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Picture a game invented by a future Presbyterian minister of Scottish descent and Canadian upbringing. Imagine that this game was conceived at a school for missionaries, to tide a class of 18 men through the ennui of a New England winter and help them fulfill a moral duty to exercise. Imagine, too, that the very first practitioners of this game were studying to be...secretaries.
Now think of your garden-variety high-flyin', death-defyin', 360-degree slam dunk.
Good gawd! However did we get here from there?
It took only 100 years for basketball to go from those uptight Apollonian beginnings to today's loose and Dionysian result. En route, all sorts of thrilling things happened, and all manner of folk joined in. Women. People in wheelchairs. Folks from virtually every nation. Muggsy and Bevo and Dancin' Harry. Danny the bowling alley owner and Dick Vitale. The Seattle Browns, Sweet Charlie and Downtown Freddie. And the St. Joseph's Hawk, basketball's best mascot. (The Hawk will never die. Flaps throughout the game. Still.)
A few shots can still be heard 'round the world: Luisetti's first in the Garden; West's from beyond half court; Erving's from some distant galaxy beyond the baseline. Black Americans, still barred from some hoops precincts as recently as the 1970s, nonetheless transfigured the game in style, argot and the very plane on which it is practiced. And basketball provided us with teams, with coaches, with players so memorable that their nicknames, the definite article attached, are all we need to remember them: the Original Celtics and the Wonder Five. The Wizard and the Baron. The Cooz and the Pearl. And a couple of Promethean physicians, Dr. James (Naismith) and Dr. J.
When the big guys came along—from Kurland and Mikan through Wilt and Russ to Kareem and Hakeem—the game conferred upon them majesty and dignity where there might otherwise have been mere ungainliness. To document his season of covering the NBA in 1988-89, a mischievous San Francisco sportswriter named George Shirk asked sundry Golden State Warriors to pose in front of his Polaroid camera while wearing a pair of those Groucho nose-glasses. Coach Don Nelson agreed. So did forward Chris Mullin. Not so Manute Bol, the Dinka tribesman who stands 7'7" and avoids sidewalk grates.
Bol took the glasses from Shirk. He studied them. And he thought for a moment. "No, man," he said finally. "It make me look funny."
As basketball blows out the candles on its cake—devil's food with vanilla frosting, angel food with chocolate, either suits this color-blind game just fine—more than 250 million people worldwide play some organized and sanctioned version of the game. Many millions more play whenever, however, wherever. "The ground," Naismith wrote, "may be the gymnasium floor cleared of apparatus... though it could be played in the open air at a picnic, etc." At a picnic, etc., indeed. Yo! I got winners. Pass the mustard.
Such pastoral pursuits were hardly uppermost in Naismith's mind in December 1891, when he took over the Phys Ed Class From Hell at the International YMCA Training School in Springfield, Mass. Two other men had tried and failed to bring some order to this incorrigible group of 18 future YMCA executive secretaries—that kind of secretary—most of whom were rugby and football players who chafed under the regimen of leapfrog, Indian clubs and tumbling that passed for indoor sport during the winter months. Naismith, then 30, could only imagine what hellions they would be as cabin fever set in deeper into winter.
"Those boys," Naismith would remark later, "simply would not play drop the handkerchief!" But what would they play? Dr. Luther Gulick, head of the Training School's physical education department, gave Naismith 14 days to come up with something to tame the savage secretaries.