Our Myth of Creation
This is the text of a presentation I gave this past weekend at the American Comparative Literature Association annual conference at New York University. It’s also an abbreviated version of Chapter One of my book manuscript. I know it’s a scholarly work, and long for a blog post, but I trust the intelligence, curiosity, and attention span of my readers. Feedback welcome as always!
From its beginnings in 1891 and over the course of basketball’s subsequent history, changes in society and in the sport have sparked sometimes contentious discussion over the putative essential nature of basketball as well as over the techniques and tactics that ostensibly best convey that nature. Investigating these discussions, I have identified clusters of recurrent stories, metaphors, and images, arising around key events and personalities. I call these clusters “myths” not to suggest that they are untrue, but rather to emphasize my interest in their narrative character and cultural function. These myths give narrative shape to a collective struggle with changes—particularly related to race—taking place in basketball and in society. In general, they fabricate an idealized, timeless essence of the game and project it onto a succession of moments, individual players, coaches, and teams or conversely, fantasize that a contrasting succession poses a destructive threat to that essence. Sometimes, the same myth simultaneously hails an embodiment of basketball’s essence and decries an imagined threat to that essence.
In each of nine chapters, I focus upon a key myth pertaining to a different era in basketball’s history. Within each chapter, I first employ interpretative methods drawn from literary studies to identify the key thematic and formal elements of the myth in question. I then situate this myth in and against the overlapping contexts, in basketball and in society, in which it emerged—the “history” of my subtitle—to show how it simultaneously suppresses, pretends to resolve, and expresses anxieties related to change in the sport and in society. Finally, I propose alternative histories of the phenomena in question—the “inventions” of my subtitle—that are centered around close readings of the creative aesthetics of on court play. These close readings attend to the specific tactical and stylistic innovations of players and the ways in which these might carry meaning beyond the boundaries of the basketball court and thereby disrupt the more confining myths that have crystallized around them.
I’d like to flesh this out now by sharing an example from Chapter One: The Myth of Creation, December 21, 1891, which addresses myths arising around the invention of the sport.
Basketball, like other world civilizations, has a creation myth. On the occasion of the 2010 auction of basketball’s original thirteen rules, Sotheby’s vice-president Selby Kiffer offered an extremely compact version of this myth to explain why someone would pay 4.3 million dollars for the two page typescript: “This,” he said “is like Athena bursting out of Naismith’s head full-blown. . . Nothing else like this exists that captures the origin of a sport. One day there wasn’t basketball. The next day there was. You don’t have that with football, baseball, lacrosse, golf. This is the birth of one of the most popular games in the world.” Though just a single, and perhaps off the cuff, quotation, Kiffer’s remarks nicely embody a version of events that has appeared in many accounts of the game’s invention over the past one hundred years, according to which, to boil it down to its basic elements, basketball was born, full-grown, directly from the head of its father, James Naismith, in the form of thirteen written rules.
Of course, none of this is literally true or, to put it slightly differently, historically accurate. Basketball was not “born.” It was invented. And it was not invented “full-grown”—that is, in the form it is played today: the original version of the game bears little resemblance to today’s game. Finally, while it is true that James Naismith devised the original thirteen rules, he did so neither in isolation nor through an effort of pure intellect, but rather as the culmination of an extended process of experimental and sometimes haphazard collaboration with colleagues and students that included physical trial and error, conversation, study, and solitary reflection. Given the myth’s distortions of the historical record, I ask myself what sort of broader, underlying cultural work it may be accomplishing for those who adhere to it.
I believe the key to this question lies in the image of Athena, born fully formed from the head of Zeus, that the myth frequently employs as a metaphor for the sport itself. This metaphor at once reveals and suppresses a tension that runs through the entire history of the sport between a desire for growth and a desire for stability; or, to put it in more concrete terms, between a desire to capture new participants and markets and a desire to police the technical, aesthetic, moral, and social impact these new participants would have on basketball. On the one hand, the metaphor tells us that basketball, like Athena, was born. Basketball then, as a born thing, is alive and so must undergo growth and change. On the other hand, the metaphor tells us that basketball, like Athena, is immortal and appeared full-grown from the start, subject to no developmental changes. The metaphor first acknowledges change through the invocation of birth and then hastily suppresses that by emphasizing the timelessness of the thing born. Furthermore, by portraying the sport as a brainchild, the metaphor lays emphasis on the intellectual, idealized dimension of the sport’s invention and suggests that Naismith was the game’s sole progenitor. This squares with the decision reductively to equate the invention of basketball with the act of writing the original thirteen rules. Basketball’s creation myth, in short, portrays the sport as beyond time, matter, and society.
