Ethnic Diversity and American Basketball:
A Socio-Cultural and Historical Analysis
Dr. Demetrius W. Pearson, University of Houston, Houston, Texas
The game of basketball, which originated at the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) International
Training School at Springfield, Massachusetts in 1891, is arguably the most widely exported American sport
form. The game was invented by James Naismith, the Canadian born physical educator and coach, who was
commissioned by Dr. Luther Gulick, director of the school’s gymnasium department to develop an indoor
winter sport for students between football and baseball season (Swanson & Spears, 1995). Its national and
international appeal has garnered global attention from athletes and spectators inhabiting all six
continents. The immense popularity of basketball is evident at the amateur and professional levels. It is
estimated that well over 450 million people worldwide participate in organized competition, and countless
others engage in “pick-up” games on a daily basis (Wachtel, 2009). Global network and media coverage has
made it among the more marketable sports in the world. The etiology and evolution of basketball
throughout the 20th century yields a unique socio-cultural and historical perspective of American sport, as
well as racial and ethnic relations. This archival analysis of American basketball traces the salient aspects of
the sport’s growth, its ethnic diversity, and socio-cultural impact globally.
Dr. James Naismith
YMCA Training School
Historical circumstance has played a major role in the development of American sport forms. Basketball,
invented during the height of the Industrial Revolution and the Guilded Age period (1880-1920), was no
exception (Zeigler, 1988). The industrial workplace was the catalyst of America’s growth and expanding
economy during this period. Organized professional team sports and recreational pastimes grew out of this
environment partly due to the diverse workforce. Because of the massive immigration from Europe,
industrialists and capitalists believed that sport participation could be used to train immigrant workers to
become loyal, efficient, and patriotic citizens (Coakley, 2009). Therefore, team sports were employed as an
assimilatory agent and value purveyor in hopes that ethnic and cultural ties would be abandoned.
The systematic utilization of sport was basically for capitalist expansion and the status of the United States as a
world power. “Americanized” sports such as football, baseball, and basketball were endorsed and sponsored.
Coakley’s (2009) assessment of the Industrial Revolution and the development of organized American sports,
particularly as an acculturation process, helps explain the playground movement in densely populated urban
cities in the late 19th century. Advocates of the corporate-bureaucratic-meritocratic society promoted organized
playground programs that used team sports because they could suppress the traditional values of white ethnic
groups (i.e., Italians, Irish, Germans, Jews, and others) and replace them with those deemed “American.” The
inculcated values were reinforced in public schools, adult-sponsored sport programs, and ultimately the
industrial workplace. These groups were among the first to play organized basketball.
Early Ethnic Basketball Teams
Data were obtained through an extensive archival literature review, as well as on-site visits to key
repositories (i.e., museums, libraries, etc.), and designated etiological locales to examine relevant artifacts
and memorabilia. Audiovisual recording devices were employed to assist in the collection and duplication
of data, as well as casual conversations with curators and on-site resources.
The Growth of Basketball
Basketball was introduced far and wide by college ‘Y’ players and Naismith himself, who travelled with a
touring team along the east coast. His “barnstorming” eventually sowed the seeds of a vibrant new sport in
several major metropolitan areas. However, it was his YMCA “disciples” that took the game international to
China as early as 1895 (Ling, 2008). The sport expanded to the Midwest when Naismith relocated to Colorado
and eventually to Kansas. By the mid-1890s basketball was played extensively at YMCAs, settlement houses,
church facilities, and schools. The game was also picked up and revised by Senda Berenson at nearby Smith
College, and taught to her female students (Swanson & Spears, 1995). In 1898 the first professional basketball
league was established in Philadelphia. Eventually traveling “ethnic” basketball teams, like the Buffalo
Germans, toured the country. The inclusion of basketball as a demonstration sport in the 1904 Summer
Olympic Games at St. Louis also promoted the game to the world, even though it was not sanctioned as a
medal sport until 1936.
