Chapter 2: The Myth of Foundation, June 6, 1945 (Overview)
If Naismith’s invention of basketball was a physical form of persuasion, then his “argument” succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. By the middle of the twentieth century basketball had become a major American sport at every level of competition. Over the course of the half-century following its invention, tens of millions the world over took to playing the new game: men, women, and children, of all races and ethnicities, in rural and urban areas, recreationally and competitively, in a chaotic, rapidly shifting patchwork of formal and informal, variously stable amateur and professional teams and leagues. Moreover, as the number of players swelled and the game spread geographically, so also swelled the ranks of spectators, initially curious about the new game but also eventually building spectatorship and fandom into the fabric of their daily lives. On this rising tide of popularity, a cluster of powerful institutions emerged—which I call “the modern basketball state”—to corral and control the basketball-playing producers of the game, regulate their product, and so capitalize upon their labor. In short, the modern basketball state emerged to capture the value—both economic and cultural—of basketball play.
I use the term modern basketball state to suggest, loosely, certain fundamental parallels in function between this network of basketball institutions and modern nation-states as they emerged, developed and expanded in Europe and the Americas in the period from the late eighteenth century through World War II. Briefly, I’m referring to public entities and private capitalist interests cooperating to maximize the profits they can extract from labor, stabilize the system by which they do so, and foster the impression that this arrangement is not only desirable, but natural and, in any event, inevitable. Among the cultural devices the modern basketball state employed to achieve these ends is what I call “the myth of foundation.”
Nation-states employ foundational myths to selectively narrate their own origins so as to create an image of their past that leads seemingly inevitably, as if guided by destiny, to their present form. In doing so, both modern nation-states and the modern basketball state tend to constrain our capacity both to remember and to imagine alternative forms of organization. “Getting its history wrong,” as Ernest Renan put it, “is part of being a nation.” By making themselves the subject of historical narrative, states position themselves as agents of change while casting their citizens as passive objects. Like these, basketball’s myth of foundation seeks both to transform the contingent (and thus changeable) into the necessary (and thus apparently eternal), and to transform the creative agents of history into its passive consumers. But viewing basketball institutions as the modern basketball state can lead us to draw lessons from the alternatives that history has posed to modern state forms to learn about how to find and foster alternatives to the modern basketball state.
If basketball is our world, then the NBA is its superpower. And if the myth of creation is the cosmogony of that world, the NBA’s myth of foundation is the origin myth of that world’s preeminent nation. The myth of creation narrated the origin of basketball so as to preserve—in the face of challenges to white male privilege—the fantasy of basketball as an unchanging configuration of athletic, tactical, aesthetic, and moral qualities. Similarly, the myth of foundation narrates the origin of professional basketball so as to preserve the fantasy that only control by capitalist owners prevents the sport from disintegrating into chaos at the hands of “incorrigible” basketball players. Of course, this myth, like its predecessor, also obscures the complex process by which basketball play became professionalized, as well as its own origins as a story. And, we may invent an alternative narrative of professional basketball play by exploring that process the myth obscures from the prospective of those it seeks to disempower: the players.