In view of this analysis of the Athena metaphor, I would now ask why, given the obvious evidence to the contrary, it should be so important for the myth’s adherents to cling to this image of basketball as beyond time, matter, and society? Examining various versions of this myth, I’ve been led to think that this emphasis occurs to protect the precious moral cargo the myth’s purveyors believe basketball conveys. Naismith and other social reform minded physical education professionals believed that virtues like unselfishness, cooperation, efficiency, and hard work could be developed directly through physical behaviors like those dictated by the rules of basketball. For purveyors of basketball’s creation myth, therefore, when Naismith created basketball he created at one and the same time, like the God of Genesis, a complete, morally ordered universe. This raises the stakes involved in changing that universe and, indeed, in even narrating the origin of that universe as hypothetically vulnerable to change. To introduce—or even to portray the introduction of—a technical change to basketball as Naismith conceived it—whatever that change might be—would automatically also tamper with the orderly moral dimensions of that universe. If the game is subject to change, that is, so also is morality.
In addition to the intrinsic dangers posed to the religious minded by the mutability of morality, the stability of this particular moral code was vital to American capitalist development at the end of the 19th century. The virtues supposedly coded into the rules of basketball were believed to attenuate the deleterious extremes of unbridled capitalism; extremes which, left unchecked, could lead to social disintegration or worse, revolution. The imperatives of this tight nexus of technique, morality, and social order have driven some proponents of the myth to explicitly lament elements of the game introduced after Naismith’s time, such as the dunk, as technical aberrations tainted with the hue of moral degradation and, most disturbingly, inherently linked to particular, socially marginalized, racial or ethnic groups.
If myths, as some have said, are “cultural dreams,” and dreams fulfill unconscious wishes, then what sort of wish does basketball’s creation myth fulfill? And, what sort of unconscious has that wish? In response to the latter question, I want to posit the work of what I call the “white basketball unconscious.” Now, let me be clear that the white basketball unconscious is not necessarily or exclusively a property of the psyche of white Americans. Nor do I conceive it as a preexisting repository. It is rather hypothetical container that is constituted by its contents—the wishes, terrors, and impulses related to race and basketball that the conventions of time and place require us to repress, before we are even conscious of them. I hypothesize that the white basketball unconscious fabricated this cultural dream of the game springing, full-blown like Athena, directly from the head of James Naismith as a means of expressing its unsavory wish that basketball was in fact still played by white Christian men under the supervision of an appropriate authority figure in order to cultivate the moral values of the late 19th century American middle-class. It is as though if that dream could be real then a century and a quarter of social change, which includes the challenging of American white male privilege by ethnic minorities, women, people of other nations and, especially in this case, African-Americans, might just have been a nightmare from which the white basketball unconscious could now safely wake up.
I hope this gives you an idea, albeit a schematic one, of how in Ball Don’t Lie! I critique the myths of basketball culture. But as I said, I also counter these myths with alternatives, counter-myths if you like, that I call inventions. I’d like now to give you a sense of one of these.
Basketball’s creation myth elides a striking historical detail: namely, how Naismith got the idea that a sport might be the sort of thing that one could invent. Mythmakers may ignore it, but Naismith was careful to acknowledge the source of this idea and to emphasize the impression it made upon him. In a seminar, Naismith’s teacher and mentor, Luther Gulick, suggested that “’There is nothing new under the sun. All so-called new things are simply recombinations of things that are now existing’.”Naismith took the lesson to heart, recombining Gulick’s general observation that invention is combinatorial creativity with an earlier discussion of the need for a new sport. “’Doctor,’” Naismith replied, “’if that is so, we can invent a new game that will meet our needs. All that we have to do is take the factors of our known games and recombine them, and we will have the game we are looking for’.”
Gulick’s and Naismith’s particular usage of the term “invention” here derives from the classical art of rhetoric. In that context, it referred to the process of coming upon, finding, or discovering—among all had already been said about an issue (called “the inventory”)—those resources that would contribute to constructing the most persuasive new argument under the current circumstances. Rhetorical invention implies an awareness that creating an effective, novel argument involves not the creation of new words, but the repurposing of old ones and their experimental recombination for a decidedly pragmatic purpose: persuasion or, in other words, veri-fication—truth-making as a dialogic process. Invention, in other words, may be seen not as the instantaneous creation of something out of nothing (as basketball’s creation myth would have it), but rather as a process of rearranging the other “things that are now existing” so as to come upon something new that suits the purpose at hand.
If we think of coming up with a new sport that will both entertain an unruly gym class and impart moral and social lessons as analogous to coming up with a persuasive new argument, we can see how Naismith’s process in inventing basketball resembles the process of rhetorical invention. He consulted the inventory of existing sports and physically tried them out in his class. As each successive attempt failed to produce the desired effect in his audience, he adapted: dropping elements of one game, adding those of another—recombining, as Gulick had suggested, the elements of existing things in a back and forth process taking him from gymnasium (and his skeptical audience) to office and back. Moreover, Naismith recognizes the new game’s success would depend less on its intrinsic qualities than on the persuasiveness with which he could present it to his leading, or most persuasive, students.
Thus basketball was in fact invented, and invented in the rhetorical sense of the term, as an embodied form of persuasion. That is to say, first, that Naismith followed a classical rhetorical model of invention in order to discover the elements of the new game; second, that he was conscious that his audience would have to be persuaded of the value of the new game; and third, and perhaps most importantly, that the new game was invented to serve as a means of physical persuasion whereby players would be moved to incorporate certain moral codes as desirable by cultivating them through their play. Invention, therefore, in this same sense, is the very foundation of basketball, its lifeblood and its essence.
But it is a curious foundation and essence. For, as an essence, basketball-as-invention dictates no particular style, form or result outside of what works in any given situation. Basketball, understood in this way, happens whenever an individual or group gather and agree to call what they are doing basketball. There may be discussion and so adaptation of the rules governing a given instance of this activity. Likewise, there may be lively debate about what constitutes sportsmanship, moral virtue or aesthetic value. But what there is not—in basketball so conceived, in basketball as invented by James Naismith—is a single form or style of play (much less a single skin tone, nationality, or gender performance) that embodies a fixed essence of the sport because the essence of the sport is that it has no such fixed essence.
Let me flesh this out by turning to one of the more fanciful versions of basketball’s origin story. John Grissmer’s little known musical, The Perfect Game: Jim Naismith Invents Basketball, includes several scenes depicting the events leading up to Naismith’s invention of the game. Much of this material follows the story as both historians and Naismith himself recounted it. But the musical deviates from the historical record in one seemingly trivial but illuminating way: Grissmer portrays Naismith both conceiving the dribble in its modern form as a critical step in inventing his new game and calling it “the key” to the game.
It may be tempting to read this as yet another attempt to fabricate a continuity of identity between the contemporary game (which includes dribbling) and Naismith’s original game (which did not). However, I want to read this particular historical fantasy differently. I want to argue that there is a critical truth in Grissmer’s lie: the dribble may be the key (or at least a key) to the game for reasons relating to the true history of basketball that Grissmer omits in his musical. Though today a practiced fundamental skill, a tactical maneuver, a form of artistic expression, and a means of social one-upmanship (think AI crossing Mike—but that’s Chapter Seven), the dribble was never imagined, expected or planned. It just happened spontaneously and from there grew rapidly through myriad contingent factors into what it is today, what it is still becoming. According to Naismith’s own later account: “when a player was facing the corner, for instance, and the other men were covered, it was a man to man game at the time; and a player was right behind him, so there wasn’t any chance for him to get rid of that ball. What he did was roll it across the floor and then run after it. Theoretically, we are not permitted to move with the ball in our possession. When I roll it, theoretically I let it out of my possession, but I follow it as closely as I can and get it. Then they began to bounce the ball, one bounce, and from one bounce they began to get a number of them.”
In other words, a player’s body responded to an intractable, seemingly insoluble problem encountered in the course of play—being trapped in a corner with the ball, surrounded by defenders, prohibited from running with it and unable to pass it successfully—by breaking the rules, and so inventing the game (again). In an instant a player’s body reflexively reinvented the game and the game then accepted and assimilated that foreign body. Moreover, in doing so he was replicating on the floor the process by which Naismith invented the game in the first place. That Naismith himself delighted in the improvisational, inventive violation only strikes me as emphasizing how distant was Naismith’s understanding of what he had invented and how he had invented it from the image portrayed in basketball’s creation myths.
