We went to the basketball hall of fame on New Year’s Eve. It was really fun. It was more interesting than I thought it would be, to be honest (I thought it would be 1% interesting and 99% me holding Gary’s coat while he shot baskets, which to be fair did happen).
The best thing that happened there was that I learned all about the Harlem Globetrotters. I have had so many questions about them throughout the years but I never took the time to actually read about them. I just keep asking my husband, because I can’t get it through my head that he doesn’t know everything there is to know about basketball. He keeps saying “I don’t know” but I just keep asking. I hadn’t even been thinking about the Harlem Globetrotters when we decided to go to the hall of fame, but then there was a whole informational display about them and a cool video with historical footage and I finally learned about them and it is even more interesting than I thought!!! Do you want me to tell you about it?
So, basketball began in like 1890, in Springfield Mass, when this guy Mr. Naismith needed a way for his high school boys to exercise during the winter months. He nailed an ol’ peach basket up to the balcony in one of the school’s halls, and because that year he had 18 boys in his class, he invented this game where two teams of 9 each try to get a ball in the basket. There was no dribbling–it was all passing. The ball was a hilariously misshapen hunk of weird leather. Well the game simply took off, everyone loved it, and after a brief brown-nosing attempt to name it “Naismith Ball” Naismith himself was like “No, it shall be called ‘basket ball,'” and, after a couple of years fine-tuning the rules on successive generations of high school boys, he published a manual called THE THIRTEEN RULES OF BASKET BALL. And the world was changed!
Sidenote: Literally within a couple years of Naismith inventing the game, some headmistress at Smith College heard of this game and decided it would be appropriate for girls to play. I assume because this was during that sort of Teddy Roosevelt era of American history where everyone was supposed to be vigorous and hale–which was great for women, who had truly struggled during the Victorian Era with the social imperative that they must be rail-thin, white as a sheet, never be seen eating in public, and basically slowly dying at all times, like scholars have written books about how during this 100 year period of western history there was nothing more sexually compelling to men than a faint smudge of a woman lying completely enervated in a white bed with clean sheets, daintily coughing blood into a handkerchief. Along comes the Teddy Roosevelt age and now women can be bruisers and go mountain climbing! Teddy Roosevelt, you are a true asshole but I must credit you with engaging people with the out-of-doors and with their own musculature. Also this is all conjecture–there was not a single mention of Teddy Roosevelt in any of the informational videos I watched at the basketball hall of fame and to be quite honest I’m not even sure when he was president, but I feel I am right nonetheless. So anyway this lady at Smith teaches basket ball to her girls, and we saw some delightful footage from 1891 of women in big bloomers playing early proto-basketball and it was truly inspiring.
So at first, and for a long time, basketball was this sort of scrappy amateur game. The rules changed all the time; the rules were different from town to town; there certainly wasn’t any professionalization. It was just ad-hoc teams getting together and playing, and spectators yelling and swigging beer except probably not during prohibition.
CUT TO: Chicago! Where a lot of black people live, FYI. It’s the turn-of-the-century, not exactly a fun sexy time in terms of racial integration. But black Americans of the turn-of-the-century are stuck living in American culture too just like everybody else, and so they get into basketball too, just like everybody else. But they of course aren’t involved in these emerging regional teams/games, because of segregation. They start playing their own form of basketball, at all-black events, and because this is a sub-cultural affair it develops differently than white mainstream basketball is developing. It’s ENTERTAINMENT basketball–the games were part of a whole night of music, dancing, etc. The games thus evolved into these part-game, part-PERFORMANCE spectacles, with players playing to the crowd, doing cool tricks, trying to amaze and wow. Vaudeville basketball!
The main team to emerge out of this alternate-stream of basketball history were the Harlem Globetrotters. Even though they were in Chicago, they were named after Harlem because of a famous nightclub called the Harlem Renaissance, that had an approach to entertainment similar to the one they were going for!
So periodically the Globetrotters would play some regional white team and just utterly slaughter them, to the amazement of all present. Slowly they attained what the informational video called “mainstream appeal” but that just means “white appeal.” They were the Chuck Berry of entertainment basketball.
