James Naismith. (Wikimedia Commons)
This season’s NBA playoffs have produced some timely commentary by Nation sports correspondent Dave Zirin, whose recent basketball-related dispatches discussed the emergence of Jason Collins as the first openly gay major-sports player and defended the pundit Bill Simmons’s controversial comments about fans of the Memphis Grizzlies still being affected by the trauma of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination forty-five years ago. Zirin’s thoughtful reporting from the intersection of politics, sports and culture is unique in today’s highly stratified media environment.
And yet the coverage of basketball in the pages of The Nation has a long history. As early as 1935, a writer using the pseudonym Left Wing documented and decried “the growth of that extraordinary sport which for want of a better name is called basketball.” Wing noted that basketball was invented in 1891 by James Naismith, a physical education instructor at a YMCA in Springfield, Massachusetts, sarcastically adding:
Only a retainer of the Y could possibly have invented such a fiendish pastime, a game which in forty short years has been responsible for as many brawls, lost tempers, broken relations, fights, arguments, and discussions as any branch of athletics. Most of us are ashamed of our mistakes and try to hide them, but the inventor…actually boasts of the fact that basketball is played in countries as remote as Latvia, Turkey, Arabia, Madagascar, Uruguay, Bulgaria, and Korea.
Wing went on to dismiss the game as “a sort of winter rival to football,” inferior to the older, more popular game because unlike football, “basketball is played in overheated gymnasiums or field houses, in a dusty, smoke-laden atmosphere conducive to anything except sport.”
The next major Nation article on basketball came in 1960, when the novelist Willard Manus wrote about the gambling scandals that had plagued the game throughout “the Fixed Fifties…this flabby decade.” As Manus wrote, bookies and athletes routinely conspired to fix the score of college basketball games in order to reap major gambling profits. “College basketball is, as it was ten years ago, a maggoty mess of moral hypocrisy, out-and-out dishonesty, side-of-the-mouth connivery,” Manus wrote. “The current scandal stands as an almost too-pat symbol of the moral journey to nowhere that college basketball is making.” Manus also paused to criticize professional basketball, whose rising popularity in the 1950s, he claimed, was directly due to fallout from the early ’50s college basketball fixing scandals and the contemporaneous rise of television. The same sports promoters who had profited illegally from the college scandals had colluded to professionalize their schemes, Manus explained: