Shea Serrano on his new basketball book and building the nicest army of fans on Earth
The best-selling author’s Basketball (and Other Things): A Collection of Questions Asked, Answered, Illustrated is out now.
The internet has great power for good and for evil, but Shea Serrano, and his loyal online following, is an inspiring example of the former. The New York Times best-selling author of 2015’s The Rap Year Book leads the self-proclaimed “FOH Army” (short for Fuck Outta Here) to do great acts of good — most recently, Serrano and his followers raised over $100,000 for Hurricane Harvey relief. The trust that Serrano’s followers have for him has been years in the making, earned through sharing his humorous takes on rap, basketball, and fatherhood.
Now, the San Antonio native is back with another project of his own: Basketball (and Other Things): A Collection of Questions Asked, Answered, Illustrated. The book is Serrano’s testament to the great joys of basketball fandom, exploring every nuance of questions such as “Was Kobe Bryant a dork?” and “If 1997 Karl Malone and a bear swapped places for a season, who would be more successful?” Over the phone from Houston, Serrano recently spoke to The FADER about how Basketball (and Other Things) came together and his pick for the best basketball player / rapper of all time.
What’s your earliest basketball memory?
My earliest basketball memory is going to a Spurs game with my dad — this is back when the Spurs were terrible, before they had even gotten David Robinson. They were on defense, the ball got knocked into the backcourt; I don’t remember who it was, but somebody on the Spurs dove for it, stretched out as far as he could, and just missed the ball. But everybody went nuts for him, cheering and screaming. And I asked my dad why everybody was cheering, and he explained to that they were cheering because he tried so hard and it didn’t matter that he didn’t get it. I don’t remember who the player was, I don’t remember who the Spurs were playing, but that’s the first basketball memory I have.
What was the craziest thing you learned while researching the book?
There were a bunch of things along the way — just reading old newspaper clippings from the ‘80s and ‘90s. There was one player who got arrested for punching a horse and then his lawyers tried to argue that he was petting the horse. That was hilarious to me.
But one thing I think I’ll remember forever is that Kobe Bryant has scored more points in the playoffs against the Spurs than any other player ever. I was really excited to find that out because he was the player I was most afraid of growing up. It felt like he was always killing us. It was validating for me to that that was actually the case and it wasn’t just me imagining it.
How did you decide which questions deserved to be answered in Basketball (And Other Things)?
I had a list of like 50 or 60 questions to start out, and I was just picking the ones that I thought were most interesting. There were a few I knew 100 percent that were gonna be in there. You can figure out pretty quickly whether or not something has the legs to actually be a chapter. What you don’t want to have happen is have any one chapter be all jokes. It can’t work that way. That’s like if you sit down for dinner and there’s a plate full of mashed potatoes and tiny piece of meat. But you can take any subject and make it entertaining as long as it has some ground to stand on.
Anyone who follows you on Twitter knows about the FOH army. How did that start to become a thing?
For me that was a thing that happened out of nowhere. When The Rap Year Book came out, I was trying to push people to buy it and people started buying it all at once. Somebody out there called it an army and then someone else called it the Fuck Outta Here Army because I was replying to a lot of tweets where people were saying we weren’t gonna do it and telling them to “get the fuck outta here.” If you give something a name then people will be excited to be a part of it.
After Hurricane Harvey, y’all raised over $100,000 for those affected in Houston. Was there a moment where you realized that it had that sort of power for good?
Around the time that I started doing the newsletter, a few people started asking if they could pay for it and then more people started asking. So, after a month or so, we posted a link in one of the newsletters and said, “OK if you want to send in money you can.” And a bunch of people sent money. I had a job already that was giving me a paycheck, so I gave some of it to the illustrator Arturo Torres and then we gave a bunch of it to this women’s shelter in Dallas where Arturo had lived for a little when he was a kid.
We didn’t tell anyone that we were donating the money until afterwards. We posted screenshots and it was like, “Surprise! You guys sent us this money but we told you we didn’t want it so we gave it away.” A month later we did it again, and then every few months we would do it and it got bigger and bigger every time. It got to the point where, when the hurricane happened, people were asking, “What is the FOH gonna do in response to this?” That was a crazy moment because there was an expectation that we would do something. Probably my favorite part of this whole thing is that people expected us to help.
We’ve had an ongoing debate in the office about who is the best NBA player/rapper. Who do you think has the claim to that title?
All time is Shaq no question. You’re talking about a platinum selling rapper who was legitimately good. You can listen to the album and it doesn’t sound horrible. When you listen to a Shaq album, he’s actually rapping his ass off. Cedric Ceballos was also good. He was like a G-funk rapper, which was great because he played with the Lakers in the ‘90s.
In the NBA today, I think it’d be Iman Shumpert. It’s definitely not Lonzo — he’s horrible. When you listen to a Damian Lillard song, you’re like, “OK this is a basketball player who’s a rapper.” You can definitely tell that Damian Lillard owns every J. Cole album.
Do you think a retrospective Tim Duncan fashion show would ever happen and what would it look like?
Oh man, I hope not. It would just be like baggy pants and gigantic button-up shortsleeve shirts and Punisher ankle bracelets. I wish he was starting his career now and then you could have him next to Russell Westbrook, like, What’s going on here?
This NBA offseason has been crazy with trades and players moving around. Which narrative are you most excited to see play out?
If I could pick one big theme, I’m most excited to see all of the new teammates. You’ve got the new Rockets, and the new Clippers, the new Thunder, the new Knicks even. It’s like when you go to the park with your kids and you drop them off, like a playdate, and you’re trying to figure who they’re gonna like and who they’re not gonna like. If it works out, it’s great and they have the best time, and if it doesn’t, everybody is miserable. Today, NBA fans are more connected to the players than has ever been the case in history. There becomes this attachment that’s way beyond basketball. Now, you know how LeBron feels about politics, you know how petty Russell Westbrook can be. So when you get to see all the new pieces trying to fit together it’s gonna be super interesting.
You’ve spoken about your path into writing a lot and how it was far from traditional. What kind of things to do you say to aspiring writers when they reach out for advice?
I’ve got a list of ten questions that people ask me all the time and they all have different answers. The most general advice that I can give that someone might need to hear is: Any of this shit that’s out there that you want to do, you can fuckin’ do it. It’s there for you to go get. If you can get that idea in your head, then everything else will fall in line. I didn’t have any experience with writing; I didn’t know anyone who had been a writer. I didn’t even consider the idea until I actually considered the idea. And there are a million other stories like that. You don’t need anything other than a willingness to get kicked in the teeth a bunch of times and get back up.