Meanwhile white mainstream basketball is getting consolidated into a professionalized deal with teams and paychecks and way more than 13 rules. Then here I kind of get patchy on the history but basically cut to WILT CHAMBERLAIN, the 100 foot tall basketball genius of legend. He plays basketball in high school, etc., and then when he grows up he goes to play for the Globetrotters. He’s playing that style of basketball–fancy dribbling, crazy palming tricks, feints, amazing spectacle-based dunking. Trick basketball! And it turns out, mainstream basketball did not play this way up until Chamberlain joined the NBA and started playing professionally. Up to that point basketball was mostly all these little white dudes very slowly and methodically passing the ball up and down the court. Somehow Chamberlain gets drafted or whatever they did back then, and suddenly now there’s this 20 foot tall trick basketball dude on the court and I got the impression that for awhile there it was basically like the basketball sequences from Teen Wolf. Chamberlain trick-dribbling around some little dude and the dude going “Boiiiiing?” and looking around with googly eyes like “wha happen??” I think all games were scored with the funny music and sad trombones from America’s Home Videos when babies fall down the stairs. I may be exaggerating this historical fantasy I am having. But after that everybody was like “we gotta get our shit together” and so mainstream basketball became infused with the same kind of speed, virtuosity, dexterity, and slam dunking of entertainment basketball. It became entertainment basketball, basically, which is what we have now, although of course the Globetrotters are still practicing a degree of trick basketball that would be literally crazy if it were brought into mainstream professional basketball, although lets be honest, if that happened I would probably actually start watching basketball.
Anyway and the rest is history!! So basically modern basketball looks the way it does because of the Harlem Globetrotters!! They represent the tail-end of a different stream of basketball history. I find that fucking fascinating.
While at the hall of fame, I was amazed by the size of basketball players’ feet (many shoes and molds of feet were on display), which are so big as to essentially represent a different species of animal than the one I represent. I was also amazed at the height of Muggsy Bogues, who my old man had always told me was 5’3″ but I think I just couldn’t conceive of that being real until I stood next to the cardboard cutout of him and found myself towering over him, which was inspiring, like maybe I too could play professional basketball. I was also delighted by a couple who put their small baby at the feet of Yao Ming and took a picture and the dad said “you’ll get there someday buddy” which for some reason really made me laugh. I tried to tell my old man about the New Yorker article about Yao Ming I read but he was very focused on taking pictures of all the huge posters of Kobe Bryant dunking with “PANINI” inexplicably emblazoned right across.
I was also having one of those experiences where you’re just so bummed to realize that socialized gender stereotypes are true. Like at a party full of supposedly progressive young people when you go in the kitchen and it’s full of women doing the dishes and you’re like AWW HELL. You’re like, fuck, I forgot that culture is a real thing and it SUCKS! Guys, lets just say that the basketball hall of fame is full of A LOT of women patiently humoring their boyfriends/husbands/sons. The practice court was full of probably 60 people, perhaps two of whom were small girls. Not a single adult woman shot a basket the entire time I was there. There are also all these games there where you can test your vertical leap, your palming ability, etc., against the stats of real basketball players, and it was just dude after dude doing it–dudes of all ages, races, and temperaments! Hipster dudes, big old dad dudes, small children dudes. And along the sidelines of each game was a coterie of women of all types and temperaments, holding coats and shouting encouragement. Including me! I was one of those women. And the dude running the game would be like “do you want to give it a shot,” to me, and I’d be like “No,” and I wanted to say “Not because I’m a girl, it’s because I don’t care what my vertical leap is” but then I realized that for all intents and purposes THAT IS THE SAME THING. I fucking hate culture! You can’t get away from it!
I’m not saying this to begrudge those dudes their fun. They were having fun and it was charming. Basketball is a perfectly legitimate interest/passion. We all live in patriarchy together, it’s nobody’s fault really. I mean, honestly, whose fault is patriarchy? these are systems beyond the ken of any individual.
But! At the very end of our visit, all of a sudden this fucking firecracker of a super-stoked blonde woman perhaps in her mid to late twenties descended upon us. She was wearing a basketball jersey, I don’t know whose but it was green so maybe Larry Bird? Except I think she was too young to be a Larry Bird fan. It’s just that that’s one of the only basketball players whose name I know and I know he wore a green blouse. Anyway, she was like “CAN YOU TAKE OUR PICTURE IN FRONT OF MICHAEL?” I was like, michael? Then turned around and realized she meant the immense, semi-religious mural of Michael Jordan stretching his arms out for 100 feet. She was SO STOKED. She was like vibrating with the excitement of being at the basketball hall of fame. And her boyfriend tried to start posing for the picture against the railing, looking down on the court, and she goes “NO!!!! IN FRONT OF MICHAEL!” like she couldn’t believe what a fucking hack he was, and he was like “oh okay” and I suddenly realized that HE was humoring HER. His insane basketball girlfriend! It was great and I took a great picture of them that they will remember for all time and show their grandchildren. “This was the picture that wonderful attractive intelligent looking woman took of us at the basketball hall of fame, remember? It was the year New York fell into the sea”