The Basketball Diaries

by Jim Carroll

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Historical Context

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The Cold War
The U.S. use of atomic bombs on Japan ended World War II in 1945, and ushered in the atomic age. After these demonstrations, several countries, including the Soviet Union, rushed to create and test their own atomic bombs. As tensions between the communist Soviet Union and the democratic United States increased, the U.S. government began a policy of backing smaller foreign countries that were in danger of being overthrown by Soviet-backed groups. The resulting tension between the Soviet Union and the United States—and between communism and democracy in general—was labeled the Cold War, and for good reason. Although much of the period was technically spent in peace, the pervasive feeling of suspicion and paranoia that was generated by this clash of superpowers made many feel that they were fighting a war. In the United States, the public was well aware that one mistake on either side could inadvertently trigger World War III. In the diaries, Carroll describes on many occasions what it was like growing up as a ‘‘war baby’’ in a major city during the Cold War, living in constant fear that he was going to die in a nuclear attack:

It’s always been the same, growing up in Manhattan. . . . the idea of living within a giant archer’s target . . . for use by the bad Russia bowman with the atomic arrows.

Vietnam and the Antiwar Movement
Although the peak years of the Cold War were over by the 1960s, the U.S. fight against communism in foreign countries continued. The United States had been supporting South Vietnam for decades in its conflict against Ho Chi Minh’s communist forces in North Vietnam. Most Americans were unaware of this involvement, since U.S. soldiers in Vietnam were disguised as advisors. However, in 1965, the United States escalated its involvement, adding fifty thousand new ground troops to the twenty-three thousand already stationed in Vietnam. At this point, the U.S. public was more informed about what was going on, and a massive antiwar movement began. Many people, like Carroll, were forced to take a side in this conflict.

The Counterculture in the 1960s
Carroll, like many other members of the counterculture— a group of people who rebelled against the U.S. capitalist establishment—was against the war. The counterculture grew as many people, especially American youth, became hippies or junkies. Hippies wore their hair long, dressed in deliberately shabby clothes, and believed in nonviolent forms of antiwar protest such as sit-ins and peace marches. Hippies tended to use recreational drugs, particularly marijuana and LSD; they believed these drugs freed their minds and gave them better understanding about the human condition. Junkies shared many characteristics with hippies, however, junkies like Carroll were mainly interested in getting high, and were not opposed to violence and crime. In fact, as Martin Gilbert notes in his book, A History of the Twentieth Century, Volume Three: 1952–1999: ‘‘The need to supply and finance the drug habit, if necessary by theft and violence, undermined the moral outlook of many individuals.’’of many individuals.''

Literary Style

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Diary A diary details the events in one's life as a series of periodic entries. The Basketball Diaries is composed of ten sections, one for each season—in some cases two seasons—from Fall 1963 to Summer 1966. Each section is composed of five to twenty-six separate entries. Most diaries are kept for personal reasons and are not intended for publication. As a result, the diarist may jump around and discuss many topics, instead of developing one major plot, as other kinds of storytellers do. At first glance, The Basketball...

(This entire section contains 709 words.)

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Diaries appears to follow this episodic format, since each short entry describes a separate event. However, collectively, these entries describe Carroll's coming-of-age transformation—from a healthy, relatively naïve juvenile delinquent into a strung-out, culturally aware, heroin-addicted criminal.

Setting The events take place in the 1960s in New York City, primarily Manhattan, a small island that contains within its small area some of the world's richest and poorest people. Carroll, a boy from the poor section of New York, is able to use his basketball talent to get into a local, rich private school. He also dates rich young girls, something that he says his friends from the poor part of the city would not believe. ‘‘I'm gonna bring all the dirt heads from old Madison Square Boy's Club up here some night: they'll freak out in one second.'' If he were living in some other U.S. cities, where the physical distance between rich and poor is often greater, it would be harder for him to do this. In addition, New York is notorious for its high crime rate and its drug abusers. In fact, as Carroll notes, his diaries ‘‘have the greatest hero a writer needs, this crazy ... New York.’’ Finally, as the largest American city and one which contained a significant number of landmarks and economic centers, New York—especially Manhattan—was thought to be a prime target for a nuclear warhead during the Cold War, a fear that Carroll expresses on several occasions.

LanguageThe Basketball Diaries is conspicuous for its graphic profanity. Many entries include at least one profane word, and in some cases, Carroll uses several. These profane words are used to describe sexual acts—in which case he uses many—and are often used for emphasis, even when describing relatively normal events. Carroll also includes a lot of slang—a type of language used in everyday life by common men and women, typically those in the lower or working classes. Slang words are often established words that have been given different meanings. For example, in the English language, a "spade" is a gardening tool. However, in street slang, a spade is an African American. This term is derogatory, which is another common characteristic of slang words. Sex, drugs, and alcohol are three areas in which slang is often used. For example, Carroll refers to sexual intercourse as "nooky," calls condoms "scumbags," andrefers to breasts as "knocks." Marijuana is "weed" or "grass," while heroin is "scag." A "spiller" is someone who acts like he has drunk more than he has, and someone who is drunk is "smashed." These are just some of the countless examples of slang in the book.

Imagery The imagery in the diaries is also graphic. For example, Carroll and his friends come across a woman who has committed suicide by jumping out of a window. Says Carroll: ‘‘I spot a long deep gorge in her ankle and it's oozing blood in slowmotion spurts.’’ Besides violent images, Carroll also uses graphic imagery to describe his sexual experiences. For example, as he is about to say goodbye to his girlfriend before basketball practice one day, he states that she "socks her tongue in my mouth and grinds her sweet bottom up against me.’’ Since Carroll has forgotten to wear a jock strap that day, his resulting erection makes it look "like [he] was shoplifting bananas.’’ Drug imagery is also graphic, particularly the images associated with shooting up heroin. On one occasion, Carroll describes what it looks like when he shoots up: "Just such a pleasure to tie up above that mainline with a woman's silk stocking and hit the mark and watch the blood rise into the dropper like a certain desert lily.’’

