Every Day Another Rumbling
As Dr. Santiago Colas conducts his Cultures of Basketball course at Michigan, and writes a bunch about it, we here at FD are committed to participating as second-hand participants, albeit with a somewhat privileged perspective. Yago's last two classes dealt with the early pro leagues and the great (and zany) barnstorming operations. Here, Jacob and I discuss his posts:
Bethlehem Shoals: It kind of blows my mind, and not necessarily in a good way, that our "textbook" includes the self-deprecating line about Jews being good at business and penny-pinching. Remember, we had to fight, gnash our teeth, and over-write in the master files to keep that in? At the time, it felt like a good inside joke, and the sort of thing we should be allowed to do, given our audience. But it is a little strange that college students would stumble across that line in what's, on all other counts, a pretty serious book about race and culture in sports. There's some sarcasm, to be sure. Flat-out irony, though? This might be the one line that lays it on that thick -- obviously, we only felt comfortable doing that with our own ethnic group -- and yet if the class isn't familiar with anti-Semitism (probably a good thing), I have no idea how that line comes across. The real shame might be that it comes at the high point of Jews as players of the game, which tarnishes that, in a way. Actually, maybe it makes it stronger, since there's no reason we can imagine the era of the Jews to have been one where, as a historical space, Jewish humor is free to roam the plains.
Jacob Weinstein: While I agree that line is sort of a tonal shift from the rest of the book, what it really highlights to me is the awkwardness and artificiality of lumping all these barnstorming teams together to begin with. Given the space considerations of the book it made sense, but really there is a huge difference in the quality and the historical importance of teams like the Celtics, Rens and Globetrotters, and teams like Olson's Terrible Swedes or the House of David which were almost sideshow or novelty acts. The SPHAs were sort of a middle ground, neither a novelty act nor a truly dominant team like the Celtics, and I think an ironic aside sneaks in mostly because, as you noted, it was our own ethnic group, but also because the entire section was a weird mix of bold face tragedies (Globetrotters) historical footnotes (Kues) and pure absurdity (House of David).
And while the SPHAs certainly were a legit team, in my research it seems like even former players or fans still regard the team with some good humor. In no small part because the organizational structure of the time was such a mess, and the rules themselves were in such flux, it's hard to even get a read on the quality of the team's play. For example, what does the high point of Jews as players of the game even mean, if the game they excelled in was so alien from what we know as basketball today? It's almost like claiming to have been the best doctor during the Middle Ages. And that's why I think the ethnic underpinning of the team--and the accompanying stereotypes-- really become almost all there is to remember. Otherwise, we could have just featured some other random team from the era like the Paterson Crescents or the Brooklyn Visitations. Newark Mules stand up!
BS: It's only artificial and awkward insofar as the game itself was, at that time, still kind of a mess. Barnstorming teams, whether they were the Globetrotters or the House of David, played whatever competition that town could offer up. Since players in the early pro leagues (so strange to call it "early", since we're talking about nearly fifty years -- as long as the "modern" game has been around) were hardly getting rich, we can assume that they were part of that equation. That's what makes the Buffalo Germans so representative: it's impossible to tell if they were a total fraud because the line between legitimate and illegitimate ball was so blurred. I'm sure there were plenty of nights that the Original Celtics got to phone it in against a bunch of eager high school students.
What's interesting to me, though, is that while the barnstorming teams did have this self-undermining quality to them, they also introduced and disseminated new ideas about the game. I'm not one-hundred percent sure about this, but it seems like most of the actual developments in how to play the game -- as opposed to the parameters and rules -- came out of barnstorming teams. At least until the forties. The Celtics are important for developing the pick and roll, not their inflated win-loss record; the Globetrotters paved the way for pretty much any basketball played with style and creativity.
Oddly, this brings it all back to the Paul Gallico quote that inspired our own off-color line: the SPHAS may not have been a truly dominant team, or even all that well-organized, but it's clear that they brought something to the game that resonated with those watching it comes into focus. Granted, today we have a somewhat different notion of the "city game", and yet the idea of a tough, streetwise, crafty player who is slick without being smooth -- that's still part of the way we talk about basketball today.
JW: Yeah, I guess you're right. Basketball was just a mess back then. Even now I still have no idea how we could have presented those barnstorming teams in a more logical or truthful way. But what I think I was trying to bring the discussion around to was Yago's questions of "How do we tell the pre-history of something, when they didn't know they were a part of anything," which, likewise, I'm still befuddled by. The game these teams were playing between the 1890s and 1950s was undoubtedly basketball, but at the edges you sort of have to squint to convince yourself of that.
As for the barnstorming teams introducing new ideas to the game, I would definitely agree. And while non-barnstorming players were probably just as crucial in coming up with innovations, the barnstormers certainly were more important in disseminating those ideas, since they were playing hundreds of games a year all over the country. What's interesting to me is the constant battle between these player innovations and the rules from on-high--I guess what Yago would call spontaneity and calculation. And to further complicate it, the push and pull between the professional organizations and the amateur organizations.
So picking up where you left off in discussing chapter 0 of the book, if Naismith is the founding father of the United States of Basketball, and his original rules are the constitution, then for the first fifty years or so the amateur and collegiate basketball organizations were sort of "constitutional originalists' who kept nudging the game back to what Naismith imagined (or more accurately, what they imagined Naismith imagined). For example, the YMCA's and the AAU never adopted the cage, outlawed double dribbling, tried to keep the game nonviolent, etc. And to push this crude analogy even further, during the same period the pro leagues would have believed in a "living consitution", a sort of free-market functionalism where regional oddities (no backboards in the Northeast) and functional innovations (dribbling, the pick and roll, the pivot man, etc. ) were all thrown together and either adopted, discarded, or refined through new rules by the organizational bodies in control at the time.
I have no idea where I was going with the last comment. I guess Phog Allen is Scalia and Marques Haynes is Ruth Bader Ginsburg?
BS: Bringing back the Constitutional analogy makes me wonder how it is that Naismith's rules can be fetishized, but the next five decades are this alien world that, somehow, spit out the NBL and BAA. With the exception of Prohibition, the Constitution is changed to account for some very linear notion of progress -- one that holds up to this day. This pre-history of the NBA is more like we now understand evolution to be: a series of random mutations that, through their interaction with the outside world, are streamlined and refined into adaptation. So whether we're talking about stylistic innovations, or changes the rules, the trial-and-error quality of this period doesn't mean it's negligible. We don't even have a situation like the ABA, where a lot of the craziness was external to the game. It's pretty clear that the instability, and occasional breakthroughs, in basketball during this time were directly tied to how topsy-turvy its circumstances were.
The idea of a non-linear history doesn't come naturally to us, because we're used to narrative. But it's probably closer to, you know, the way things really are. So in a way, it's good that we can't quite make sense of the early pro leagues and the barnstormers. Maybe we should be trying to bring that kind of perspective to the history that, in our minds, works out much more cleanly.