The “City Game” and Ethnicity
Basketball grew extensively in the eastern metropolises: New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington
D.C. Due to spatial constraints in these densely populated urban cities, basketball became a viable sport of
choice. The nominal start up costs and access to municipally funded recreation centers, playgrounds, and
parks also aided its community acceptance. Inner city settlement houses, schoolyards, and YMCAs became
the major purveyors of the sport’s talent pool, who were drawn mainly from the poorer ethnic groups. By the
start of World War I basketball was second only to football in popularity in high schools and colleges
nationally, where it was played. Basketball was indigenous to the inner city, and the style of those who played
the game for the first two decades. Early athletes were German, Irish, and Jewish. Eventually African
Americans were introduced to the game through segregated YMCAs. The Celtics, established in 1912 from a
New York settlement house known as the Hudson Guild was located in a predominantly Irish neighborhood.
They became the leading professional team of the 1920s. However, other notable “semi-professional,”
ethnically oriented teams of the 1920s included the South Philadelphia Hebrew Association (SPHA), the
Harlem Renaissance (Rens), and the only remaining franchise – the Harlem Globetrotters.
The College Game
Basketball found a niche at many colleges and universities, where scholastic programs and annual
tournaments were held. This was particularly true in eastern and mid-Atlantic urban areas, as well as certain
mid-western and west coast cities. Intra-city collegiate basketball rivalries with scheduled double-headers
were common in large cities like New York, Philadelphia, and Washington D.C. The burgeoning interest and
potential revenues facilitated the establishment of several national championship tournaments in the 1930s:
National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA), National Invitational Tournament (NIT), and the
National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). Like other collegiate sports, basketball was devoid of black
players in most of the major conferences, yet they were afforded opportunities at select northern white
institutions. The exception was the Big Ten, which excluded black basketball players until after WWII. As a
result, the vast majority of black basketball players were relegated to Historically Black Colleges and
Universities (HBCUs) located primarily in the south (Ashe, 1988; Brooks & Althouse, 2013).
Game Changers and Tournament Exposure
E. B. Henderson, deemed the “Grandfather of Black
Basketball” and the architect of the sport in the
Washington, D.C.- Baltimore metroplex (Spencer,
2011), and John McLendon, a student of Dr.
Naismith’s at the University of Kansas and “Father of
Black Basketball” (Klores, 2008) were arguably the
two most instrumental figures in the development of
amateur basketball in the Black community. Their
social advocacy for African-American involvement in
the sport enhanced the pool of aspiring “cagers” and
brought attention to the oft-neglected HBCU
basketball programs. The national exposure of HBCU
basketball soared exponentially when McLendon’s
Tennessee A&I team won the NAIA National
Tournament three consecutive years (1957-59). It was the first time
an African-American college team won a national title against a white
opponent in any team sport. Later, the larger and more celebrated
NCAA Basketball Tournament experienced a major change as well
when unheralded Texas Western University (now UTEP) defeated the
University of Kentucky in the 1966 championship game. It was the
first time that a major college team started five black players in a
championship game and defeated an all white team. Some referred
to this socio-cultural and historic sport event as “The Emancipation
Proclamation of 966” (Fitzpatrick, 1999). The game’s outcome, along
with sundry civil rights legislation passed during the decade, as well
as potential revenue generation, and national exposure spiked the
recruitment of black athletes in basketball programs nationally.
Pro Ball and Integration
The commercial success and complexion of professional basketball has changed dramatically since the inclusion
of its first three black rookies in 1950: Nate “Sweetwater” Clifton, Earl Lloyd, and Chuck Cooper. The latter broke
the color barrier in the newly formed National Basketball Association (NBA) when he was drafted in the second
round by the Boston Celtics; the same franchise that hired Bill Russell as player-coach in 1966. He became the
first African American coach in the NBA. Unfortunately, league integration was a slow process due to the
stereotypical views held by league officials, team management, players, and fans. At the time, NBA players were
mainly from second-generation German, Jewish, and Irish families primarily reared in metropolitan New York. In
the early 1960s approximately 84% of the players were white and from urban areas (Brooks & McKail, 2008).
