Basketball is a ticket to these experiences, and writing is going to be a ticket to that later on." Was there ever a sense that basketball held a finite limit for you, and that writing was infinite?

JC: Well, yeah. But it wasn't that canny, actually, because I had been writing for a long time. People think that my demise in basketball was from drugs, but it wasn't. I wasn't getting high before every game. Once in a while we made the mistake of taking downers instead of ups and stuff before a game. But from the time I was eight, my whole goal was basketball. I practiced all day after school, By my junior year, though, the jock trip started running thin. This was the late '60s, and chicks wanted guys who had long hair and went to folk clubs and wrote poetry and stuff. So i started jerkin' off and hanging around the poetry scene. Instead of playing in the summer tournaments, my art teacher gave me his loft down in the Village while he went to Cape Cod for the summer. It was, like, hellza-poppin, man! I was what, sixteen? My first book of poems came out that summer, just a small book - like thirty pages. I made up my mind right then that I was going to be a poet. No matter how difficult it was to live or anything, that's what I was going to do. And that sort of opened me up in a whole different way, Because I was always kind of withdrawn and looking at things from a distance. I told Leonardo [DiCaprio, who plays Carroll in the movie] to lay back at certain times. When the action's really happening, of course, stealing a car or something, you're involved in it completely. But sometimes you just withdraw yourself. Because they called me Daisy, since I was always in dazes. In fact, my parents took me to doctors because they thought I had some form of epilepsy. But it was determined that I just had a vivid imagination. I'd just go off. Even before I was into writing, I'd be waiting for a three-on-three game to end and they would have to shake me. But when I was into writing, I was not only thinking about strange things; I was formulating them on the page as well.

JS: Do you find yourself ever going off into that kind of reverie now?

JC: On yeah. But it's subsided a bit. I'm sure I polluted it with, you know, heroin, changed it from just a pure experience to a nod, pleasurable as it was.

JS: How did that affect your writing? Because the only thing I can liken it to is, in the suburbs, you smoke a lot of pot. And growing up I'd write down things I'd said that I thought were incredibly funny when I was stoned. Then the next day, I'd be like, "Oh, let's see . . . 'chocolate ass'?" You have no idea what it means.

JC: Yeah, right. [laughs] I soon learned not to be big on writing down poems when I was stoned on grass. But a nod is a lot different. People liken it to dreams. But it's so much more intense in its immediacy. At first, it feels inspiring, it slows down the landscape for you as a writer, so you can see things more clearly, and see a lot of bullshit for what it is. At the same time, that doesn't last. It's very ephemeral. And after a while, the only thing it's slowing down is you, saying "You don't really have to get any work done, man; this is good enough right here."

JS: That's what's so wild about the book. Because where you ended up was like a 360-degree turn from being a kid whose whole life was basketball.

JC: And that whole dichotomy has remained in my life.

JS: Because basketball is adrenaline; It's a rush. Didn't you miss that feeling?

JC: Well, with me, at first heroin got me very up. Then, of course, after a few hours I'd go on the nod. All my books that I still have from back then, I can left how stoned I was when I was reading them by how far the burn holes go through the pages. It's like a documentation of how stoned I was each day.

JS: One of the things that I find so interesting is how all these things seem so connected in your life. You actually started out as a poet before publishing The Basketball Diaries.

JC: Yeah, I waited for a few years to publish that book because I wanted to establish myself as a poet first.

JS: And then you went on to become a rock 'n' roll performer. How did those two things connect?

JC: I remember reading The Time of the Assassins, which is Henry Miller's book examining Rimbaud's life and work - although he's really examining his own life and work. But it's a genius book, and he talks about, "Where are the poets today?" I mean, the nobility of poetry is missing. In the neighborhood where I grew up, you couldn't tell people that you were writing poetry, man. I mean, you were considered a sissy if you wrote poems, for God's sake. The mailman for my building hung out in my father's bar, and one day when he was half in the bag he starts asking my father, "What's happening with your son? I used to read about him in the papers making the all-city team and shit. Now he's getting all these poetry magazines in the mail. He's got long hair. What the hell's wrong with him?" My father comes home. I'm like, "Hey, Dad, how you doin'?" Boom! "Get a hair-cut! What's with this poetry shit?"

