How Basketball Can Save the World: 13 Guiding Principles for Reimagining What's Possible
“engaging anyone who believes in the function and power of sports for both individuals and the societies they populate.”
On first glance, a book with this title could easily be dismissed as fanciful or delusional. To do so would be a mistake.
David Hollander is Assistant Dean and Clinical Professor with the Real World Studies program in the Preston Robert Tisch Institute for Global Sport at New York University. This book is an outcome of his popular NYU course titled “How Basketball Can Save the World” first offered in 2019. It is also the result of a passionate love of basketball that is at the center of David Hollander’s identity and goes back to his earliest childhood memories.
The title may call to mind Franklin Foer’s thought provoking, How Soccer Explains the World that didn’t really explain the world but did get a good deal of attention globally over two decades ago. Hollander’s effort may not convince you that basketball will the save the world, but like Foer’s book it is thought provoking and worthy of approaching seriously.
In one sense, this is a self-help book, but it is much more than that. It is a paean to basketball as a game that could potentially change the world, and it is a tribute to the life and work of James Naismith, inventor of the game at Springfield College in 1891. Subsequently Naismith moved to the University of Kansas where he was basketball coach and member of the Physical Education Department where he further developed his philosophy of basketball.
How Basketball Can Save the World is comprised of 13 chapters based on Naismith’s 13 rules for the game, which, in turn, Hollander has transformed into 13 principles for life and basketball. Beginning with Cooperation and Balance he moves to Positionless-ness, which as a group are connected. He then ties these together with Alchemy. The next five principles are forms of inclusiveness. Insolation and Loneliness are treated together, followed by Sanctuary and, finally, Transcendence.
Each principle is explored in considerable detail and is well-crafted and imaginative. Each will reshape your views on the nature of basketball and expand your understanding and appreciation of the game in ways not generally considered by the average fan, or even an avid fan.
The principle of Positionless-ness is perhaps the most interesting. Naismith believed that no one on either team should be restricted to one role or position. All players should be able to do everything. On offense you attack, and on defense you attack. The coach does not direct the floor play, but that is dictated by players and situations that change and flow through the game. In the modern NBA, this style has become dominant after it had been muted in the era of dominant coaches.
Hollander argues that this principle of Positionless-ness, which requires everyone to be able to do everything on the court as the game dictates, is in fact a perfect principle for 21st century society where circumstances, technologies, and other changes constantly make new demands on the individual. Quick decisions and adaptability are basic requirements of modern life, and basketball demands and teaches these qualities.
Less convincing is Hollander’s assertion that basketball is the ideal game for immigrants seeking admission and acceptance in America. This role was important in Naismith’s lifetime and remains so, but it was not unique to basketball. There has been considerable scholarship on many different sports that highlight this important role that sport holds for the outsider. In baseball, starting in Naismith’s time, waves of immigrants came to United States, and these waves were reflected in the changing rosters of major league teams. The Irish were followed by Eastern Europeans who were followed by Italians. In addition to players, immigrant populations gravitated to baseball as means of demonstrating their adaptation to the United States, in other words, to demonstrate their Americanness. It is clear that basketball was not the leading sport in this respect. Baseball and football were more significant in this process, and, in Canada, hockey played the same role.
In a similar fashion, Hollander asserts that basketball is the game that unites both the rural and urban sectors of the nation. Baseball does the same and, again, maybe better than basketball.
These sorts of objections aside, Hollander makes interesting arguments and claims on behalf of basketball. Some are more convincing than others, but none of them fail to provoke reaction and/or thought. He also draws on historical, artistic, and philosophical materials to support his arguments, engaging anyone who believes in the function and power of sports for both individuals and the societies they populate.