When he invented basketball at the Springfield YMCA in 1891, James Naismith never intended to only create a sport – the divinity school graduate very much had social progress in mind. “To do good,” he wrote on his job application, “wherever I can do this best, there I want to go.”
If anyone is as obsessed with how basketball can make people better, it’s David Hollander. A professor at the Tisch Institute for Global Sport at New York University, Hollander explores basketball as an avenue for betterment in his new book, How Basketball Can Save the World: Thirteen Guiding Principles for Reimagining What’s Possible. He spoke to The Globe and Mail about his love of the game, why Canada is exemplary of its promise and why he’s going to be flooding Bob Rae’s inbox very soon.
I’ve loved basketball for years, but never did I think, “You know what? This is what can save the world.” What was your eureka moment?
It’s funny, I’ve been thinking about it for maybe all my life as a kind of a intuited understanding of a very personal space of balance, peace, harmony and right relations with others.
The class you’ve taught at New York University on how basketball can save the world has been very popular with students and has attracted guest speakers ranging from former NBA players to filmmakers to Pulitzer Prize-winning authors. What do you think draws them to the course?
I think it’s the hunger for a new language, fresh solutions, fresh vocabulary, that allows us to move forward as a society, community, and as a people. And I don’t mean on behalf of the American people, the Canadian people. I mean people: borderless, nationless. Because my sense is that they felt the same thing I felt.
The book uses basketball as a lens to look at principles such as co-operation, gender inclusiveness, as a way of overcoming social isolation and even alchemy. Why alchemy? Why not just go with teamwork?
Alchemy says: He’s like this, she’s like that. Put them together, they both become something else, something better. This elevates this team.
How do we progress as a society? That’s how. Not by holding on to old institutions, matched with old ideas or old folks. We have to elevate and transform into something else, which will transform our institutions, which will do the thing that we’re all railing against every night in the news, which is change.
Sport has always been talked about as a metaphor for personal and social improvement. What makes basketball special?
I think you learn great things from all different kinds of sports. Basketball is different, for a few reasons. The space in which you play basketball, in its fullest elongation, is much smaller than other spaces and it forces you to see each other and you humanize each other, which leads to immediate continuous fluid empathy. That empathy is deepened because it’s positionless. Everyone is entitled to do everything. Because there’s only five of you, not 11, not nine, you do everything. And because of the nature of the game, you’re kind of spontaneous. It’s outstanding training to be a problem-solving person in the 21st century, in such a fast moving, rapidly changing technological, legal, political, planetary space that we all share.
You draw a very clear parallel between the Gilded Age of Naismith’s time and our own and how that very much informs his philosophy of the game.
He was a man standing in a world that was undergoing a technological revolution that created new wealth and power. Those who created the technologies claimed that this would lead to greater democratic participation, greater wealth for all – it did not. There was a great wealth concentration. Most were have nots, and they called it the Gilded Age. Not only was there unprecedented wealth inequality, unprecedented emigration, unprecedented polarization of racial, ethnic and all kinds of political beliefs. He was standing amidst a world that was like a tinderbox heading toward its first all-consuming, mechanized global conflagration.
Look at where we are today. All anybody talks about is the tech monopolies, wealth inequality, and what we are going to do about immigration. Why are we so polarized racially and ethnically, and why is the world so tense? What better to look at to solve today’s problems than something that was launched in a time that looks exactly like today.
Canada gets some really nice shout outs in the book, Toronto in particular. Why did you want to highlight Raptors?
The Raptors are the culmination of what has been to date, in my opinion, the most thorough, intentional and effective execution of what Naismith intended, which was the game as a social institution, as much or more than an athletic institution. In real time, before our very eyes, we’ve seen a nation that takes more newcomers than any other country in the world. The whole world is in a state of constant perplex about how we work with people and build nations of folks who are from somewhere else. And in real time this country has found that basketball courts are a place where these newcomers have gone to demonstrate their belonging and membership of the place they’re in.
You and your class were credited with helping sway the Vatican to recognize the first ever patron saint of basketball last year. What’s the next class project going to be?
We’re going to flood the inbox of Bob Rae, the UN ambassador for Canada. In the book there’s a draft proposal for a UN resolution for World Basketball Day. We’re going to make that happen.
Your author bio mentions that you hold your high school’s record for most technical fouls in a season and a career.
I was always a constructively subversive person. And those technical fouls were, I think, my crude expression of that constructive subversion.