Wanting more from A Cultural History of Basketball in America

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The new book Hoops: A Cultural History of Basketball in America sets a worthy goal but isn’t quite able to deliver on its promise.

Sports do not exist in a vacuum. They develop and evolve within a specific context and their meaning and significance shift as the culture does. Basketball is no exception and it is this “reciprocal relationship with the broader culture that has surrounded it” that Thomas Aiello hopes to explore in his new book, Hoops: A Cultural History of Basketball in America. Aiello argues that basketball has served as a “public theater” where conflicts regarding social issues such as class, race, and gender are played out. It’s a workable thesis and examining it is a noble goal, though it is one that Hoops is unable to execute as well as the topic demands.

The book begins with the invention of basketball and an introduction to the philosophy of Muscular Christianity, which helped inform both the sport’s conception and its initial spread. From there it shifts focus to the early professional game in the decades before the BAA and NBL merged to form the NBA. The book continues from there to the present day, with a tripartite structure that allows it to not just focus on the NBA but also hop around from the men’s professional game to the men’s collegiate game to the women’s game.

Aiello attempts to tell the entire history of basketball from Naismith’s invention of the game to the modern-day. Altogether, he does a good job at providing a general primer on the history and development of basketball over its first 130 years, and there is value in having a good capsule history such as this. However, in its attempts to tell the whole story from 1891 to today, there is a struggle to find a consistent throughline.

The history of basketball in America is a sprawling, living story

I think that, in some ways, Aiello is undercut by his project’s ambition. To try to tell the history of the invention of basketball, its growth and development, its professionalization, and the disparate paths it took as men’s, women’s, professional, and collegiate variants all abounded — all while focusing on the societal contexts these shifts and changes took place within — in less than 250 pages is a task that hardly anyone could pull off while doing full justice to each piece of the story. There are just too many stories to tell, too many threads to examine, to do this without much of the narrative feeling like it’s given short change.

The sections on the NBA are particularly staid, with chapters focusing on the integration of the league, the ABA and the merger between the two leagues, and how Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and Michael Jordan reinvigorated the NBA. With such limited space, Aiello is forced to choose only a handful of topics to focus on when telling the NBA’s story, but because of this, he is only able to retell the same, conventional history as those who have come before.

While there is a more specialized focus on the cultural forces at work, it never becomes revelatory enough to cast any of these well-trod topics in a new light. Accordingly, it is the chapters on women’s basketball and the early Negro Leagues that may be the book’s best simply due to the fact that these have not already been the topic of innumerable other books and works.

This approach leads to a sanding down of the narrative and the people involved within it. To name one example that caught my eye, Aiello writes near the end of the book that, compared to David Stern, “Adam Silver [has] demonstrated none of the racial equivocation of his predecessor.” I certainly understand why one would write that and how this may make sense to a casual observer, but it also seems like too simplistic and not inquisitive enough of a reading.

Silver has often said the right things and taken a more outward and forward stance than Stern, but for a book wanting to deeply examine the role race and politics have played in basketball, that is too facile a reading of Silver’s actual actions and statements, as well as Stern’s. It’s typical of the work which is able to note the presence of importance of race while failing to provide deeper analysis.

Also, there are a handful of misspelled names (such as “Damion Stoudamire” and “Reuben Patterson”) and incorrect facts (Allen Iverson only led the 76ers to one Finals appearance, not two) that will distract already knowledgeable readers and mislead less aware ones.

There certainly is value in a history such as this, but Hoops cannot help but feel like a missed opportunity. This book may be useful for basketball fans seeking a cursory overview of the game’s history, for college basketball fans wanting to quickly learn about the NBA (or vice versa), or fans of the men’s game who wish to explore the women’s. If one were teaching a class on the history of basketball, Hoops would work well enough as a general textbook, but most fans will already have a solid grasp of everything discussed here.

While Hoops will be valuable for certain basketball fans or curious parties, it is unfortunately not as insightful or thought-provoking as a work of cultural history. His thesis — that basketball “has used the very signifiers of its difference and illegitimacy, turned them on their head, embraced them, and used them to celebrate difference and gain mainstream legitimacy, a revolutionary cultural act whose influence is still felt today” — is well-stated and interesting. I just wish it had been more fully and deeply explored.

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