It’s like this.
I walk by a basketball court, any court, I stop. Full stop. If they’re playing, I’ll hang out for a while—just to watch, to hear basketball sounds. Lose myself. Forget time.
Merely seeing the word basketball—anywhere, in any format— heightens my senses and raises my level of engagement.
With the object in my hands, I’m like Arthur pulling Excalibur from the stone. I am transformed. I am someone else, somewhere else. And in that space, the space of basketball, life is somehow more and I am better.
You think this is all a bit much? Let me go further. I don’t see basketball simply as part of my identity. I see it as an existential matter, as if without it I’m not really even here.
So many understand this. Yet it takes one to know one. And when we meet, it only takes a moment before one of us asks the other: “Do you still play?” This is our handshake. This is our measure. It is our check against whether and how, and how much, we really are still here. We ask because we know the value of playing.
We know what’s at stake when you stop playing. And now, as old as I am, I know I’m getting closer to not playing. And that possibility brings fundamentally important things into sharp focus: basketball, my life. Whether and how I remain cosmic. Whether I am still free.
Basketball is an “ever since” thing for me. Ever since my dad put a twelve-by-twelve-foot blacktop in the backyard before I was born. Ever since I spent thousands of dusks on that blacktop practicing, which always ended with the same plea: “Just one more shot, Mom!” Ever since CYO and Summer League championships. Ever since varsity, coaching, and countless public courts from Alphabet City to Shanghai, Nashua to the Negev, Toronto to Las Terrenas. From wherever I could find some decent run. Later, off the court, as a person in the world, celebrating the game in classrooms, boardrooms, and back rooms with league commissioners, power brokers, producers, present and future Hall of Famers, sneaker executives, playground legends, and cultural tastemakers. All this time, basketball and I have never let go of each other.
Basketball stays with me. It’s what I return to. It’s where I feel my whole self integrated, where I find balance. Where the world makes sense, where my relationship with other people gets right. It is my sanctuary. My truth. It is a lifetime pass to a universally shared space and consciousness, bonding me with all who know, have known, and will know what I know. And I know I’m not alone.
Many, including Franklin Foer in his excellent How Soccer Explains the World, have used sport as a lens to view culture, conflict, and social conditions. But what if basketball could actually save the world by helping us think differently about solving world problems?
On an intuitive level, I feel that it can. But on a deeper level, I also know that it can. Basketball is just so different from other sports. Its basic playing space, fifty feet by ninety feet, is much smaller than a soccer or football field, which can be up to four times as long. Basketball players, like people in the world at large, must navigate shared space. In so doing, they must closely observe and successfully understand each other. With no equipment and playing basically in undergarments, they are exposed to one another—teammate to teammate, teammate to opponent, and participant to spectator—up close and clearly. And in basketball, all participants do all things. No one is prohibited from going to any particular place on the court, or doing more or less than anyone else. Not so in football, where player positions and functions are strictly defined, specialized, and differentiated. Baseball is ultra-positional, particularly when it comes to the pitcher. Even in soccer or hockey, where the principles of movement somewhat approximate basketball, defensive players typically don’t spend much time in the offensive area, and the uniquely positioned goalie has radically different powers than the other players. In basketball, players switch between offense and defense in an instant; there’s no separate unit to do one or the other.
In life, as in basketball, we often must change our position—fluidly and without warning—to meet changing circumstances. In other large field and court sports, it’s possible that over the course of the game, certain players may never even come near one another. That’s not possible in basketball. In basketball, everyone on the court is intimately—in a relational and spatial sense—tied to everyone else.
I’m not saying other sports don’t teach us wonderful things. I’m saying this sport is particularly good at showing us how to be in this world with each other and make it better. I’m making an objective observation: The game is more human in size, interaction, structure, and participatory experience. As a result, applying basketball as a worldview would be a lot more apt to solving the problems of humanity.
In 2019, I finally got the opportunity to test the idea of basketball as a philosophy with a course I began teaching at New York University called “How Basketball Can Save the World.”
The genesis of the class took the form of a question: Isn’t it time to look to new systems of thinking, leadership, problem solving, efficiency, fairness, and equality? For thousands of years, the world has been led by the same kinds of leaders—monarchs, generals, clergy, politicians, economists, lawyers, and captains of industry. Those leaders and thinkers created societal practices and schools of thought—isms, like capitalism, socialism, communism, nationalism, isolationism, utilitarianism, theism, and so on—to manage and make sense of the world. Century after century they based their policies and plans on these great isms believing they made the world more just, more efficient, more productive, more meaningful. The result, after millennia of the same kinds of leaders continuing to employ the same kinds of thinking, is a world more broken, more confused, and more conflicted than ever. Why not look to a ubiquitous global phenomenon that has continued to grow faster in popularity, relevance, influence, and impact than almost any other human activity over the past century: basketball. The 13 Principles that underlie this book are a numeric homage to the original 13 rules of basketball devised by James Naismith. They are distilled from what Naismith intended the game to be, how it has operated globally ever since, and what the world has told us the game means. I explicitly wanted to elevate the study of basketball to the same plane as political science, history, music, or any other academic major.
