LeBron James Back to James Naismith: A History of Race and Basketball

Doug Merlino@dougmerlinoGuest ColumnistMarch 25, 2011

The following is an excerpt from the e-book The Crossover: A Brief History of Basketball and Race, from James Naismith to LeBron James.

The NBA is dominated by African-American stars. Virtually all of the league's most famous, talented and marketable players—Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Kevin Garnett, Derrick Rose, Dwight Howard, Dwyane Wade and so on—are black. 

Like many white suburban kids growing up in the 1970s and since, my first experience with black people came through the vicarious experience of rooting for the players on my favorite team. In my case it was the hometown Seattle SuperSonics who taught me to understand basketball as a sport closely connected with African-Americans. 

I loved power forward Lonnie Shelton, who crashed the boards and cleared the way for explosive Sonics guard Gus Williams and long-range bomber “Downtown” Freddy Brown. Defensive wonder Dennis Johnson and hard-nosed Paul Silas rounded out the nucleus of the team I rooted to the NBA championship in 1979, when I was seven. 

At the same time, I never played on the same court with any African-Americans as a kid. 

We lived in the northern suburbs of Seattle in a house that—as was the style in the '70s—was nearly the same shade of green as our refrigerator. The other prominent color in the neighborhood was white. 

A year earlier, the Seattle school system had enacted mandatory busing, accelerating the process of “white flight” from the city. Almost all of my elementary public school classmates were white. At the time, most of the 50,000 African-Americans in Seattle lived in or just south of the Central Area, a four-square-mile neighborhood where they were concentrated from the 1940s through the 1970s because it was nearly impossible for someone black to buy or rent housing anywhere else.

Paul Silas, seen here coaching the Charlotte Hornets in 1999, was a key player on the 1979 NBA champion Sonics.
Paul Silas, seen here coaching the Charlotte Hornets in 1999, was a key player on the 1979 NBA champion Sonics.Andy Lyons/Getty Images

I didn’t know that I was growing up in what essentially remained a segregated city. I did notice that all my favorite Sonics were black—I didn’t much like the one standout white player, center Jack Sikma, due to the ugliness of his turnaround set shot—which made me wonder why I never saw any black people in my own neighborhood.

That absence of African-Americans in my life changed in 1986, when I was picked to play on an AAU team that mixed white kids from the private school I attended with black kids from Central Seattle. The idea was to see what would happen if these kids from the same city but different worlds could get to know each other on the court.

The hope was that white kids would come away with a better understanding of another side of the city, and that the black kids would get the “exposure” they needed to get private school scholarships. No matter the reality off the court, the thinking went, we should all be able to come together between the lines.

And we actually did. That season we won the eighth-grade Western Washington AAU championship:. The ragtag group of boys had come together, overcome differences and triumphed. It was a finale fitting for a feel-good sports movie 

A year later, I left private school, returned to public high school in the suburbs, and lost touch with both sides of the team. It would likely have remained a nice memory if not for a tragedy: Five years after we played together, Tyrell Johnson—a kid with a brilliant smile, a talent for crossover moves and a love of LL Cool J—made the front page of the Seattle Times with the headline, “What Went Wrong? Tyrell Johnson Was Young, Black, Male—and Murdered.”

The rivalry between Magic Johnson and Larry Bird helped define the NBA in the 1980s.
The rivalry between Magic Johnson and Larry Bird helped define the NBA in the 1980s.Andy Lyons/Getty Images

He’d been shot in the back of the head, dismembered and left in a ditch in South Seattle. There was no explanation for why it happened.

Tyrell’s fate stuck in my mind. I moved away from Seattle after college, but in 2002 began to make trips back from California to try to learn more about what became of him as well as the rest of the team. It took me seven years to write a book about it, The Hustle: One Team and Ten Lives in Black and White.

That process led back to some of my youthful memories about basketball, from cheering for Lonnie Shelton to the first time I saw Michael Jordan blow past a defender on the baseline and explode for a jam.

It also made me question the origins of many of the assumptions I’d held about sports.

Why, I wondered, was the basketball court seen as such an ideal place to mix kids from different backgrounds? Why did I grow up as seeing success on the court as reflecting my own sense of achievement and manhood? And why and how did basketball come to be viewed as a quintessentially “black” sport?

The effort to answer those questions led me back into basketball’s history, which was more complex and fascinating than I’d imagined.

I started to see connections between how early decisions in the game’s development still echo in what we see on the court today, from Blake Griffin’s monster dunks to Phil Jackson’s coaching style. I also found that the history of what’s happened on the basketball court has very closely mirrored that of race relations in the United States, and often preceded changes off of it.