JS: Here's your ball. Get outside.

JC: Yeah, right. [laughs] Anyway, in this book Henry Miller was saying that the poet should try to change the world. Although it's usually not going to happen. But I realized that if it is going to happen at all, if you want a shot at that, then rock 'n' roll's the form. Because I was reading Frank O'Hara and Allen Ginsberg and people who were so contemporary. It was like rock 'n' roll, And a lot of the poets who were part of the scene that I was involved in, like Patti Smith, had turned to rock 'n' roll. But after my first major book of poetry [Living at the Movies] was published, I went into a sort of recluse period in California for about six years. Then I came back to New York. The Basketball Diaries was everywhere, and I got this big record deal. Keith Richards was playing with us, because we were on the Stones' label. I was thrown into this life that was like a dream. I mean, literally, it was like a dream thing. I don't know if it was a good or bad dream, but it was dreamlike, because I had never pictured myself doing it. It seemed so strange. And suddenly, there I was.

But I still think of myself basically as just a poet. All those other things I got into were kind of a fluke, in a strange way. Of course, once you get into them, you have to put yourself into them completely.

JS: Did being onstage performing music give you the same feeling you got as a kid on the court?

JC: Yeah, in a way. For one thing, when I was on-stage sometimes I had that sense of being in the zone, that kind of Zen thing. I'd look over, like, the last person I could see in the audience and focus on one spot where there weren't any people. I'd just be totally out of myself on certain songs, like when I was playing ball and I knew just by touch that my shot was going in. I got to a point with certain guys on my teams, with certain guys on the playground, I could tell their shot was going in when they released it. I just had this sense of it. Sometimes I get that feeling from writing poetry, too. Like when you are on a complete roll where you're in the zone and you keep lighting cigarettes but you don't touch them because you're just typing and everything's coming to you from outside. You're conscious, you hear it all, but you also see it the way it should be placed on the page, that one word should be set off separately to give it a certain force there, or to slow it down, a long line to speed it up - you know the pacing of the poem lyrically, so that when people read it, they don't have to hear you read it; they can just look at it and realize how to read it by the way it's formed. Or, with writing prose, when the images and the characters just seem to come to you from the outside. I'm in a film of tears when that happens, although those moments are few and far between.

JS: Did you ever see how cinematic The Basketball Diaries was? It's so evocative when you road it, and so visual, that it always seemed like such natural material for a movie.

JC: Yeah, well, I sold the film rights right away. It's been like a stipend for me every year since, and that's gone now, man!

JS: There's always room for a sequel. You as an older basketball player, and it's a pickup game.

JC: [laughs] I've seen a lot of scripts. People approach the story from so many different angles. But the big problem was always the ending. You know, it's a pretty literary ending. He's looking out the window after a three-day run [on heroin], and he's saying, "I just want to be pure." People who've read the book say, "I like the ending." But in a movie they always want to tie things up in some way. The guy has either got to get straight or he's gotta die! I think it would be good if I died at the end of the movie.

JS: Did you feel connected to the movie seeing it?

JC: I felt weird when I saw it. I saw it with Lou Reed, and I've known Lou for a long time. After about ten minutes, Lou said, "Didn't this kid [Leonardo DiCaprio] hang out with you for like three years? Because every gesture he makes, it's like you. He just took something out of his pocket. That's exactly the way you take things out of your pocket." People say there's also a physical resemblance between Leonardo and me when I was young. And Marky [Mark Wahlberg], who plays Mickey, is remarkably good in the movie, actually. He really surprised me.

JS: All right, here's my Barbara Waiters question. If you had the choice to go back and he born Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who you played ball with as a kid, Frank O'Hara, Neil Young, or Jim Carroll, who would you choose?

JC: Just for the sake of my own sanity, I'd have to say myself.

JS: I see you as like an amalgam of those three elements - in a very superficial way, obviously.

JC: Yeah, but it would make me feel insane not to say myself, in any halfway serious sense. Otherwise, I'd say Neil Young. He has a lot of integrity, and he's written some great songs, man. I also find that he is a particular favorite of poets. From the time I was a young poet, everybody dug him. Plus, I've seen one of his ex-wives, and she was a fine-lookin' woman! I think for that reason alone it would have been nice to have been Neil Young.


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