The sportswriter Leonard Koppett once argued that while the theoretical aim of basketball is throwing the ball through the hoop, in practical terms, “you must ‘deceive’ your opponent in order to get a decent shot, and so basketball is a game in which various types of fakes and feints, with head, hands, body, legs, eyes, are proportionately more important than in other games.” Koppett deduces this from a detailed, historically accurate, version of the game’s invention, concluding that the parameters Naismith set for the game made the ability to deceive a defender in order to “get free” a basketball player’s most important trait and greatest skill. Koppett in effect describes the theoretical conditions—the imperative to get free through deception—under which the dribble first emerged. Countering those who believe that so-called “flash” contaminates the purity of Naismith’s game, Koppett concludes that the indispensable, practical importance of deception together with its connections to style and art explain why “any knowledgeable crowd will cheer louder for a fancy pass, behind the back, or through the legs, that doesn’t lead to a score than it will for a routine basket.”
It’s hard indeed to find, among basketball’s plays, a more apt emblem for the game than the dribble—the play that originated as a deceptive breaking of the moral code in order to get free and that came to delight the inventor whose code it broke. When you see the game through these eyes, you see that every single game of basketball—every single play—entails, at least on the micro level, myriad improvisational reinventions of the game; myriad exhibitions of a body, in an instant of time, adapting itself and its circumstances into the shape of something we’ve not yet seen to solve a practical problem. The history of the dribble, in other words, shows as much as anything the lack of continuous, essential identity of basketball: it shows it to be a game evolving in multiple places at different times, through accidental and deliberate violations of its origins that, having been pragmatically tested, only later come to be accepted as valued parts of the game. The dribble, I am arguing, may be seen as a metonym—a part that stands for the whole—for basketball itself: elusive, heterodox, deceptive, dynamic.
And this brings me back to Athena, but not so much Athena as we encountered her in basketball’s creation myth: at the moment of her birth, bursting forth full-grown and fully armed from the head of Zeus, a symbol of the power of Athens, the city-state which bears her name, consolidated and defended well beyond the reach of time and its corrupting effects. I’m thinking instead—or better yet, also—of the multiplicitous Athena who declares in the Odyssey “‘I am preeminent among the gods for invention [metis] and resource’” (XIII: 338-339). This Athena’s more important parent is not so much Zeus as her mother Metis, whose very name spans a range of meanings including “many-coloured” and “shimmering” and is associated with a “shifting world of multiplicity” and “deceit” and comes to mean an efficacious “way of conniving with reality”, a way whose “suppleness and malleability give it the victory in domains where there are no ready-made rules for success, no established methods, but where each new trial demands the invention of new ploys, the discovery of a way out (poros) that is hidden.” Recall, here, the improvisational pragmatism of rhetorical invention that foregrounds the discovery of devices—such as new sports—that will effectively persuade; or the deceptive dribble that breaks the rules and gets the player free from a trap; or the frankly imaginative falsification of history that better conveys the truth of the past. All begin to appear as arts falling under the aegis of metis and so of Athena.
Of course, on the other hand, for basketball to exist at all it must—like any other entity, cultural or otherwise—exist in a continual tension between stasis and movement, stability and flexibility, tradition and innovation. Basketball’s creation myth tends to support a vision of the game as static and stable, beyond the realm of matter and time. Inventive modes of narrating the game’s origin tend, on the other hand, to emphasize the moving, flexible, and innovative facets of the sport. Basketball in fact and inevitably arises as a tension or, better yet, an oscillation between the tendencies expressed through these two narrative modes. However, I have here critiqued the mythical and the static in favor of the inventive and the mobile because (as with many cultural forms in our world) the mythic and the static predominate in the imagination as if they were the natural, exclusive essence of basketball, obscuring the inventive and the mobile—and, more crucially, obscuring key historical forces and marginalized social actors associated with it. My emphasis on the foundational importance of invention is meant then, not to dismiss or ignore as unimportant those ways in which basketball has exhibited continuity of identity since its invention, but rather as corrective to the tendency to hypostasize that aspect of the game.
