The first man to make me feel like I could groove in America was Magic Johnson. Not just be here, not just make it through a school day without crying, but groove: exist with such assurance that I could look in one direction and engage with another. Like I had directions to spare. Like I wasn’t worried about any single direction because I knew there was more where it came from. And like there wasn’t really anything special in knowing that—it was just the truth. I felt torn up by all the different directions a boy could go moving from Iran to England to America, but Magic Johnson dribbled downcourt and said that all the different options a man has are a beautiful thing, and you can hold all of them, you can hold all of them at once, because who says you shouldn’t? People who are only holding one direction at a time, that’s who.
Magic Johnson made me feel like America was on defense and I had the ball. “They don’t know which way you’re going to go,” he said. “And you don’t have to know which way you’re going to go either. All you have to do is know what you’re going to do before they do.”
That certainly seems possible, I thought. I’m me, after all. There’s nobody who knows that subject better than I do, not even America. It didn’t have anything to do with showing off. It was funny to me that somebody could watch Magic Johnson and think that he was showing off. He was dribbling downcourt with a man on his left and a man on his right. It was very logical to look in one direction and pass in another. It was important to make it clear that it wasn’t showing off, because showing off was a real issue in America, one that I was very concerned with.
A man showing off was asking for something—he was asking to be seen in a certain way. And Magic Johnson wasn’t asking for anything. He was playing basketball. That was what I wanted to do, but not just with basketball. I wanted to make a no-look pass with life, to look at America and talk with Iran at the same time. When I watched Magic Johnson, I thought it could be done, and it was nothing but the truth as well. I had them both. I wanted America on one side and Iran on the other, and one of them would get the ball sometimes and the other at other times.
Iran understood. Iran had to understand, because we had left it and come here. It was America who didn’t understand so well and acted at times like it was the only option. Look, I thought, how am I supposed to make a no-look pass if I only have one option? How am I supposed to bring any grace to the scene like that, any poetry? I didn’t want America to be on defense. I wanted us to be on the same team, just like when I practiced in the front yard and I was the Los Angeles Lakers and the role of the opposing team was played by the air. I just wanted to bring everybody I already had to the team with me too: my father and mother, and my uncles and aunts and cousins, and all the Iranians we knew. I didn’t want to be on a team without them, without them feeling like they could be who they were. I would be a half a person without them, and what kind of a teammate would I be then?
So I would watch Magic, and I would go out to the front yard and practice no-look passes by myself, to nobody. The important thing was to be ready for the chance for a no-look pass when it happened. The worst thing a guy could do was to give up on the possibility of it just because it was so hard to find. Just because America didn’t know what to make of us, just because they didn’t know what to make of Iran when its name appeared on the news, just because they didn’t know about America’s own part in that, it didn’t mean that I wasn’t going to get a chance for a beautiful no-look pass in America. Look at Magic. He was American. I read in a book that he grew up in Lansing, Michigan, which was indisputably part of America. He was black, and black people weren’t who I thought of when I thought of the America that gave only one option. I thought of white people. But I didn’t know that then.
Magic was black, but when he dribbled downcourt he brought every part of who he was to it. He looked more than American to me then. I knew something was beautiful when its beauty held up in both our Iranian home and the American world outside.
My father watched with me. He didn’t understand basketball, but he understood the no-look pass. “This man,” he said. “Do you see what he is doing?” My father understood deception. He knew it could be fundamental to a man’s ability to survive. In his case, it had been Iran that had told him he could only go in one direction when he knew that he was so much more.
It was the most beautiful kind of deception to me, because maybe if people saw how many options a guy had playing basketball, they would see that he had just as many the rest of the time too, and they wouldn’t approach him like he was just one thing. Instead, they would wait to see what he presented them with that day. That was how it ought to be. A single day ought to be as new as a fast break, which was always new, because who knew what the man with the ball was going to do? If you came down the court like Magic, America would be waiting to see what you were going to do too. Showing off was what a man did when he sought an audience, but it was possible to live in a way that created an audience incidentally, while doing the thing you wanted to do anyway. America wanted to see a man in his groove. It wanted to see a boy in his. Well, I thought, then we’re on the same page. Then we might be able to work something out.
I thought it was what everybody aspired to. To know where you were so well that you didn’t have to look. But I saw when I played basketball that it helped to come to a place from the outside, because all you did then was study where you were. There were boys who had always been here who didn’t have to know where they were, because it was all they knew. And Magic Johnson helped me to see that it was good to come to a place from the outside because you never stopped noticing, you never felt entirely comfortable. Everything was urgent and pressing, and you lived in a state of constant decision-making, and at any moment something might surprise you, and the only way around that was to stay quiet and detached and expect surprises.
If you did that, you’d discover that you were actually taking them in, all the people around you, Americans and everybody else but especially Americans. You were taking them in and holding them in the right place, because somebody had to do it. They weren’t going out of their way to hold you in the right place because they didn’t know what the place was, so you might as well hold them in the right place, otherwise all that was left was showing off. And there would be times when I would make a no-look pass and somebody who didn’t know how much I had watched Magic Johnson would ask me how it was that I could make a pass without looking. “I knew they were going to be there,” I would say. “I’ve known for a long time.”