The ethnic make-up of the NBA began to change mid-decade when highly touted black collegians, several from
HBCUs, joined veteran all-stars like Bill Russell, Elgin Baylor, Wilt Chamberlin, and Oscar Robertson to raise the
level of play and lead their respective teams to championships. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (aka Lew Alcindor), Elvin
Hayes, Earl Monroe, Walt Frazier, Willis Reed, and others from the rival American Basketball Association (ABA)
helped solidify the game during the 1970s. The most celebrated transplant player from the ABA was Julius “Dr. J”
Erving. Fans and players alike emulated his style of play and dress. He, along with the coast-coast rivalries
between Larry Bird (Boston Celtics) and Ervin “Magic” Johnson (LA Lakers), rejuvenated spectator interest and
rekindled the Chamberlin-Russell duals of an earlier decade.
International Exposure and the “Dream Team”
Basketball is played throughout the world, and many have contributed to its global exposure. Touring college,
professional (e.g., Harlem Globetrotters), and armed forces teams have played a major role in disseminating
the game. Also, the International Basketball Federation (aka FIBA) sanctioned leagues and tournaments have
drawn players from all over the world. This international exchange of basketball skills and techniques has
enabled foreign players to equip themselves so well that they have begun to rival American players. Due to
the recent success of international teams the United States permitted its NBA players to compete in the 1992
Olympic Games. The celebrity status and notoriety of these all-star players commanded a media following
unlike any other team in history. Dubbed the “Dream Team” by the media, many of the players were known
throughout the world by merely their first name or moniker (e.g., “Magic,” “Air Jordan,” “Clyde the Glide,”
and Larry). Needless to say, the team’s arrival and
decimation of their Olympic opponents in Barcelona
reestablished America’s dominance in basketball, but more
importantly fueled the dreams and aspirations of athletes
worldwide. As a result, both the NBA and its female
counterpart, the WNBA, have grown internationally in
stature and ethnic diversity. Recently compiled NBA data
(Lapchick, 2012) indicate that 17% of its players are foreign
born. Racially, 82% of the league is comprised of players “of
color,” with 78% black. Similar statistics for the WNBA have
been documented: blacks (69%), whites (21%), Latinas (3%),
and foreign players (6%). Thus, the face of professional basketball has undergone an astounding
metamorphosis since its first black player entered the NBA in 1950, while the African American population
remains at 13% (Rastogi, Johnson, Hoeffel, & Drewery, 2011).
E. B. Henderson
This study indicates that basketball has been one of the most ethnically diverse American team sports since its
inception (Brooks & Althouse, 2013; Kyle & Stark, 1990; Mechikoff, 2010), even though “Jim Crow laws”
inhibited interracial competition in many areas. However, players and teams found ways to compete at
citywide and national tournaments over the years to expand the sport. Internationally, basketball has begun to
rival soccer as the world’s most widely participated sport form, and most popular globally among 14-18 year
olds across genders (Abbott, 2010). In addition, its international appeal and expansion has been documented
through the following: a) Olympic team competition; b) cross-cultural international leagues; c) NBA drafts and
NCAA recruiting; and d) touring teams and exhibitions.
American basketball has been a cultural staple and international export for over a century. Its global expansion
has attracted athletes from six continents, and has played a role in fostering international diplomacy through
athletic competition, exhibitions, and clinics. Although the majority of the elite basketball players are
American, ironically the sport’s architect was Canadian. Presently close to 20% of the NBA’s professional players
are international (Lapchick, 2012). This fact helps validate the sport’s global appeal and ethnic diversity.
John McLendon
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