American Inventions

SPRINGFIELD, MASS. — Springfield, Mass. -- Displayed here like the sacred relic it is -- like those supposed fragments of the True Cross that filled an implausible number of Medieval reliquaries -- is a small piece of varnished wood. It is from the floor of the old gym where 100 years ago this week basketball was born.

Winter in western Massachusetts was vexing to Dr. James Naismith, 30, whose responsibility was physical education for young men at the International YMCA Training School. So he hung two peach baskets from the lower rail of the gym's balcony. The rail was exactly 10 feet high, which is why you and I can't get our wrists over the rim.


The old gym is long gone, replaced by (this story gets more American as it goes) a parking lot. But basketball is everywhere. Just as the Civil War spread baseball across the country like butter over bread, young YMCA administrators carried the gospel of basketball.

It is hard to believe now, with the NBA awash in cash and playing in palaces, but in the 1930s and 1940s some professional players developed flat-trajectory jump shots because they played in dance halls with low ceilings. Today's balletic and ballistic players would hit those ceilings with their foreheads.


Basketball is a team game in which the aim of the teamwork often is to produce, for a fleeting instant, a favorable one-on-one mismatch -- to reduce the game to what happens on the playground or beneath the hoop above the barn door. It is the team game that can be practiced alone. Its sound is not just the screech of sneakers on hardwood but, before that, the thump-thump-thump-swish, thump-thump-thump-swish of a solitary player practicing on an asphalt driveway on a winter night by the light streaming from the kitchen.

Basketball has two archetypes -- the small-town Midwestern white kid with a crew cut and a jump shot and the black kid in the city, playing the game of inexpensive equipment and confined spaces. Basketball in its early urban incarnations was considered a Jewish game. Then some other of society's outsiders got inside and the game was transformed.

Many of the milestones on the march of blacks toward inclusion in American society involved athletics. One such was reached March 19, 1966 in College Park, Md. There, in the NCAA championship game, Texas Western College (now the University Texas at El Paso) played the mighty University of Kentucky coached by Adolph Rupp, a great coach and a bad man.

In 1966 there was not a single black playing varsity basketball in the Atlantic Coast Conference, the Southwest Conference or the Southeast Conference where Kentucky plays. When pressured by Kentucky's president to recruit minority players, Rupp exploded to an assistant, "That sonofabitch is ordering me to get some niggers in here. What am I going to do?"

He was going to get beaten 72-65 by Texas Western College. T.W.C started five blacks -- the first time that had happened in an NCAA championship game -- and played just two substitutes, both black. Afterward Rupp reportedly said, "T.W.C. . . . T.W.C.? What's that stand for -- Two White Coaches?"

Sports Illustrated's Curry Kirkpatrick reports that a few months before Rupp learned more than he wanted to know about T.W.C., Rupp said to his players, "When you get home tonight, I want you to look long and hard at these (national) rankings. One. Two. Three. Kentucky, Duke, Vanderbilt. All from the South. And all white. You'll never see it happen again." Rupp got at least that right.

Unlike baseball and football, basketball is a game of flow, with much room for improvisation, so comparisons to another American invention, jazz, are irresistible. It is the most purely American game in the sense that it has no evolutionary connections, as baseball and football do, with other nations' games. It is, therefore, suitable that basketball has become such a showcase for black talent. And it is a distinctive form of expression -- a kind of language -- for many young black men. This is as it should be because blacks are, in a sense, the most purely American Americans. As W.E.B. Du Bois wrote:

"Once for all, let us realize that we are Americans, that we were brought here with the earliest settlers and that the very sort of civilization from which we came made the complete absorption of Western modes and customs imperative if we were to survive all; in brief, there is nothing so indigenous, so completely 'made in America' as we."


Actually, there are a few -- very few -- other things, such as basketball.

9- George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.