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‘Hardwood philosopher’ studies religion on the court

Onaje Woodbine ’02 quit the Yale basketball team to find himself as a scholar and a human being. Now a newly graduated PhD, he’s telling the stories of how African American men find themselves on the basketball court—and a Boston dance troupe is telling Woodbine’s own story in a new musical play, In The Paint.

Woodbine’s journey began in an inner-city Boston neighborhood, where he played basketball “in a way, because I had to," he says in a phone conversation.

“Growing up, the culture taught me and a lot of my friends who are African American men to value their physical qualities more than their thinking,” he says. “I think that’s the original myth: that African American men are sound in body but not in mind.“

But the basketball paradigm is not that simple.

“On the one hand, we were pushed toward these athletic identities,” he says. “But on the other hand, as we got on the court and moved our bodies, we discovered an internal release from the culture” and its “narrow definitions of what it was to be a black man.”

Eventually, Woodbine came to see that he and his peers “were bringing all of [our] trauma onto the basketball court. It was the only place where a black man could be vulnerable enough to show emotion and cry. I realized: this is a ritual that’s going on. It’s a grieving ritual.”

In the doctoral program in religious studies at Boston University—where he was recruited by one Yale alum, Robert Neville ’60, ’63PhD, and wrote his dissertation under another, Stephen Prothero ’82—Woodbine decided to explore how that ritual works.

Growing up, Woodbine suffered his share of trauma, losing a coach and father figure as a child and his best friend at age 18. Gun violence was all around. But his immediate family was relatively stable. In his research, interviewing young men he’d grown up with, he was astounded by their stories of absent or drug-addicted parents and grandparents, sexual abuse, responsibility for young siblings.

“Basketball was the only thing that was stable,” he says. “They said, ‘I had to go to the court to find myself.’ Some people said in my interviews: ‘It was like our church.’

Woodbine has landed a teaching job at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, where he hopes he’ll also be able to coach. And he’s working on a project called HooPs—the Hardwood Philosophical Society—aimed at “using the basketball court as a transformation for African American men” by integrating the sport with Eastern and African philosophies. (An example: a type of tai chi basketball, in which the outer form consists of hoops move while the inner core is meditative work.)

For black men in the inner city, “this is religion,” Woodbine says: “a search for your ultimate place in the world. This is the human journey, and it’s a universal story, from the loss of innocence to some kind of wholeness.”

His personal story is one of three that will be told by actors and musicians in In The Paint, a dance-storytelling-rap-jazz piece that premieres July 21 in Harlem and is scheduled for performances in Boston in the fall—some of them on real basketball courts in housing projects.

Woodbine is credited as the "philosophical director.” An actor will play his character, but Dr. Woodbine—who is also a practitioner and teacher of the Yoruba religion—will conduct a closing ritual.

“We’re thinking of it as theater as ritual,” he says. “The audience will participate, and we’re thinking of it as a healing space.”


The Yale Alumni Magazine is published by Yale Alumni Publications Inc., an alumni-based nonprofit that is not run by Yale University. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views of the university administration.

Filed under Onaje Woodbine, basketball, religion, philosophy
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