Chapter 1: The Myth of Creation, December 21, 1891 (Overview)
The precision with which we can identity basketball’s moment of origin has fascinated the game’s chroniclers. This fascination frequently manifests in the form of what I call basketball’s “ex nihilo creation myth” in which basketball bursts, like Athena, full-grown, directly from the head of its creator, James Naismith.
I first identify the literary elements of this myth and its avatars and then track their history to show how the myth gives voice to a fantasy of what the author calls America’s “white basketball unconscious”: namely, the wish for a pure, fixed, and trans-historical identity to basketball that would safeguard the moral values of white 19th century Protestant America. Finally, I offer a different account of the sport’s origin, grounded in Naismith’s recollection of the event. In this version, the sport appears as an embodied form of “invention,” in the sense of that term given by classical rhetoric: a pragmatic, combinatory creativity able to adapt effectively to changing circumstances. Through readings of two contemporary accounts of basketball’s invention, I argue that understanding the sport as (embodied rhetorical) invention eludes the political implications of basketball’s creation myth and more suitably conveys the mutability that has marked the sport from its invention to the present.
I conclude that Athena may serve as a mythological emblem for the sport, but proposes replacing the image of the full-grown Athena of basketball’s creation myth with the shape-shifting, ever-moving protector of Odysseus and patron of cunning wisdom.