Spirituality And Transformation On Boston's Inner-City Basketball Courts

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Sixteen years ago, Onaje Woodbine was living the dream. Woodbine had grown up poor in inner-city Boston, honed his basketball talents on the hard courts of Roxbury, and ended up playing for Yale, where he was the lead scorer and among the best in the Ivy League.

Then, during his sophomore year, he quit, because he wanted more. He wanted a life of the mind and to step out of a system that valued young black men simply as profitable athletic workers.

In a column for The Yale Daily News, Woodbine explained his decision this way:

Deep within, I know that I will not help the most people by putting the ball in the basket. I feel called to study philosophy and religion, to expose the contradictions that people of African descent face in America every day, to give my life to humanity. Indeed, there are times in every man's life when he must look at himself, evaluate his gifts and have the courage to listen to his heart.

That courage led him to Ghana, a doctorate in philosophy from Boston University and back to the basketball courts in Roxbury, where he studied the transformation that many young black men undergo on those basketball courts in neighborhoods plagued by violence.

Students at Phillips Academy will be performing a play based on Woodbine's book Friday May 27 at 8 p.m. and Saturday May 28 at 7:30 p.m.


Onaje X. O. Woodbine, philosophy and religious studies teacher at Phillips Academy in Andover. He's author of "Black Gods of the Asphalt: Religion, Hip-Hop, and Street Basketball."


Only A Game: Onaje Woodbine’s Spiritual Journey Leads Back To The Court — And Stage

  • "Woodbine did his research by playing basketball on the same playgrounds in the Roxbury, Dorchester and Mattapan sections of Boston where he’d played as a teenager. Some of the tournaments in which he played served as memorials to black men who’d died young. Their images and names were preserved in banners hung on the fences around the courts. After games, Woodbine would try to explore with the other players the meaning of what they were doing."

The New York Times: A Philosophical Journey Leads Back to Basketball

  • "It occurred to him, as he read deeply in theories of religion, that there was something profoundly religious about what he and his friends had experienced playing basketball. The courts were sacred spaces, separating sacred time from profane, allowing them to enact rites of jubilation, transition or mourning."

This segment aired on May 26, 2016.


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