People of the Year: Peter Balakian


Peter Balakian

Eric Fishbin, National Sports Editor

Each year, The Colgate Maroon-News chooses a topic to highlight for a Special Edition. This December, our theme is “People of the Year,” modeled after Time Magazine’s annual “Person of the Year” issue. In this special section, we have profiled sixteen individuals who have had made significant—and perhaps lesser-known—impacts on Colgate’s campus this year, be they in the classroom, at the football field or even on the Cruiser. Inside, read about what defines them as worthy of recognition.

The relationship between coach and player is sacred. Ask any athlete and you will hear how essential the role of the coach is to the development and career of the player. The coach is the figure who pushes you to your limits and maximizes your talents; the one who is willing to put in extra time in the gym when nobody else is watching so results show in the big moment. The athlete, self-motivated, must have a disposition and attitude aimed at improvement and a willingness to be critiqued.

The relationship between professor and pupil can reveal many of the same characteristics, though the skills are being drilled in a different setting like the classroom. A place designed for practicing, errors can get worked out and mechanics fine tuned, in preparation for whatever may lie ahead.

Professor of English Peter Balakian, one of the University’s most celebrated writers, author of more than a dozen books and winner of 2016 Pulitzer Prize for his recent book of poems Ozone Journal as well as the prize winning memoir “Black Dog Fate,” commented on this relationship between an academic mentor and their mentee.

“It’s always, to some degree, about work ethic. Writing, like any creative art, demands incredible discipline and focus, and so does athletic endeavor so those things are good matches,” Balakian said.

It was the spring semester of 1997 in Hamilton, N.Y. at Colgate University, when junior student-athlete and star of the basketball team Adonal Foyle met a new type of coach in Balakian and practice began. While Foyle was preparing for his start in the NBA at the term’s end, one of the last courses on his schedule was Professor Balakian’s poetry writing workshop.

Foyle, the eighth overall pick in the 1997 NBA Draft, left snowy Colgate a year early for the Golden State Warriors and made his NBA debut on October 31, 1997. However, he was determined to finish the “fourth quarter” in Hamilton and earn his degree.

“He came to me and he said ‘Look I want to keep writing,’ and he asked me if I would advise an independent study for him in creative nonfiction. I said, ‘Sure, I’d be happy to’ and he proposed doing an independent study on being a rookie in the NBA,” Balakian said.

So from across NBA stadiums around the nation, between practices and travel, after games and on days off, Foyle would write and send pages to Balakian via fax and email. Balakian received the tales of a rookie developing his game and growing up in the Michael Jordan-dominated, hip hop-culture-infused, rough and rowdy late-90s NBA from across the country to quiet and serene Hamilton.

Foyle’s senior project, a nonfiction memoir, was written as his life was unfolding and reads over a hundred pages.

Balakian fondly recalled a time the pair spent working on the project in a coffee shop in Oakland, California, the day after one of Foyle’s games. The court-side seats that Balakian and his wife and children were gifted the night before to watch the Warriors in action against the Charlotte Hornets were certainly a perk to the trip.

During the game, on February 18, 1998, Foyle logged 12 minutes, scored two points and grabbed two rebounds. The Dubs won 88-77, earning their tenth win of the season, and Hornets small forward Glen Rice was the game’s leading scorer with 31 points (which, coincidentally, happens to be Foyle’s number, 13 reversed, and the name of his self-published poetry collection, 31: poems).

Foyle averaged three points, 3.3 rebounds and .9 blocks per game in his rookie year, and started in only one game.

However, as his career matured, Foyle continued to develop as a player and adjusted to being a professional baller.

He grew and learned, making a name for himself as a defensive stalwart in the process. In the 2000-2001 season, Foyle was the NBA’s third leading shot blocker (2.7), tied with Dikembe Mutombo, who is famous among fans for his emphatic swats and consequent finger wag.

As Foyle improved as a player and acclimated to the professional game, he also grew as a writer under Balakian’s mentorship and had to overcome challenges in learning the craft of non-fiction by writing his rookie year memoir.

Being drafted was followed by drafting; practice and revision was necessary in both his NBA and writing careers.

“It was interesting because he was really writing about what was happening to him at the moment… He was writing in a very immediate and direct way. It was challenging because there isn’t much of the perspective of memory to measure experience with. I worked with him on a lot of things:, how to write, how to shape a story and how to create a voice. [Foyle] was a quick learner and he wrote a good piece,” Balakian said.

Balakian invited Foyle back to Colgate to read in his Visiting Poets Series sponsored by the English Department on March 2, 2017, ten years after his last full year in the NBA and 20 years after taking Balakian’s poetry writing workshop.

Foyle spoke about life in the NBA, read selections from his poetry collection and talked about “Democracy Matters,” a Colgate club with the mission to strengthen democracy by educating young people.

Since its launch at Colgate, the club promoting student activism has produced chapters across the country.

After the reading, Balakian’s workshop students had a special time with Foyle over dinner at Balakian’s house.

Foyle’s talk was taped and can be found in the Colgate University archives.

“It was a moving talk about learning at Colgate and then applying that to his life in the NBA. It might be interesting for Colgate students to hear it,” Balakian said.

Now, enrolled in Balakian’s course “After Genocide,” I was curious to follow up and find out more about Foyle’s writing on his first of 13 NBA seasons from his writing coach. It was a thrill to dig into the past and hear a story unique to Colgate and professional sports, with its roots in writing.

Balakian said Foyle had never pursued publishing his uniquely inside perspective memoir on the 1997-98 NBA season.

Perhaps, we might guess, he wrote of what it was like playing alongside the likes of teammates point guard Muggsy Bogues and shooting guard Jim Jackson, or against that year’s MVP and arguably the most dominant player ever, Michael Jordan and Rookie of the Year Tim Duncan. Maybe Foyle wrote about learning and developing under head coach P.J. Carlesimo.

Most tantalizingly, maybe Foyle wrote about the questionable rituals of rookie hazing he endured as part of his initiation to the Association.

Perhaps the forgotten senior independent study has a chance to be revisited. It would surely be an interesting read for any late-90’s NBA fan. The details of what the league was like, seen from the eyes of a budding rookie and writer, would be some tale to delve into.

Even the passionate consumer of Colgate history, who may be eager to see the early and developing writing style of one of Colgate’s most successful athletes in his rookie year, under the guidance of one of the University’s most celebrated writers.

Perhaps, after all these years, Colgate’s dynamic duo will link up and revisit an old school project.

Contact Eric Fishbin at [email protected].