James Naismith invented basketball in 1890.
James Naismith invented basketball in 1890.

The vast majority of that research didn’t fit in the book. For this Bleacher Report series, I want to take the opportunity to dive back into that history and re-examine it. I’m hoping not only to bring attention to forgotten characters who were instrumental in the development of basketball, but to also arrive at a better comprehension of the game as it is today.

The plan is to move in rough chronological order, from the beginnings in the 1890s up through today, in a series of eight articles. They’ll be based on research and analysis, but I’ll also speak to some of my own experiences when appropriate. I hope what I write will spark memories, thoughts and commentary from others.

James Naismith, Jim Crow and the YMCA

Basketball, from its beginnings, has always been seen as something more than a simple diversion—both the black and white pioneers of the game saw the court as a place where greater goals could be pursued. That vision of basketball as a tool for change runs directly back to James Naismith. Though the game has changed tremendously, his DNA still runs through its blood.

Naismith, who was born in 1861, grew up near Ottawa, Ontario, and had a rough childhood. Orphaned at age nine after his parents died of typhoid, he went to live with an uncle, where Naismith was expected to work on the farm. Naismith dropped out of high school for four years and worked in a mill before finally realizing that education was his only way out of manual labor. He returned to school, graduated and enrolled at McGill University, where he studied theology and also excelled at sports such as football, lacrosse and rugby.

Kobe Bryant can get creative on the wing because of James Naismith's design of the game.
Kobe Bryant can get creative on the wing because of James Naismith's design of the game.Jeff Gross/Getty Images

Naismith was drawn to religion because he wanted to help others, but his life’s mission became clear to him one day during a football game: a football teammate began cursing after a blown play, but then stopped and apologized to Naismith, who was known for his morals. Naismith realized that “there might be other ways of doing good besides preaching” and got the idea that he could practice his ministry through sports. Fortunately, the perfect option was at hand.

The YMCA system, which was founded in 1851, was the beating heart of a movement that came to be known as “Muscular Christianity”—the idea, roughly, that a healthy body leads to a healthy, Christian mind.

At the time, industrialization was transforming the United States from a rural to an urban country. Instead of working together with their sons on their farms, men were laboring in factories and offices, leaving their boys under the feminizing influence of their mothers and other females.

It was thought that boys who spent too much time with women grew soft, or even turned gay. YMCA clubs were a way for boys to be placed under the watchful gaze of coaches who could impart discipline and manliness through physical training.

Drawn to this philosophy, Naismith took a job in 1890 with the YMCA in Springfield, Mass. Its head, a young man named Luther Gulick, was already one of the country’s foremost muscular Christians (he actually designed the YMCA’s triangular logo, with the spirit on the top above a base of mind and body). Gulick believed that sports should be used to cultivate “elements of manliness and vigor” while discouraging “evils” such as betting, swearing and dishonesty.

Edwin Henderson holds the ball in this 1910 YMCA team photo (from Hoopedia)
Edwin Henderson holds the ball in this 1910 YMCA team photo (from Hoopedia)

In other words, playing sports should not only make you a better athlete, but a better person. Almost every sports movie ever made—everything from Knute Rockne All American to The Blind Side—runs on these beliefs.

The Springfield YMCA was a college for men training to work for the organization, and many of the students were older, well into their 20s. During the spring, summer and fall, they played baseball and football and ran track. In the winter, though, there was little to do except perform calisthenics in the gym, and the students became restless.

When the teachers could do nothing with one particular class, Naismith declared in a faculty meeting that “the trouble is not with the men, but with the system we are using.” Gulick leaped at the comment and, to Naismith’s dismay, put him in charge of the class. Gulick gave Naismith two weeks to come up with a new “system” to keep the students pacified.

Stuck with the job, Naismith began to think about a new game that could be played indoors during the winter. By the end of his two-week deadline, he’d come up with the basic concepts that would define basketball: to discourage tackling, players would not be allowed to run with the ball, but made to pass it; and instead of shooting at a goal to score, players would have to loft the ball through it.

More important than the rules was Naismith’s belief that the players should be free to work things out for themselves in the court. His intention was to design a game for players, not for coaches (in fact, he objected later in life as basketball became more coaching-oriented).

From this general principle grew the one factor that makes basketball special among the major American sports—the room for improvisation. While the rules govern the parameters of the game, there are almost infinite ways to score and move the ball around the court.

When players the caliber of Kobe Bryant, Carmelo Anthony or Dwyane Wade have the ball on the wing, the fun of watching comes from the freedom that Naismith designed into the game.