Compare and Contrast

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1960s: Young American men are sent, often through the draft and against their will, to fight in the Vietnam War. Some seek to escape the horrors of guerilla war by using illicit drugs like marijuana and heroin—the latter of which is cheap and readily available in Southeast Asia.

Today: Following terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, D.C., the United States engages in a war against terrorism, including military engagements in the Middle East. The terrorist attacks spark a patriotic response, and many young men and women choose to enlist in the armed forces.

1960s: The use of illicit drugs spreads into the mainstream United States. The counterculture movement of the 1960s and 1970s helps to promote this increased use of drugs, especially marijuana and LSD. Heroin, which is used by junkies (drug addicts), is often avoided by hippies.

Today: The heroin-related deaths of River Phoenix, Kurt Cobain, and other prominent celebrities spark a national awareness of heroin abuse. Although the use of illicit drugs is still a problem in the United States, drug use has dropped by nearly 45 percent since its peak in the late 1970s.

1960s: Sexual freedom becomes a hallmark of the decade. Pregnancy is less a concern with the increased use of birth-control pills. Likewise, some sexually transmitted diseases, like gonorrhea, can often be treated by easily obtained prescription antibiotics.

Today: Although U.S. youth still engage widely in sexual activity, the risks today are much greater as a result of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS), a disease that is generally transmitted through unprotected sex, the sharing of drug needles, and blood transfusions

Media Adaptations

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In 1994, The Basketball Diaries was adapted as an abridged audiobook by Audio Literature. The audio diaries are read by the author. The same audiobook is also available as an audio download from, an on-line audiobook retailer.

The Basketball Diaries was also adapted as a film in 1995 by Island Pictures and New Line Cinema. Directed by Scott Kalvert, the film featured Leonardo DiCaprio as Carroll. It also featured Lorraine Bracco, Mark Wahlberg, Juliette Lewis, Ernie Hudson, and a small role for Carroll himself. The film, which is set in the 1990s, retains much of the book's 1960s language and slang, giving the film an anachronistic feel. It is available on DVD from Ryko Distribution and contains many special features, including interviews with several cast members and an antidrug trailer.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources Carroll, Jim, The Basketball Diaries, Tombouctou Books, 1978, reprint, Penguin Books, 1995.

———, Catholic Boy, Atco, 1980.

———, Forced Entries: The Downtown Diaries, 1971–1973, Penguin Books, 1987, p. vi.

Carter, Cassie, ‘‘‘A Sickness That Takes Years to Perfect’: Jim Carroll’s Alchemical Vision,’’ in Dionysos: Literature and Addiction Quarterly, Vol. 6, No. 1, Winter 1996, pp. 6–19.

Delacorte, Peter, ‘‘A Follow-Through beyond the Hoop,’’ in the San Francisco Chronicle, July 12, 1987, p. 3.

Gilbert, Martin, A History of the Twentieth Century, Vol. 3, 1952–1999, Perennial, 2000, p. 307.

Graustark, Barbara, ‘‘Mean Streets,’’ in Newsweek, Vol. 96, No. 10, September 8, 1980, pp. 80–81.

James, Jamie, Review of The Basketball Diaries, in American Book Review, Vol. 2, No. 2, February 1980, p. 9.

Jebian, Wayne, ‘‘Diaries of the Damned,’’ in the Columbia Journal of American Studies, Vol. 1, No. 1, 1995.

Lehmann-Haupt, Christopher, Review of The Basketball Diaries and Forced Entries, in the New York Times, July 9, 1987, p. C23.

MacAdams, Lewis, ‘‘Jim Carroll,’’ in Entertainment Weekly, No. 281–282, June 30, 1995, pp. 50–51.

Riegel, Richard, Review of Catholic Boy, in Creem, Vol. 12, No. 9, February 1981, p. 44.

Simels, Steven, ‘‘Jim Carroll,’’ in Stereo Review Magazine, Vol. 46, No. 2, February 1981, p. 40.

Further Reading Baum, Dan, Smoke and Mirrors: The War on Drugs and the Politics of Failure, Little, Brown, 1997. This retrospective look at the United States’ war on drugs deviates from other books in this genre that tend to use anecdotes to depict the government as deliberate participants in the spread of drugs. Instead, Baum, a journalist, provides balanced criticism about why the war on drugs has failed, using facts to back up his assertions.

Braunstein, Peter, and Michael William Doyle, eds., Imagine Nation: The American Counterculture of the 1960s and ’70s, Routledge, 2001. This collection of essays offers a thorough examination of the major cultural issues in the 1960s and 1970s. Topics include Drugs in the Sixties Counterculture, Insurgent Youth and the Sixties Culture of Rejuvenation, Film and the Counterculture, and Media and Pop Culture.

Holmes, Ann, The Mental Effects of Heroin, The Encyclopedia of Psychological Disorders, Little, Brown, 1997. Holmes reviews the history of heroin use, discusses the physical and psychological effects of using heroin, and talks about the causes of and various treatments for heroin addiction. The book also includes several appendices, including contact information for substance-abuse agencies, heroin-related statistical tables, a bibliography, and a glossary of drug-related terms.

Unger, Irwin, and Debi Unger, eds., The Times Were a Changin’: The Sixties Reader, Three Rivers Press, 1998. In this book, the Ungers present an extensive anthology of speeches, articles, court decisions, and other documents that defined the 1960s. Organized in twelve categories, the book’s sections feature an introduction from the editors as well as specific commentary on the documents.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide