Basketball Then and Now

I think the ball then was slightly bigger than today’s ball. They were made entirely of sewn leather, encasing inflated rubber bladders. They were laced and they had less bounce. With heavy use, they could become slightly deformed which imparted a wobble in their trajectory toward the basket. In high school, these rejects were relegated to the junior varsity practice sessions. The playing courts were smaller. They were carved out of whatever space could be found in churches and community centers. Once we played at a Black community center on Columbia Avenue in North Philadelphia where one side wall served as the out-of-bounds line. There was no out bounds line on that side of the court. For fun, the passer sometimes caromed the ball off the wall into his pivot man. It wasn’t legal; he was just showing off after the ref’s whistle had already stopped play.

We grew up playing on the courts of the College Settlement Houses, which were community centers founded by a consortium of Protestant churches in the Philadelphia area. These centers aimed to civilize, or at the least, to Americanize the masses in the immigrant neighborhoods. They did not proselytize and I never knew a convert. As a small child I went to the fresh-air camp they sponsored. Why not, said my mother, it was almost free. We lived in cabins for a week, in a wooded area surrounding a brook and its pond in Willow Grove, Pennsylvania. We tried to catch tadpoles in the pond. At night we were mesmerized by the sight and sound of the insects, as big as hummingbirds, batting against the single bare light bulb hanging over the beds. Bunk beds. At home, my brother and I slept two to a bed. Some of my friends, as little children, had slept three to a bed. At camp, we ate apple butter for the first time. A lot of it, slathered on as much bread as you liked. And milk.

The smaller courts, the zone defenses, the unwieldy ball, the non-existence of the jump shot dictated the pace of the game. It was slower, but the game had something of the beauty of geometry. Crisp passes probing the interstices of the two-one-two, the one-two-two zones, the arch of the set shot, the direct drives to the basket, fed by passes from the pivot man – these are the arcs, the angles, the lines of geometry. But the low-scoring games were a bore. I saw Hallahan High School (for Catholic girls) beat Little Sisters of the Poor 11 to 8. Penn State University, notoriously defensive-minded, won a game 6 to 4.

The courts got bigger, ninety by sixty feet. – goodbye zone defense. Joe Fulks invented the jump shot. The economy improved, which meant more black players were finishing school. They could run fast. Players were now permitted to palm the ball -cupping the ball while dribbling – without incurring a walking-with-the-ball infraction

Did the uniforms the girls wore in those days derive from the bathing suits women wore in the 1800s? Their uniforms were chaste and the girl’s game was chaste – most bodily contact was penalized. Curiously, the men’s uniforms were more revealing: snug shorts and sleeveless jerseys. Today, girl’s uniforms are sensible whereas those worn by men are very baggy, with voluminous shorts. These shorts enhance the effectiveness of the florid dribbling now permitted. The baggy shorts help mask the behind-back passes , the between-the -knees passage of the ball. The men’s game is not chaste. Much body contact is permitted, all in the interest of speeding up the play. Fewer fouls are called, again, to speed up the game.

The modern fan wants to see the ball go through the hoop frequently. Today’s fan is overwhelmed with visual data: so many shots, so much activity, so much carnage under the baskets. In the older game, the fan left the arena with the memory of a few well executed maneuvers performed at less than blur speed, a few deft shots, and if lucky, the catharsis of having taken part in the testing of wills of two evenly matched teams. In the modern game, the players and the fans are sucked into the vortex of the super-collider. In the older, chaste game, fans and team members played their roles in the maintaining of a tradition of orderly life. Otherwise, as George Grant says, the society that chooses a tradition of relentless change, chooses aimlessness – a ravenous hunger for quick, violent sensation.

If you want to see the game played at its best, watch the championship series of women’s university basketball. But hurry. Their game is becoming rougher as the women’s professional leagues get stronger. Big money beckons.