Chapter 1: The Myth of Creation, December 21, 1891 (Taste)
“This is like Athena bursting out of Naismith’s head full-blown.” — Selby Kiffer
On December 10, 2010, Sotheby’s in New York held an auction for three items. The first was Robert Kennedy’s copy of the Emancipation Proclamation signed by President Abraham Lincoln—one of 48 such copies originally made, of which about half remain. The second item was the last flag not captured during Custer’s Last Stand at the Battle of Little Big Horn. And the last item sold that day were the two pages on which James Naismith, inventor of basketball, had a secretary type up the original thirteen rules of the game on the morning of December 21, 1891. The first two items sold for $3.8 and $2.2 million, respectively. The original rules of basketball? They sold for $4.3 million—or about the same amount (adjusted for inflation) as the $4 million Sotheby’s garnered in 2006 for a copy of Shakespeare’s First Folio: the first copy—published in 1623—of his complete plays.
For anyone outside the culture of basketball (and for many, like myself, steeped in it) the purchase may seem ludicrous. Understanding it as something more than the eccentric, self-indulgent caprice of an American multi-millionaire requires an exploration of what I call basketball’s “myth of creation.” This myth of creation, which centers on this document, its creator, and the moment of its creation, elides the social and historical details of basketball’s origin in order to put forth a static image of the game’s core or essence, which it presents as essentially immune to historical change and social influence. The myth then supports misrepresentations of aspects of the sport’s subsequent development. These misrepresentations, in turn, frequently entail racialized moral critiques of innovations lamented as corrupt degradations from the core essence of the game supposedly codified by Naismith in the original thirteen rules on December 21, 1891. Examining the myth in light of the historical and social details it suppresses illuminates a different image of basketball and its history. Rather than the static and ethereal moral essence of the myth of creation, basketball appears as a necessarily dynamic, social and embodied process of continual invention. And this image in turn invites ways to narrate the sport’s beginning that better convey this dynamic and inventive nature.
Which is a little embarrassing to me personally as a life-long citizen of basketball because, well, none of this is literally true or, to put it differently, historically accurate. Basketball was not “born.” It was invented. And it was not invented “full-grown” (i.e. in the form it is played today). The original version of the game bears little resemblance to the game as it is played today. Finally, while it is true that James Naismith devised the original thirteen rules, he did so neither in isolation nor through an effort of pure intellect, but rather in an extended process of experimental and sometimes haphazard collaboration with colleagues and students that included physical trial and error, conversation, study, and solitary.[i] We actually do not even know that any of this happened on December 21, 1891.[ii] So what gives? If it’s not accurate, and we know it’s not accurate, why do we keep repeating it? What sort of broader, underlying cultural work might this myth be accomplishing for those who adhere to it?