Basketball: The Black Game

Just as important to the Jordan icon as his amazing play and remarkable marketing skill is the game he plays. Basketball is no longer the strictly white game that it was when James Naismith invented it as an American sport in 1892. On January 15 of that year the sport was first played in recognized and organized fashion in YMCA's around Springfield, Massachussetts. As the game's appeal continued to grow, it spread to universities around the country as a game played dominantly by whites. But this white domination did not last long because blacks began to play the game in the cities as a sport of their own in post-Civil War America. It has come a long way from Naismith's original game -- so far, in fact that the original peach "baskets" on barns have turned into rusted metal rims with chain "nets" on courts covered with broken glass in the inner city ghettos. It is now this image that defines a game that truly has become an African-American game. Black Americans have "invented" basketball just as much, or more than, Naismith did. Basketball has become a reflection of black ghetto culture, much in the form of jazz and blues music represented black culture in the American past. (George: xvii) Especially to lower class blacks in the inner cities of America, basketball has become one of the most expressive modes of cultural expression -- much like music, literature and fashion in other forms. It has become a ritual of expression.

"Basketball was originally invented as a white man's game." This quote from Michael Novack's The Joy of Sports is featured on the first page of Nelson George's Elevating the Game. (George: 1) But the game no longer is. It has ultimately become a black game. Basketball has developed in terms of socio-economic, cultural and ethnic spheres alike as it has evolved into a game continually created and dominated by blacks. It has become a cultural object in this sense. Blacks first began playing organized basketball together in large numbers at the collegiate level. In 1916, nine educators, coaches and faculty members from Hampton Institute, Shaw, Lincoln, Virginia Union and Howard universities formed the first black college conference, the Central Interscholastic Athletic Association. (George: 23) It was first in these organized black leagues and in the unorganized and spontaneous games on the streets that blacks started to define American basketball.

In the city some argue it has become much more than a game. In these areas " ... it also became a way of ritualizing racial achievement against social barriers to cultural performance." (Dyson: 66-67) It is this game which has helped to produce the entity of Michael Jordan and it is this game which he represents culturally. The game of basketball brings the black man to mind immediately because it is primarily a game dominated by blacks. Sixty-one percent of NCAA Division I college basketball players are black. Eighty percent of NBA players are black. Thirty -four percent of white men interviewed in a December 1997 Sports Illustrated poll agreed that "African-American players have become so dominant in sports like football and basketball that many white athletes feel they can't compete at the same level." (Price: 33) A distinct divergence in the game of basketball has become the domination of the sport by blacks. The NBA has not even had a true white superstar since the Boston Celtics' legendary Larry Bird retired in 1991.

Players of the game do not even deny this difference. Orlando Magic center Rony Seikley said "If 80% of the league is black, that means that black players are better than white players ... the black players are superior. No doubt." (Price: 40) This black game is the game played on the street where basketball means more than winning and losing. The black domination of basketball may be the result of how much it means to inner-city black players -- it often becomes the greatest piece of culture they have, something they will fight for and something at which they will fight to be the best. Just as in the Nike P.L.A.Y. campaign when Jordan asked "If there were no sports, would I still be your hero?" sports -- especially basketball -- are a tremendously valuable cultural object to inner city youth. Many coaches believe that it is the desire of inner-city black players that separates them from other white players. William Ellerbee, head basketball coach at Simon Gratz High school in Philadelphia -- a national powerhouse in basketball -- agrees with this hypothesis. Ellerbee believes "Suburban kids tend to play for the fun of it ... but inner city kids look at basketball as a matter of life and death." (Price: 36) The white basketball player often is simply not as hungry as the black athlete and therefore black players often come out on top.

It is exactly this life-or-death style that defines what the game of basketball is known as today -- the black brand of basketball. Nelson George emphasizes this definition in Elevating the Game when he declares "The Black aesthetic has not only changed basketball but, after a rough period in the seventies, has been the catalytic force behind the sport's extraordinary growth in popularity and profitability ever since." (George: xx) To many blacks in the inner-city in America, basketball is much more than a sport -- it is a form of education and expression. African-American culture from the city has brought a much more graceful, speed-oriented, physical, all-around skill aspect to basketball. Basketball, especially in these areas, teaches social skills, rights of passage, creativity and cultural identity.

While some authors -- George and Dyson both acknowledge this -- discuss how the allure of professional basketball can lead some blacks down a road which will only end in frustration, most still respect the fact that the game of basketball is -- at the heart -- based on black cultural identity. In fact, according to George, this temptation is not at all the fault of the blacks who helped create it, but instead the fault of the white-dominated institutions that attempt to glorify it. George said, "The white universities and NBA made basketball glamorous with the promise of millionaire contracts, throwing out of whack the role of basketball in Black America and leading all but 2 percent of Black athletes down a road to frustration." (George: xx) While some criticize Jordan himself for contributing to this false allure with his multi-million dollar contracts and endorsement deal, this is not truly his responsibility -- he has used his incredible brand of black basketball to thrust himself into the public eye as a symbol of excellence, integrity, grace, financial wizardry and black culture itself. Jordan has not forgotten his black heritage -- in fact he performs a part of it every time he steps on the court.

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The Black Street Game
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