Only soccer surpasses basketball today as a global sport. The NBA has players from more than 40 nations, and it’s routine now for major American colleges to have on their squads representatives from a host of continents. Baseball and hockey also have substantial international impact, but neither matches basketball in terms of overall diversity, either racially or sexually.
Still, one thing that is easily overlooked today due to the domination of African-Americans is the fact the sport had its growing pains in regards to racial issues, and took far too long to expand opportunities for women coaches and athletes.
But no one should deny that the sport’s unprecedented growth and worldwide impact is worth celebrating, while its heritage and evolution as a force for social progress is equally important. All these aspects and more are covered in the exhaustive new book “Basketball: A Love Story” (Crown Archetype). The comprehensive volume is the written by-product of an equally impressive similarly titled video project currently airing on the ESPN app and coming to the main ESPN network in October. The video portion features five segments covering 10 hours.
Director Dan Klores joined forces with distinguished, award-winning journalists Jackie MacMullan and Rafe Bartholomew to go through material from over 500 hours of interviews, compiling a book that is a basketball lover’s dream, and just as valuable to the casual sports fan and students of social and political history.
The trio interviewed pretty much every key figure in basketball history still active or alive, while others who’ve since passed are referenced. They cover such subjects as the storied rivalries between Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, the Celtics and Lakers, as well as the 80s Chicago Bulls and contemporary Golden State Warriors.
But they also spotlight other important teams as the Knicks of the ‘70s and Pistons of the 80s. There’s plenty of space given to Michael Jordan and Lebron James, but Oscar Robertson, Jerry West and Elgin Baylor get prominent mentions as well.
However the book’s greatest value is its focus on basketball areas that usually only get footnote treatment. One is HBCU basketball, with such coaching giants as John McLendon of Tennessee State and Clarence “Big House” Gaines of Morgan State profiled. Another covers the history of women’s basketball. The Pat Summitt/Geno Auriemma relationship and the Tennessee vs. UConn rivalry are discussed in depth, as well as other pioneering schools and coaches in both Black college and women’s circles.
On a personal level, many of the game’s greatest stars, past and present, describe their love for the sport, the values they’ve gained from playing it, the desire and motivation that made them excel, and the reasons they still enjoy it. Whether it’s an NBA star describing how he played with a makeshift ball or international players describing how got up early to watch satellite telecasts, you get a better understanding of how the sport unites people of different backgrounds, and how being part of a team can be both a fun and life-changing experience.
The authors also show how cliches and stereotypes about basketball have become so commonplace sometimes folks aren’t even aware of their negative impact. Whether it’s the notion NBA basketball was once “too Black,” that all European players are “soft,” or that women can’t really play the game because they don’t have the strength and speed of men, they demonstrate how untrue these statements are and how hurtful they’ve been, while simultaneously often showing how individuals on the receiving end of these stereotypes developed an anger and desire to disprove and obliterate them through their skill and excellence.
Basketball hasn’t been immune to some of the same ills that plague society as a whole. But what this wonderful book “Basketball: A Love Story”reaffirms is how much of a positive force the sport has been around the world, and some of the important things done by its players and coaches, both on and off the court.