This summer I injured my Achilles tendon and could not play basketball for three months. This created a strange, dreamlike kind of wreckage in my psyche that was hard for me (and my wife) to manage because — I hereby make the confession — I am a basketball junkie.
In fact, I’ve played basketball with Dirk Dunbar, who is also — as the title of his new memoir, “Confessions of a Basketball Junkie,” indicates — a basketball junkie, but on a whole different plane of athletic existence from me. He was a high school and college star in the 1970s, was scouted by the NBA, and then tore up the professional leagues in Europe.
Old-timers from Unity College will remember Dunbar, who not only chipped in coaching basketball and gracing pickup and intramural games in the 1990s, but was primarily a professor of humanities, teaching his unique interweaving of philosophy, history and ecology. A basketball-philosopher, as it were, and his book details the journey from court to scholar to classroom.
Dunbar grew up in Michigan and started playing basketball when he was a little kid. College recruiters attended his high school games. He became an All American and met guys like Dave Cowens who would become pro basketball luminaries. He then went on to Central Michigan University where, just as his career was taking its next step, he blew out his knee in a pickup game.
That was the first of several injuries that led to seven different surgeries and altered his basketball career. He was scouted by the New Orleans Jazz of the NBA, but the injury-prone knees knocked him off their list of prospects. So instead, Dunbar went to play in Iceland and then Germany, where he was a scoring champion, had teams nicknamed after him in the media, coached, learned to play the piano and met his wife, Ulli.
Along the way, his philosophic nature guided practically every move he made on and off the court. His fascination for life’s cosmic questions led him into philosophies that range from Chinese Taoism to Carl Jung’s archetypal psychology. As his basketball career wound down, he invested his time in scholarship, and in the mid-1990s he became a professor at Unity and then at Northwest Florida State College, living now with his family in Niceville, Florida.
“Confessions of a Basketball Junkie” is a free-flowing compendium of lucid, free-flowing accounts of the people, places and events of his life — and more. It provides accessible summaries of the formal philosophies that shaped his thinking and guided his life, and it’s an expression of the startling, authentic ebullience of spirit that carried him through the best and worst days of his basketball life and his many warm connections with friends, family and teammates.
This disposition comes through in one of the book’s myriad small but luminous anecdotes. While vacationing in Florida in his 20s, he heads to a beach playground to find a pickup game. His knees by now are already of concern, but he can’t resist the urge to play.
He waits his turn during a rough game filled with racially charged meanness. Arguments lead to a fight and one of the white players stalks off, so Dunbar takes his place. He immediately blows by his defender, who in turn clocks him. There’s a momentary squabble over whether it’s a foul or not, and Dunbar lets it go, wanting to play, not fight.
When the game gets interrupted again, Dunbar tries to strike up a friendly conversation with his defender. “F— you,” the guy replies.
Dunbar, his ebullience undaunted, responds inwardly by wondering what it’s like to be a dolphin.
This illustrates how the book and, indeed, his whole approach to life work. A page earlier he observed: “I believe that if we re-identify our body with the Earth and universe, we might redefine our sense of sentience, sanity, and spirituality with all beings in mind.” It’s a worldview that experiences everything together as a unified whole, even dolphins and conflict.
Through it all, this mystic’s sensibility is basketball-centric: “It was the sense of selflessness and expansion of consciousness that turned me and countless other junkies on to basketball,” he says at one point. “Playing basketball allows devotees access to the unconscious while awake.”
Being one of those countless others who regard basketball with virtually religious reverence, I say: Amen to that.
Local readers will likely find the Unity chapters of this book most interesting, where his relationships with his Waldo County friends and trees are described with characteristic warmth. But what you mainly take away from this book is a feeling of unflagging, hopeful good humor and appreciation for life in all its flower, no matter what misfortunes strike. This book is a basketball-philosopher’s celebration of a life well-lived.
“Confessions of a Basketball Junkie” is available through online book sellers and Dunbar’s website at dirkdunbar.com.
Off Radar takes note of books with Maine connections every other week in the Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel’s What’s Happening? Contact Dana Wilde at [email protected].