Historical Context

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...

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Literary Style

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 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.

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...

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Bibliography and Further Reading

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,...

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Compare and Contrast

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.


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Topics for Further Study

On an enlarged map of Manhattan, plot the approximate dates and locations for the major events in the book. Research the history of these areas and try to find other, highly publicized events that took place in these areas. Plot these dates and descriptions as well.

Watch the film adaptation of The Basketball Diaries and compare it to the book.

Find another region in the 1960s that experienced as much drug use, prostitution, and crime as New York. Write a two-page portrait of what life was like for individuals who grew up in this area during this time.

Research the current drug problem in the United States, and compare it to the drug problem in the 1960s. What methods of enforcement have been used in each time period to slow or stop the sale and use of drugs? What has been the economic impact of the drug problem in each era?

Choose a professional athlete, from any point in history, who has been caught using drugs. Write a biography about this person, including whether the athlete used drugs as a teenager and what happened to this person when he or she was caught.

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Media Adaptations

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 audible.com, 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.

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What Do I Read Next?

Although many today only know Carroll's prose writings, he made his start in the literary world as a poet. Fear of Dreaming: The Selected Poems of Jim Carroll (1993) includes poems from Living at the Movies (1973) and The Book of Nods (1986) as well as several more recent poems. This collection gives a portrait of Carroll as an artist in various stages of his writing career.

Carroll's Forced Entries (1987) continues the autobiographical story of the author's drug addiction, starting five years after the last entry in The Basketball Diaries. However, in his first diary collection, Carroll detailed how he became a heroin addict. In this one, he describes his fight to overcome his...

(The entire section is 307 words.)