This short essay relates to a film that I wrote and directed entitled, ‘The Mission.’ I have shown the film twice publicly and is currently being put through final post production rearrangements. The film deals with the social and cultural theatre of “ghetto” basketball formation in the decades following World War 2. Specifically looking at public housing, The Great Migration, and the social chaos produced by the American city’s process of deindustrialization; basketball emerges as not only a game, but a sport with multiple social functions.
Here are some thoughts I have about basketball and its rise as a national sport from the mid 60’s -1990’s :
1. It socially functions better than any other sport in both reduced and multiple spatial settings.
2. It was integrated, naturally, into the city park structure.
3. In addition to being embedded with city park planning, it was also integrated to postwar public housing design and construction.
4. It provided creative solutions to its reformation in the wake of the vast and intense social order breakdown associated with the prewar industrial economy.
5. And perhaps most importantly – its economic accessibility made it a sport that was available for those with limited economic mobility .
To elaborate on each point
1. Basketball performs in both reduced and multiple spatial settings. Is there any sport that can be effectively played and practiced on such small dimensions as basketball, i.e. the reduction of space? Played at the end of a driveway, in an alleyway, with a makeshift hoop attached to the side of a public housing project; or in its standard form: a playground court of regulation dimensions. And as a logical supplement, basketball can also be played upon a multiplicity of settings. To put it bluntly: find me any place to secure a basket, give me a ball, and a potential basketball court emerges. It is these interrelated features of basketball — it’s ability to be effectively played regardless of spatial or formal limitations — that were fundamental in basketball’s association with postwar urban life.
2. Basketball is perhaps the only sport planned and integrated within virtually every city park — a basketball court featured in the city park is often the essential feature of its design. This structural relationship — municipal parks to the game itself — was deeply influential on the development of basketball as a social activity within the city, and intended or not, the game’s emerging popularity became an unstated imperative of urban planning in it of itself.
3. Basketball was often an essential design feature to the construction of public housing, a key site in postwar cities and culture. Public housing, apart from its status as bona fide social disaster, did much to cement the association of basketball with inner city life. Nearly every single public housing project — although often absent basic amenities such as heat and hot water as the projects descended into virtual war zones in the 1970’s and 1980’s — still maintained the possibility of basketball as a positive social activity due to the fact that the sport had been integrated to the scope of both its architectural and social philosophy. Dr. Robert Fishman, urban historian at the University of Michigan, notes in The Mission: “One purpose for creating a lot of open space in the projects was to open up space for playgrounds. And this was an essential part of the design philosophy: that “the street” was evil, and the worst thing that could happen to kids was for them to be hanging out on street corners. On the other hand the playground, especially organized team sports, were seen as the salvation of youth. So, if you were going to plan a better neighborhood, the first thing you did was to eliminate the streets and leave plenty of room for open space and especially for playgrounds. Because that would be the future of youth, that would save youth from poverty and crime.”(8)
4. We can speculate that the unlocked potential of basketball’s radical and creative energy that was unleashed during this time frame, occurred not in spite of the social instability and economic dysfunction, but because of it: basketball became both a social mirror and aggregator throughout this period. When we view basketball’s earlier practices — a la iconic figures such as George Mikan or Dolph Schayes — we are naturally inclined to think of basketball as being analogous, almost like boxing, to a measure of factory logic: rational, regulated, and linear; Mikan’s famous hook shot is perhaps the best example of basketball performing with an “assembly line” logic of sorts. But then, in an almost miraculous turn of events — and we can never underestimate the truly radical transformation of basketball that took place in the postwar decades — the prior version of basketball (the factory like Mikan style of play) is eventually replaced by the style of iconic figures such as Earl Monroe, or eventually in the person of Magic Johnson; this change in basketball logic is nothing short of shocking. But this is the precise metamorphosis that would be endlessly worked out on the inner city playgrounds throughout the post war decades: no look passes, reverse dunks, alley oops, and the true symbol that became emblematic of the formal break with the basketball of disciplinary logic: the fast break. These materializations, these elements of basketball’s emerging de-centered logic, are in some respects simply byproducts of the factory’s closure — rational space, planned production, and administered labor all being lost as global financial services and technological systems begin to replace them — and the corresponding emergence of a de-centered global economy. So basketball in this period of urban history became a mirror of the social disruption that enveloped city space: boring set shots are substituted for spontaneous slam dunks. And at the very same time basketball became a sort of social aggregator: continually taking the pieces and fragments of the industrial fallout and inserting them into its own logical edifice: perfectly embodied in basketball legends like Nate Archibald, Isiah Thomas, and the player I view as both the symbol of its peak, and the beginning of its decline: Stephon Marbury, the legendary 1995 graduate of Lincoln High School in Brooklyn, New York. (9)
5. Basketball is perhaps the most economical of all sports to play. What could be more financially accessible than a pair of sneakers and a ball? This may be the most influential aspect that brought forth the intimate relationship between city dwellers in postwar urban America and the game of basketball: its economic accessibility.