Perhaps, if there must be a mythological emblem of basketball’s origin, this multifaceted, ever-moving Athena conveys more effectively and, yes, with more style, the invention of a sport whose original parameters—designed to persuade a recalcitrant audience—put a premium on trickery, cunning, invention, and artfulness and so launched a proliferating evolution of all manner of form and style of play. A game whose players—of every color, gender, class and country—have over a century so insistently and joyfully improvised new means of deception in order to “get free”—even when it meant breaking the rules, basketball deserves a symbol and stories of its inventive origin capable of acknowledging continuity and tradition while matching this dazzling historical mutability as well as the brilliant variety of its contemporary forms.
 Kiffer is quoted in Sandomir, “Basketball’s Beginnings” and in There’s No Place Like Home; emphasis added to both quotes.
 For examples see Gulick, “Basket Ball,” 86; “James Naismith,” Peterson, Cages, 15; Mandelbaum, The Meaning of Sports, 201; LaFeber, Michael Jordan, 33, and Davies, Sports in American Life, 106; There’s No Place Like Home; Rains and Carpenter, James Naismith, 45; Grissmer, The Perfect Game, 46; Horger, “Play By the Rules,” 14; George, Elevating the Game, 3.
 The most thorough modern scholarly history of the origin of basketball is Horger. A useful summary appears in Baker. Finally, see also James Naismith’s own account, composed toward the end of his life, but based upon notes and reports written at or shortly after the time of his invention of the game (Basketball 29-60).
 Horger, Cavallo, Muscles and Morals; Mrozek, Sports and the American Mentality; Putney, Muscular Christianity.
 For an example see Kretchmar, “Basketball Purists”.
 Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams, 585-604, esp. 604, where Freud offers his famous dictum that “The interpretation of dreams is the royal road to a knowledge of the unconscious activities of the mind.” My specification of a particular “white basketball unconscious” follows loosely the elaboration and critique of Freud found in Jameson, The Political Unconscious, 65-68.
 Though he does not use the phrase, Jeffrey Lane offers an approximation of at least some of the intolerable impulses constituting the white basketball unconscious : “It is simultaneously a frantic desire to be included and a patronizing belief that the white athlete can restore the sanctity that has been traditional to sports and reverse the damage caused by black irreverence. This is the motivation behind the long-lasting phenomenon in sports of rooting for the white guy; it combines a nostalgic remembrance of how sports used to be with anger over what’s become of them.” Lane, Under the Boards, pp. 142-143.
 Naismith, Basketball, 33.
 I owe my understanding of the role of invention in classical rhetoric to the detailed studies of Bruns, Inventions, 1-13; White, Kaironomia; and Toye, Rhetoric. Meanwhile, Bruns, Inventions; White, Kaironomia; and Muckelbauer, The Future, are among recent works that emphasize the pragmatic nature of classical invention’s primary interest in devising what is effective for the purpose at hand and thereby forge a quasi-tradition linking classic rhetoric, sophistry, philosophical pragmatism, modern literature, and poststructuralist philosophy.
 Grissmer, The Perfect Game, 42-3, 55-56, 93. Naismith, for his part, made no provision for bouncing the ball off the floor. His original rules didn’t prohibit it, but from these he appears not to have even considered the possibility. It is true that in an 1892 booklet entitled “Rules for Basket Ball,” Naismith does allow for a player to throw the ball and “endeavor to get it again” and “by this means he may make progress from one part of the field to another.” Reminding his reader that a player may bat the ball in the air as he runs (Rule 2), Naismith also here allows that a player may “dribble it with his hand along the ground, but he may not kick it with his feet, not even to dribble it.” From the contextual prohibition against dribbling with the feet, however, we might imagine that the “hand dribble” Naismith envisions is more akin to a soccer dribble. That is, a player might attempt to guide the ball along the ground as it rolls. In either case, there is no indication that Naismith envisioned players bouncing the ball to themselves as a means of advancing from one part of the field or court to another without giving up possession. See Naismith, Rules, 11-2.
 Naismith went on to add that he considered the dribble “one of the finest plays, one of the sweetest, prettiest plays in the whole bunch” and that he fought Y.M.C.A. administrators’ attempts to prohibit the play. But he makes no claim to it having been a play of his own devising, let alone a critical part of his original invention. See Naismith “How Basketball Started,” 234; Naismith, Basketball; Peterson, Cages, 26-7; FreeDarko Collective, “Go Forth and Dribble,” 16; and Horger, “Play By the Rules.”
 Koppett , The Essence, 12-17.
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