Review of Hoops: A Cultural History of Basketball in America

Aiello, Thomas. Hoops: A Cultural History of Basketball in America. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2022. Pp. 304. $34 paperback and e-book.

Reviewed by Łukasz Muniowski

Writing a comprehensive history of anything is a hard task, one requiring much discipline, devotion… and selection. Establishing what made a particular historical activity or development what it is today seems a futile, almost impossible task, simply because the ground required to be covered is too vast and the omissions too inevitable to construct a captivating and complete narrative. That is why Thomas Aiello opens Hoops: A Cultural History of Basketball in America with what will not be included in the book. And even though he mistakenly writes that Allen Iverson had led the 76ers to two NBA Finals’ appearances, his decisions to omit particular events––events that still live on in fans’ memories as the memories made them fall in love with the game in the first place––are validated and more than understandable.

Rowman & Littlefield, 2022.

Aiello, quite conventionally and justifiably, begins the story of basketball in the United States with James Naismith, who created the sport for two primary reasons: the need to keep students active during the winter months and as a less-physical alternative to football. Basketball, which also implemented the values of “muscular Christianity,” was more finesse and less brutal, and therefore considered more capable of teaching the values of teamwork, fair play, and godliness through action. Bodies, seen as temples of God, were required to work in unison to reach common goals. “Muscular Christianity” was associated with masculinity, as shaping the bodies through physical activity was the domain of men, with women tasked with practicing order and discipline inside of their homes. That is why, despite the initial support for women’s basketball, it was soon overshadowed by the need to “domesticate” them, as it was feared that the discipline would allow their instincts to take hold and, in the process, move them away from the strict confines and requirements of home life.

Organized basketball made its debut in 1892, and the sport’s rising popularity coincided with the development of rules, with dribbling being first introduced in 1894. Changes within the YMCA’s structure resulted in the creation of the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU), which gave way to establishing various sports organizations, most notably––from a basketball fan’s perspective at least––the National Basketball Association (NBA). The league rose to prominence only in the second part of the 1980s, as prior to that basketball was seen primarily as a young man’s game and thus NCAA games enjoyed more coverage. This aligned with Naismith’s vision for the sport, as it was supposed to be primarily concerned with teaching morality to adolescents. The educational aspect, according to the sport’s creator, concerned the values it would be instrumental in shaping, not the way it was supposed to be played. As Naismith himself said, “You can’t coach basketball, you just play it” (p. 70).

Aiello does a solid job in retracing the steps which led to establishing basketball as the most globally popular of American-born spectator sports. While there would not be a Steph Curry or a Kyrie Irving without George Mikan, Bill Russell, or Larry Bird, two men were most instrumental in making the sport what it is today: David Stern and Michael Jordan. And while the latter gets a whole chapter devoted to his cultural significance, more exposure could be given to Stern and other behind-the-scenes movers and shakers, whose contributions are not as obvious to popularizing basketball among American youth. Another gap of Hoops concerns streetball, which helped shape the cultural practice of basketball as something made for the people, especially those from inner cities. One might think that Rick Telander’s Heaven is a Playground or the phenomenon of And1 basketball would at least get a mention. Still, the author shows great skill in maneuvering between the college and professional games, combining individual games, series, and seasons into an actual story, which is all one can expect from a history book. While far from complete, Hoops is a solid attempt at chronicling the rise of basketball to its present-day status in the United States.

Łukasz Muniowski received his Ph.D. in American Literature from the University of Warsaw. He is the author of Three-Pointer! A 40-Year NBA History (McFarland, 2020), Narrating the NBA: Representations of Leading Players after the Michael Jordan Era (Lexington, 2021), and The Sixth Man: A History of the NBA Off the Bench (McFarland, 2021)

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