In December 1891, Naismith tacked his set of 13 rules up in the YMCA gym and asked a janitor to nail a pair of peach baskets to the balcony, 10 feet off the ground. He divided his class into two teams of nine and handed them a soccer ball, and the first game began.

It was an immediate sensation, first with Naismith’s students and then throughout the YMCA network. By 1893, basketball was being played as far away as San Francisco, Japan and Australia. Despite the viral popularity, there was one group that did not immediately catch on to basketball: African-Americans.

In the 1890s, most black people in the United States—around seven million out of eight million—lived in the South, and the majority of them worked in the fields, either as hired hands or sharecroppers. The promise of post-Civil War Reconstruction—40 acres and a mule—had been beaten back and replaced by Jim Crow brutality.

The situation was so bad that the most prominent black leader at the time, Booker T. Washington, urged African Americans to remain in the South, learn agricultural trades and accept segregation. For the majority of black people, basketball was not even a possibility. The main exception was the small minority of African-Americans who attended black universities, or colleges in the north.

One of these was Edwin Bancroft Henderson. Born in Washington, D.C., in 1883, the son of a mother who was a domestic servant and a father who was a day laborer, Henderson worked from early childhood, taking jobs such as lighting fires for Orthodox Jews who were forbidden to work on the Sabbath.

In his free time, he played baseball with his friends in the streets. In high school, he was an outstanding student as well as a baseball and football star. He went to the Miner Normal School, a two-year college for African-Americans that prepared students to teach in Washington’s black schools.

Henderson graduated in 1904 at the top of his class and then went to Harvard University’s Summer School for Physical Training. Henderson was introduced to basketball at Harvard, leading to the unlikely historical fact that black basketball has roots in one of the country’s most elite institutions.

Besides picking up the game, Henderson also began to develop something else of vital importance for his career: a theory of the role of sports in the advancement of African-Americans.

Henderson’s ideas emerged as he looked at the society around him and realized that the playing field was the one place where blacks and whites could be equal and bound by the same rules. Like Naismith, Henderson viewed sports as a vehicle for more than simply exercise, diversion or fun. If black people could be taught to excel at sports, he reasoned, it would start to break down the wall of white supremacy.

Later in life, looking back at the achievements of athletes such as Jesse Owens and Jackie Robinson, Henderson wrote: “I doubt very much whether the mere acquisition of hundreds of degrees or academic honors has influenced the mass mind of America as much as the soul appeal made by our top athletes.”

Henderson returned from Harvard to Washington and took a job as a physical education teacher in the District’s segregated schools, riding his bike around the city to teach gym classes. Over the next few years, Henderson and a few other men worked tirelessly to start a black sports league in Washington, finally succeeding in May 1906, when they held a track meet at Howard University for African-American athletes from local colleges and high schools.

In the meantime, Henderson introduced his gym students to basketball, and enjoyed playing the game himself. But the only organized basketball leagues in the segregated city were white. To compete at a higher level Henderson had to try to join one of them.

One night in 1907, Henderson and a friend walked into Washington’s Central YMCA before a game and sat in the stands. They thought that the YMCA, with its rhetoric of Christian brotherhood, might look past their race. They were instead ejected from the club and told to never return.

Henderson realized there was only one alternative. He reserved space in the basement of a black high school and invited players to come and train on weeknights. In early 1908, he launched the nation’s first black basketball league, with eight teams made up of players from local high schools, colleges and athletic clubs. They played on Saturday nights in front of crowds of paying spectators, who danced to music played by a live orchestra after the games.

Among African-Americans, the game was just starting to take hold. For the next several decades, the “black” and “white” games—mirroring a segregated America—would advance on separate tracks, each influencing the other but only rarely meeting in the middle.

To learn about Doug Merlino's e-book, The Crossover: A Brief History of Basketball and Race, from James Naismith to LeBron James, click here.

Further reading 

Bob Kuska’s Hot Potato: How Washington and New York Gave Birth to Black Basketball and Changed America’s Game Forever provides a comprehensive history of the roots of black basketball. Basketball: Its Origin and Development is the story of the game’s beginnings as told by James Naismith himself. James Naismith: The Man Who Invented Basketball, a biography by Rob Rains and Hellen Carpenter, adds context. Tony Ladd and James A. Mathisen’s Muscular Christianity: Evangelical Protestants and the Development of American Sport is a thorough look at the movement.

Doug Merlino is the author of  The Hustle: One Team and Ten Lives in Black and White. Visit his blog. Follow him on Twitter. This is the first of eight parts, with new installments every Friday.