Over the past four years, to develop my course on the Cultures of Basketball and to research my forthcoming book Ball Don’t Lie! Myth, Genealogy and Invention in the Cultures of Basketball, I’ve had the opportunity to read a great deal about the game. I’ve read academic and popular histories and biographies, autobiographies, scholarly articles, manuals and instructional guides, rule books, constitutions, bylaws, and, of course, articles in popular magazines, newspapers, and on line venues.
A generous tweet by my new collaborator Seth Partnow about his favorite basketball books inspired me to offer my own favorites, with a brief annotation explaining the selection. Of course, such lists necessarily exclude much that is worthwhile and mine will be no different. Nevertheless, to try to honor the quality and variety of the library of basketball, I’ve decided to split my list over four posts, in which I’ll share, respectively, my First, Second, and Third team selections, and, finally, my Honorable Mentions (listed alphabetically by title within each division).
For those looking to deepen and widen their understanding of the history of the game and its culture, I certainly think you can do worse than the following, which stand out in my mind for their originality and accessibility, the depth they bring to their subjects and, perhaps most of all, their reliable avoidance of the cliches, dogmas and harmful myths of basketball culture. Each of the twenty books I’ll be listing in these four posts are marked up, broken-spined, dog-eared and worn from repeated and profitable use, but none more so than these five.
All-Bad Prof Basketball Book List – First Team Selection
Basketball: Its Origin and Development
by James Naismith (Originally published 1941; Current edition published in Lincoln by University of Nebraska Press, 1996; 204 pp.)
“I can still recall how I snapped my fingers and shouted, ‘I’ve got it!'”
The inventor of basketball began to compose this volume toward the end of his life and it was published after his death. Sometimes dry, but very clearly written, after early chapters on his background, Naismith tells the exciting story of the game’s invention and the first game, before moving on to recount and offer opinions on subsequent changes in rules, techniques and tactics as well as on the demographic and geographic spread of the game. This is essential reading not only to comprehend the facts and contexts of the game’s invention, but to fully grasp how deeply the game has been intertwined—from the beginning—with social issues, philosophical ideas, and moral agendas
The Essence of the Game is Deception: Thinking About Basketball by Leonard Koppett (Originally published in 1973; currently out of print but available used; 274 pp.)
“Any knowledgeable crowd will cheer louder for a fancy pass . . . that doesn’t lead to a score than it will for a routine basket.”
A longtime newspaper columnist in New York (including during the heyday of the Knicks in the early 70s), Koppett makes a thoughtful, extended argument in favor of the proposition offered in the book’s title. Clearly and at times beautifully written, Koppett divides his subject into three parts: “The Game,” “The People” and “Things to Think About.” Filtering such topics as “Teamwork,” “Bosses and Workers,” and “Statistics Lie” (to name just three of the book’s 23 chapter titles) through the conceptual lens of deception, Koppett’s analysis of the sport, though sometimes dated, mostly holds up very well and at times sheds provocative new light on today’s game. Moreover, at certain moments, he transforms deception into style and style into beauty and beauty into truth in ways that articulate for me something inchoate in my own strong response to the unfolding kaleidoscope of the sport.
FreeDarko Presents the Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History
(Originally published in New York by Bloomsbury, 2010; 223 pp.)
“This book . . . is a project preoccupied with memory.”
As most of my readers will know, “FreeDarko” is the name of both a pioneering basketball blog and the collective of writers who contributed material to it. This volume (their second: the first made my third team) offers readers a comprehensive history of the pro game that is unparalleled in its accessibility, originality, and interest. Divided into parts arranged chronologically (more or less by decade and beginning with the game’s invention) and then subdivided into chapters that provide close-up portraits of the key players, teams and issues comprising the decade, the volume can be consulted as a reference guide, read as a kind of fascinating fiction, or pondered for its accessible but provocative cultural analysis of the sport. As a bonus, you get the beautiful and breathtakingly eloquent visual arguments provided by Jacob Weinstein’s illustrations. For all that I’ve added to my basketball course over the years, this “textbook” still provides the spine of the course.
Give and Go: Basketball as a Cultural Practice
by Thomas McLaughlin (Originally published in Albany by the State University Press of New York, 2008; 250 pp).
“The closer you look at it the more you can see it as an instance of how ordinary people quietly create the fabric of our cultural life.”
McLaughlin, an English professor at Appalachian State University, skillfully weaves together personal experience with thoughtful use of philosophy and cultural theory to explore the cultural significance of basketball play, especially informal pickup ball, which he sees as the most distilled version of the sport. Though that particular assertion may be debated, not much of the value of this book hinges on it (and McLaughlin holds it lightly). Regardless, McLaughlin provides intelligent, flexible, and balanced accounting of the different facets of the game (relevant to all its forms), with chapters exploring the ethics of basketball play, its physical culture (especially in relation to masculinity), its mental dispositions or cognitive practices, its communities, its racial dynamics, and, in the final two chapters, media representations of the sport in television and film. Despite McLaughlin’s reliance on sometimes technical works of cultural theory, he consistently manages to keep these relevant and understandable to non-academics.
King of the Court: Bill Russell and the Basketball Revolution
by Aram Goudsouzian (Originally published in Berkeley by the University of California Press, in 2010; 423 pp.)
“The game’s most respected figure was also its public intellectual.”
Nothing less than the gold standard for basketball biographies (maybe for biographies of figures from any sport, though I’m not expert enough in others to argue this). Goudsouzian is a historian at the University of Memphis who specializes in the history of race in the United States, and this book integrates that depth of knowledge and scholarly self-discipline, with the author’s evident love for and understanding of the sport and its culture. At every point in this detailed chronicle of Bill Russell’s life, Goudsouzian carefully draws together the threads of personal development, sport, and social history. The result is much more than the best portrait of a basketball player that I’ve ever read. It is also rich resource for understanding several pivotal decades in the history of basketball and, for that matter, the United States. But it is also, for those embarking upon their own research projects into the history of the game, an inspiring model to emulate.
Together these five works will provide readers with a superb and stylistically varied overview of the history of the sport, informed by cultural intelligence and social awareness, and sensitive to the nuanced materiality of the game as played.
Stay tuned for The All-Bad Prof Basketball Book List – Second Team Selection…