In the years since the class began, I have been honored to host a revolving congregation of Naismith Basketball Hall of Famers, award-winning filmmakers, Pulitzer Prize–winning journalists, bestselling authors, global tastemakers, peacemakers, playground legends, anthropologists, sneaker mavens, league commissioners, artists, photographers, urban planners, entrepreneurs, leaders of indigenous peoples, and even a former star player turned globally acclaimed mezzo-soprano. The very first class met on the court at Nike’s New York City headquarters, every student holding a ball. We visited the legendary Dunlevy Milbank Center in Harlem and “The Cage” at West 4th Street, and we enjoyed VIP access to the 2019 NBA Draft at Barclays Center. We helped sway the Vatican to recognize the first ever Patron Saint of Basketball! With each guest and each experience, we analyzed, validated, elucidated, and enlivened those 13 Principles.
Now, in this book, I state my case. How Basketball Can Save the World proposes a new story, a new frame through which to see our meaning, a new ism. This world—our world, right now—needs new inspiration, new paradigms, new foundational principles. Therefore, we must look to a new source of ideas for fairness, problem solving, sustainability, and growth to meet this new era. I insist we look at basketball.
Modern government is broken. Competing worldviews of democracy and authoritarianism are ferociously, irreconcilably at odds. The economy is broken. We are now seeing the greatest dis- parity in wealth, throughout the world, since the Gilded Age. Brokenness abounds from eroded trust in the media to right- before-our-eyes climate destruction, to the vanishing of privacy, to the deterioration of our social fabric, now threadbare. So many feel increasingly desperate and alone, and the great many stand divided.
We live in a world of intense division. From the derisive social critiques of Gen Z–Millennials to the taunts of “OK boomer,” the generations share little but mutual contempt, blame, and condescension. The #MeToo movement powerfully exposes the brokenness in gender relations. And what of racism and othering? What of hate? What of the vulnerability and unchecked persecution of stateless ethnic groups: Kurds, Rohingya,Yazidis, Uighurs? What of homophobia, Islamophobia, xenophobia, transphobia, and the resurgence of overt, normalized, global anti-Semitism?
These conditions result from old prevailing isms, recycled century after century. All of it is systemic.
Young people in particular sense this. Jia Tolentino, in her essay collection Trick Mirror, writes that her generation suffers from an inescapable “ethical brokenness,” which she describes as a Millennial’s Hobson’s choice: “I have felt so many times that the choice of this era is to be destroyed or to morally compromise ourselves in order to be functional—to be wrecked, or to be functional for reasons that contribute to the wreck. It’s a powerlessness that makes us complicit.”
Philosopher-historian Yuval Noah Harari calls this moment an “age of bewilderment.” It is forcing us to reexamine all of our fundamentally held assumptions: “When the old stories have collapsed, and no new story has emerged so far to replace them. Who are we? What should we do in life? What kinds of skills do we need? Given everything we know and don’t know about science, about God, about politics, and religion what can we say about the meaning of life today?”
Today, basketball is a global force sui generis that continues to fascinate and unify. It opens closed worlds. It gives sanctuary to the outsider and the other. It appeals equally to the urban and the rural. It has been and continues to be compelling, operative, and influential in major societal discussions of race, access, gender, immigration, culture, and commerce. No other pastime sells more footwear, activates more social media, and interests more young people. The game flourishes nearly everywhere on every continent.
Basketball’s capacity to do all that it has done—and its potential to do even more—traces directly back to the intention and foresight of its inventor, James Naismith. Naismith was a right- place, right-time, free-thinking individual in the world of 1891, who had a particularly special mix of personal qualities and lived experience. He was a Canadian immigrant in the United States, an orphan from a young age, and an intellectual misfit-wanderer. A divinity school graduate who forsook the ministry in search of a higher calling, leading him to create an eminently physical manifestation of his spiritual aspirations. He just wanted the world to be a better place.
Employed at Springfield College, a gym teacher’s academy in Massachusetts, he was tasked with coming up with a nonviolent indoor physical activity to occupy “incorrigible,” violence-prone students in the winter months. Naismith’s challenge in the fall of 1891 was a microcosm of the challenge facing the world. The brokenness that Naismith saw in the tumultuous, conflicted, inequitable Gilded Age looks an awful lot like the brokenness that we face today.
Basketball was Naismith’s vision for society as he wished it to be—for those incorrigible men in his gym class and for the world at large spinning out of control. Naismith looked at that gym, at those men, and knew he had to create something new. Old ideas would not fix that brokenness. And thus, his 13 original rules became the framework for a new way of play. Basketball worked.
The 13 Principles presented in this book are inspired by and deeply connected to Naismith’s vision, and to the phenomenal impact that has sprung forth from that vision. My hope is that these principles, though not explicitly stated in any rule book, codify what is inherent to the game.
Meg Barber, the coach of the NYU women’s basketball team, once said to me, “What you’re trying to do is make the word basketball mean something else.” That’s right. That word—and the game it signifies—has always meant something else to me, and to so many others. And to Meg. For those who experience the game, we hold these truths to be self-evident. They just needed to be said out loud. This book and these principles give those truths language and voice.
The 13 Principles are not complicated. They’re not hard to understand. It’s simply time for new thinking and a new consciousness to take action to fix things and move us forward.
No more of the same old mistakes, from the same old thinking, by the same old leaders. No more being trapped by old definitions, limited by old meanings and old vocabulary. Those systems have demonstrably failed. Basketball has given us a nearly century-and-a-half proof of concept.
David Hollander is the assistant dean and clinical professor with the Tisch Institute for Global Sport at New York University.
Photos via Getty Images.
Excerpted from HOW BASKETBALL CAN SAVE THE WORLD Copyright © 2023 by David Hollander. Used by permission of Harmony Books, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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