There is no sport whose origins are as deeply entwined with Christianity as basketball. Created in 1891 by James Naismith while he was studying at the YMCA’s International Training School, the game is a product of the “muscular Christianity” movement that sought to connect church and sports at the turn of the 20th century.
As a sports historian, I know there’s supposed to be no cheering in the archives. Yet, as a Christian and a lifelong basketball fan, I’ll admit to at least a small sense of pride when I talk about the origins of the game. My favorite sport, I like to point out, doesn’t exist without Christian ideas and institutions.
Given this background, I was immediately intrigued when I heard about David Hollander’s new book, How Basketball Can Save the World: Thirteen Guiding Principles for Reimagining What’s Possible. A professor with the Tisch Institute for Global Sport at New York University, Hollander’s premise is simple: The principles embedded within basketball by James Naismith can help us solve the problems of our world today.
A new ‘ism’
Hollander is not writing from a Christian perspective, but he does believe basketball has a deeper meaning that can shape the way we live. Amid profound disruption and fragmentation, with the failure of various “isms”—Hollander names capitalism, socialism, theism, and nationalism, among others—he suggests that basketball can offer a new “ism,” a system for making sense of the world.
“No more of the same old mistakes, from the same old thinking, by the same old leaders,” he writes. “Those systems have demonstrably failed. Basketball has given us a nearly century-and-a-half proof of concept. Basketball works.”
Hollander makes his case with 13 principles that are “inspired by and deeply connected to Naismith’s vision.” (Thirteen matches the number of original rules Naismith set down for the sport).
The first three principles focus on cooperation (principle 1) and the balancing act between the individual and collective (2) and force and skill (3).
The next seven emphasize the expansive and boundary-breaking potential of basketball. Beginning with the principles of “positionless-ness” (4) and “human alchemy” (5), Hollander connects basketball to globalism (6), gender inclusion (7), open access (8), immigration (9), and bridging the rural/urban divide (10).
The next two principles describe basketball as the antidote to isolation and loneliness (11) and a source for sanctuary (12), while the final principle, “transcendence” (13), brings Hollander back to his favorite theme: basketball’s limitless possibilities.
Hollander’s general pattern is to begin each chapter with reflections on Naismith’s intention for the game, then to connect those ideas with current examples and ideas. Basketball, he repeats in nearly every chapter, provides a space to bring people together.
Basketball is also presented as a metaphor for social policies and experiments. For example, the “open run” style of pickup basketball, in which players join a team of random players at the gym, is connected to Yale political scientist Hélène Landemore’s idea of “open democracy,” in which elections are eliminated in favor of randomized representation.
Other ideas Hollander advances include codifying within government and constitutions the right to sanctuary; ensuring that every new institution and policy is inclusive “across the full spectrum of gender identity”; and combating predatory lending by having local post offices provide basic banking services.
How does basketball make these changes happen?
Hollander does not exactly say, aside from making the point that basketball brings people together. Instead, he offers plenty of you-can-do-it enthusiasm. We must “commit to cooperation as our duty to one another,” he declares. “Each of us must answer the call of this world. We can no longer be who we were,” he writes.
There are some moments where Hollander’s book truly inspires. His passion for basketball is apparent, with compelling passages about the joys of the sport. He presents several intriguing ideas that are worth considering. And he is exactly right to note the wonderfully inclusive history of basketball, a game embraced by men and women, immigrants and outsiders, and a wide range of religious, ethnic, and racial communities.
Yet too often it reads like a TED Talk masquerading as a book. It’s a Big Idea backed up with shallow platitudes, revealing a limited understanding of the complexity of history and Naismith’s own hopes and dreams for the sport.
Winning men for the Master
We can start with Hollander’s treatment of Naismith’s faith. He admits that Naismith was inspired by Christian commitments but assures readers that Naismith left Christian ministry behind and adopted “a more ecumenically humanistic drive and perspective.” As evidence, Hollander cites Naismith’s application to the YMCA Training School, quoting him writing that his goal in life was “to do good. … Wherever I can do this best, that is where I want to go.”
The ellipsis tells the story. Naismith’s full quote (emphasis mine) reads, “To do good to men and serve God. Wherever I can do this best, that is where I want to go.” And on the same application (unmentioned by Hollander), Naismith describes the purpose of his future work this way: “to win men for the Master through the gym.”
Of course, it does not follow that Naismith’s Christian motivations stamped the game with an inherent Christian identity. Naismith did not hold basketball close but gave it away for people of all faiths to enjoy. Yet, while Hollander sees Naismith’s decision to pursue a career in physical education as evidence of a man leaving Christian ministry, in truth Naismith wanted to expand Christian ministry outside the walls of the church. He saw sports as a way to do this.
So, too, Naismith’s Christian vision included a conception of sin and human frailty that is entirely absent from Hollander’s narrative. This comes through best in a detail that Hollander never mentions: Naismith’s favorite role in basketball was not the player or the coach but the referee. He loved witnessing the creativity of individual players, but he also wanted the game to be a laboratory of character development—a place for people to be formed—and he recognized that this would not happen automatically. The job of the referee was to enforce rules and boundaries, to create the conditions in which moral development could take place.
