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Think for a moment how radically different the contours of today's game might be if the lower rail of the balcony in the Training School gymnasium hadn't been precisely 10 feet off the main floor; if building superintendent James (Pop) Stebbins had been able to find the boxes that Naismith requested and hadn't produced a couple of peach baskets instead; and if the inventor had permitted his game to be known as Naismithball.
Today, Naismith's game has national federations in 176 countries. Women play on CBS and for the Harlem Globetrotters and have begun, belatedly, to take their rightful place in the Hall of Fame. A 5'7" guy was crowned the NBA slam-dunk king, and a 42-year-old man made more consecutive free throws (2,036) than anyone else on record. Thus has the game staked a claim close to the American bosom, right there with sleepy baseball and overwrought football. Or maybe a little closer than those two, if you examine the evidence. According to a 1987 survey by the National Sporting Goods Association, more boys and girls in the U.S. aged seven to 17 play basketball than any other sport. In 1990 a cross section of Americans was asked which single sporting event they would most like to attend. Twenty-one percent named the Final Four—the same percentage that named the World Series and only two percent less than those who named the Super Bowl. That year, the Q ratings—which gauge how popular certain personalities, including professional athletes, are with the public—listed six basketball players among the top 10 athletes, with a guy named Jordan ranked No. 1.
Today it's said that basketball is a black game. Yet until the middle of this century, people considered it a Jewish game. This only goes to show that what basketball is, really, is an urban game, one that flourishes in constricted spaces and among those who might not be able to afford more than a pair of gym shoes, a borrowed ball and a taxpayer's share of a public park. And when, newly prosperous, some of these people flee to the suburbs, they may start playing golf—but they don't entirely "trade up" to another sport. They take their Cons with them and teach the game to their children.
Basketball also exists in its own way, on its own terms, in small-town America. The game's essence, once you lace 'em up, may indeed be, as sportswriter Leonard Koppett once said, deception—a con man's series of feints and setups, all aimed at swindling the defense out of a couple of points. (A most citified ethos, that.) But there is nothing deceitful in what's communicated by hundreds of thousands of hoops, some jerry-built in alleyways, others mounted like altars over garage doors. These goals are reassuring. They bespeak stouthearted values. They conjure up the image of a solitary boy working on "my game," a game that will go public as part of the rituals of a Friday night in February in some fevered high school gym. Basketball signifies and sanctifies community. And its ideal of five working as one to win a championship defies the disorder that seems so intrinsic to the game. What is the essence of that ideal? We don't know exactly. But businessmen take graduate seminars trying to attain it; preachers devote a month of Sundays trying to instill it; jazz aficionados spend smoky evenings trying to describe it. Basketball champions, to coin a phrase, just do it.
"Twelve men are constantly in movement (counting two referees), the rebounds of the ball are unpredictable, the occasions for passing or dribbling or shooting must be decided instantaneously," social commentator Michael Novak wrote in his book The Joy of Sports. "Basketball players...have a score, a melody; each team has its own appropriate tempo, a style of game best suited to its talents; but within and around that general score, each individual is free to elaborate as the spirit moves him. Basketball is jazz: improvisatory, free, individualistic, corporate, sweaty, fast, exulting, screeching, torrid, explosive, exquisitely designed for letting first the trumpet, then the sax, then the drummer...soar away in virtuoso excellence."
And Naismith thought he had written a hymn.
Springfield, an industrial city in western Massachusetts, was as likely a place as any for basketball to get invented. Winters were sufficiently intimidating to drive Naismith's students indoors and keep them there. And the faculty at the International Young Men's Christian Association Training School was just prudish enough to be aghast at the violence prevailing in sports like rugby and football during the Gilded Age. Thus Naismith, who remained on the game's rules committee for a few years, made certain that basketball retained disincentives to contact—provisions that allowed the game to evolve into the aerial ballet that we see today.
At 100, basketball enjoys a more exalted status elsewhere in America than in the city of its birth. Some of its manifestations in the heartland have become archetypes, natural fibers in the nation's fabric: an Indiana high school gym that brims with more people on Friday night than will inhabit the town on Saturday morning; a community in Utah where the carpeted common room adjoining a Mormon church is given over to "ward ball," a sort of Latter-Day Saints CYO league; a hard-scrabble slab outside a towering housing project in Chicago where, for a young black male born into poverty, basketball can be one of two things—either a salutary source of self-worth and a chance for a free college education, or a cruelly deleterious and seductive dream of an NBA career that he might chase unavailingly into young adulthood.
Yet even if today's Springfield loved hoops as conspicuously as it's loved by Hoosiers and Mormons and kids in the Rust Belt ghettos, you sense that Yankee reserve would somehow temper that passion. The whole point of the International YMCA Training School was to go forth and share. And one thing the school's young missionaries—who traveled all over the globe—shared was basketball.
The YMCA seal features a triangle that symbolizes the association's mission to develop mind, body and spirit. Basketball, too, often distills into tidy trinities: the defensive mantra of ball, you, man. The offensive player's triple-threat position, from which he can pass, dribble, shoot. The so-called three-man game, engaging guard, forward and center, which is as much a staple of three-on-three in the corner schoolyard as of the half-court offense in an NBA game when the shot clock ticks down.