Part I: Myths of the Basketball Republic (1891-1949)

“Part I: Myths of the Basketball Republic” examines myths arising between 1891, when basketball was invented, and 1949, when, in the wake of its astonishingly rapid global spread, the NBA was formed. For much of this period, basketball underwent near constant change in terms of play, rules and equipment, the demographic characteristics of players, and play venues. Moreover, though a few organizations emerged with aspirations to national scope toward the end of the period, most basketball was played in and between small, locally defined groups with the minimum organizational structure needed to foster competition. It is on account of the primarily decentralized, locally based nature of the emergent and rapidly growing sport that I characterize this as the period of “the basketball republic.”

Drawing of the First GameThe myths of this period, which appear in rulebooks, instructional manuals and promotional guides, institutional documents and personal memoirs, as well as in popular and scholarly histories suggest that basketball had? a fixed and static athletic, moral, and aesthetic nature, born at the moment of the sport’s invention, and that this essence is safeguarded by self-appointed institutional stewards who protect the game against chaotic forces of change wrought by entrepreneurs, spectators, and, most of all, players. These myths, which I examine in Chapter 1 (The Myth of Creation, December 21, 1891) and Chapter 2 (The Myth of Foundation, June 6, 1946), established a normative paradigm of basketball culture equating tactical elements of game play (passing the ball and moving without it, defending aggressively and hustling cleanly after rebounds and other loose balls) with moral qualities (unselfishness, cooperation, hard work, humility). This complex was then naturalized as inherently pertaining to the white, Anglo-Saxon, protestant, mostly middle-class men by and for whom the game was originally devised.

As the game rapidly grew in popularity and spread across the globe, played by women, foreigners, African Americans, Native Americans, ethnic immigrants, and the working class, anxieties over change intensified even as change was not only inevitable, but also profitable and desirable to those whose sense of identity was threatened by it. The resulting tension gives rise to what I call the “white basketball unconscious” to indicate a hypothetical repository of psychological and cultural fears and fantasies arising from the fraught feelings accompanying these changes, the desires they stimulate and the threat they appear to present to the stability of whiteness as a privileged identity. Because they remain unconscious, these fears and fantasies frequently express themselves subtly between the lines of basketball culture. In this sense, Ball Don’t Lie! provides not so much a comprehensive history of basketball culture, but rather site-specific critical analyses of—and alternatives to—the cultural productions emanating from the white basketball unconscious.

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