Hollander’s naiveté about the shadow side of the human condition plays on throughout his narrative. In his chapter on “Human Alchemy,” he praises basketball players for “transforming” into something new by speaking out on social issues. Lebron James, for example, is described as someone who “alchemiz[ed] into a national voting rights advocate.”
But “alchemy” is not in and of itself a positive good. The question is always, Toward what end? While it’s a great thing for players to speak out for justice, Hollander never acknowledges that athletes will inevitably support competing and contradictory goals—that some, like NBA player Kyrie Irving, might “alchemize” with anti-vaccine rhetoric and support for an antisemitic film.
Even when Hollander does nod to the presence of tension, his response is far too simplistic. In a section praising basketball’s global spread, he writes about China’s response in 2019 when Daryl Morey, then general manager of the Houston Rockets, tweeted, “Fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong.”
Morey’s tweet created an international firestorm, with NBA games taken off the air in China. Instead of rushing to Morey’s defense, most NBA leaders were more critical of his tweet than they were of China’s policies in Hong Kong—to say nothing of the credible evidence that China is committing genocide against the Uyghur people.
So how does Hollander address this? He presents it as a both-sides issue, saying only that there were “great differences” in perspective. He laments not that China cracked down on Morey but that the whole affair was a “missed opportunity” to unite around basketball. “No one recognized the opening to say, Okay, what can we all agree upon? The game. That was the basic starting point.”
Starting points can be helpful, but it all depends on the destination. They don’t inevitably lead to good. The unifying power of sport can just as easily be used to provide cover for human rights abuses (including in the United States) as it can be mobilized for human flourishing and cooperation.
Freedom and cohesion
There are numerous other questionable assertions throughout the book. In one section Hollander suggests that Naismith embraced a “radical notion of full gender inclusion” and wanted to “explode the gender paradigm.”
While Naismith did support women’s participation in basketball, he did this at least in part on the grounds of preserving gender distinctions. He supported different rules for the women’s game and expressed concern when some women began playing using the men’s rules. Rather than exploding the gender paradigm, Naismith saw basketball as a way to uphold it.
No single chapter highlights Hollander’s shallow analysis more than his fourth chapter, titled “Positionless-ness.”
He centers the chapter on John McLendon, a Hall of Fame basketball coach who studied directly under Naismith while attending the University of Kansas. McLendon is best known for two things: his trailblazing work as a Black basketball coach advocating for racial integration, and his innovative full-court, fast-break style of basketball.
To Hollander, McLendon’s fast-break system exemplifies the way we need to live in the modern world. Hollander tells us that rather than accepting limitations and remaining rooted in particular communities and vocations, we need to embrace the constancy of change, always seeking to reinvent ourselves. McLendon’s system modeled this, in Hollander’s view, because it “was free, unstructured, unassigned, and self-determined.”
“In McLendon’s vision,” Hollander writes, “basketball is the language of freedom—the freedom to be who you are and to create in the space you’re in without someone else, without society, assigning permission or prescriptive roles to you.”
Read McLendon’s book Fast Break Basketball (1965), however, and precisely the opposite is true. The fast break, McLendon wrote, required “the assignment of certain definite and equally important responsibilities to each player.” McLendon gave his players positions and assigned them different lanes on the court to fill. In short, his system encouraged players to sacrifice some of their individual freedom to gain a different type of freedom—a freedom experienced through the joy of working in cohesion as part of a team.
It is true, of course, that in modern times basketball has moved in a positionless direction. In the NBA, players increasingly have a similar profile: tall, rangy, with the ability to shoot threes, handle the ball, and guard multiple positions.
This may well be a great thing for the game, but there are still consequences. Adopting a positionless approach necessarily forecloses some possibilities, leaving some people behind: the slow big man or woman who can block shots and score in the low post; the scrappy defender with a poor shot who can hound the ball.
Basketball’s positionless revolution is good for the scoreboard, but the uniformity that it promotes is not necessarily a good model for our economy or social life together. Hollander’s inability to see that sometimes the lessons we learn from basketball are examples of what not to do is one more flaw in his well-intentioned book.
Moral formation and human development
From the beginning, basketball was designed with clear limits. It was a game for the in-between, meant to fill the gap from the fall football season to the spring baseball season. It was not an all-encompassing vision for life—certainly not for its founder, who quickly turned over stewardship of the game to others.
But basketball does have something to say about moral formation and human development. And this, it seems, is one part of Naismith’s legacy that Christians can and should embrace.
This is also a reason that Hollander’s book is not a total miss. If it helps us reflect on the social worlds we seek to imagine and create—the type of people we want to become through the sports we play—then it is worth the read. Just keep in mind the sport’s limitations and our own. Basketball is a beautiful game, but it was never intended to carry the world in its hands.
Paul Emory Putz is assistant director of the Faith & Sports Institute at Baylor University’s Truett Seminary.