When James Naismith invented the game of basketball in 1891, he had no idea that he was creating one of America’s most beloved pastimes. He was just trying to come up with a vigorous indoor activity that would keep his gym class moving during long winters and on rainy days. Eventually, he came up with a game that involved passing a ball to teammates in an effort to get it into a peach basket that he nailed to the wall of the gymnasium. The result was the beginning of one of the most popular sports in the modern world.
Since that first fateful game, basketball has come a long way. The peach baskets and soccer balls with which the game was originally played have given way to the orange basketballs, hoops, nets, and backboards we’re familiar with today. The game itself has changed, too. When basketball was first introduced, for example, dribbling was not part of the rules.
Whatever form it has taken, though, basketball has been a part of our public consciousness almost as long as the game has been played, and school basketball games are as much a part of the American high school experience as lockers and crushes and big school dances. Of course, basketball extends far beyond high school. College hoops draw in huge crowds, while professional basketball players become major celebrities. Everyone in the world knows names like Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, and LeBron James.
As these six books illustrate, the allure and magic of the game permeates many different facets of our lives, and means different things for many different people. From the Dust Bowl to the Tokyo Olympics to the playgrounds of Harlem, these books showcase the way basketball has touched lives, transformed lives, and maybe even saved lives for generations.
The Game They Played
Named one of the “Top 100 Sports Books of All Time” by Sports Illustrated, Stanley Cohen’s account of the City College basketball team of 1949 through 1951 chronicles not only one of sports’ greatest Cinderella stories – but also one of its most shocking falls from grace. The team from New York City stunned the nation, first by winning both the NCAA and NIT tournaments, despite beginning the season unranked, and then by embroiling themselves and several other schools in a scandal that changed the game forever.
After an amazing upset that found the underdog team on top of the world, their moment in the sun was cast forever into shadow when several team members were caught conspiring to fix games. The resulting investigation led to the indictment of 20 players and expanded to include six other schools, changing the rules – and the landscape – of college basketball forever.
Playing for Keeps
There are plenty of “puff piece” celebrity biographies of legendary basketball players out there, but you can bet that Playing for Keeps isn’t one of them. For starters, this look at the life and times of Michael Jordan – as well as the way the world of professional basketball was changing around him – is written by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Halberstram.
As such, you get what the Washington Post calls, “The best Jordan book so far,” a story that’s as much about the unique personality and persona of Michael Jordan, possibly basketball’s biggest star, as it is about the way professional basketball was changing, both as a result of Jordan’s powerful personality, and to enable a superstar figure like Michael Jordan to exist in the first place.
Values of the Game
Though his may not be as much of a household name as Michael Jordan or Shaq, Bill Bradley had a career that was every bit as extraordinary. As a player on the New York Knicks, he was present for two world championships, not to mention receiving a gold medal in the 1964 Olympics. After his basketball career, he went on to serve three terms as a United States senator.
From those experiences, he derived these “values,” which he sees as necessary to both basketball and a meaningful life. Passion, discipline, selflessness, respect, perspective, courage, leadership, responsibility, resilience, and imagination – on the court and in Congress, he shows how these “values of the game” applied to every aspect of his life, and how they can apply to yours, too, in this New York Times bestselling book that “may be the single most important present a parent can give a sports-loving child.” (The Dallas Morning News)
Related: 11 Books to Inspire Recent Grads
In These Girls, Hope Is a Muscle
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Madeleine Blais tells the “extraordinary” (Baltimore Sun) tale of the Amherst Lady Hurricanes in this “beautifully written” book that is a “celebration of girls and athletics.” (USA Today) The result? “A picture of a changing period in American sports history,” according to Publishers Weekly, “when a town rallied around its female athletes in a way that had previously been reserved for males.”
In a world where inequities among men’s and women’s sports are still being hashed out every day, and the pay gap has yet to close, this is an important and timely read.
Related: 9 Empowering Books for Women
Dust Bowl Girls
“This is a book you can’t put down,” raves The Denver Post about Dust Bowl Girls, Lydia Reeder’s “compelling, heartwarming” story of the Cardinals, an Oklahoma women’s basketball team in the 1930s who were “determined to accomplish the impossible.”
More than just an exciting sports story of triumph over adversity, Dust Bowl Girls is a portrait of a moment in American history, one in which the nation was desperate for hope and inspiration, and the role of women was changing both at home and on the playing field. This was shown by the Cardinals and their struggle not only to win, but to overcome the doubts and scrutiny of a society that found women’s sports to be “unhealthy” and “unladylike.”
The City Game
Basketball may have been invented on a rainy day in Springfield, Massachusetts but, Pete Axthelm’s book argues, it is a game that has a special meaning to New York City.
In this unforgettable book, the “master prose stylist” (Sports Illustrated) juxtaposes the games played by the New York Knicks in Madison Square Garden with the kids shooting hoops on the playgrounds of Harlem, showing how New York has basketball in its blood… and has since the beginning, and what that means for the people who live and play in the “greatest city in the world.”
Related: 7 Books Set in New York