Basketball Short Stories - 4
Origin of Basketball
24 Seconds to Shoot, Leonard Koppett (1968)
All other popular games - baseball, football, hockey, tennis, boxing, wrestling, fencing, and all the various types of races and field events - evolved gradually, through generations of informal practice. The final, familiar rules were distilled from countless trial-and-error experiments, long after the popularity of the activity had proved itself.
Basketball, on the other hand, was invented from scratch by James Naismith in 1891 in Springfield MA. He had a very specific, and limited, purpose: to provide an athletic activity, more enjoyable than calisthenics, that could be engaged in during the winter months, indoors, when it was not possible (in New England) to play baseball or football ...
Naismith's needs were specific, too. He was an instructor in physical education, attending the International Young Men's Christian Association Training School at Springfield MA. His orientation was towards physical fitness. The competitive side of athletics was, for him, a stimulant that made exercise more pleasurable and attractive, not an end in itself - and certainly not the raw material for entertaining spectators. His ideals were those of the participant and the amateur,and his search was for an indoor game that groups of men could play with a great deal of exertion in a small place.
So, in his little gymnasium which had a running track circling the floor like a balcony, he hung two peach baskets, one at each end; he got a soccer ball; and he divided his class (18 men) into two teams. The idea was to throw the ball into the basket. The rules of play were almost automatically determined by the conditions. Purposeful blocking and tackling couldn't be allowed on a wooden floor, and would make progress impossible anyhow; but unopposed running with the ball in such a small space would make the offense unstoppable.

L-R: James Naismith, YMCA basketball team c. 1900
Therefore, the ball had to be either bounced (dribbled) or passed to another player; and defenders had to devise ways of "guarding" that still permitted the offensive player enough freedom to throw the ball to a teammate or at the basket. Thus, the basic characteristics of the game - that undue interference by the defense was a "foul," and that artificial means (dribbling or passing) had to be used to advance the ball - were built in from the start.
The problems were built in from the start, too: exactly how much body-contact constituted a foul? When did a legal dribble slip over into "traveling"? When was the offensive player responsible for contact and a foul, and when the defensive player? These intrinsically borderline judgments, always affected by angle o vision and the subjective reaction of the observer, put a tremendous burden on the referee. His decisions, inevitably had a greater effect on the outcome than in other games, and this feature of basketball has never been overcome with complete satisfaction.
However, as an exercise activity, with not too much attention to the score, it proved to be ideal, and an immediate hit with the participants. Within three years it had been introduced from coast to coast, by graduates of the Springfield classes and by active letter writing. Many who tried it immediately became addicts, and rules were quickly put into stable and standardized form.
By 1895, various YMCA teams were holding regional tournaments, and basketball players were taking the game into high schools and colleges. To the participants, the sugar-coating had become the main course.
And it was this instant popularity that generated serious difficulties. Naismith had done far more than he had imagined. The game was so fascinating that its competitive aspects could not be kept under control. The good athletes who tried it became, like all good athletes, intent on winning, and tournaments added to the incentive. With victory prized so highly, the game became rough, since there were few experienced referees and no effective ruling body. It became too rough to be looked upon, by YMCA administrators, as healthful exercise; nor could the presence of an increasing number of spectators, reacting passionately to their rooting interests, be fitted in to the YMCA program. ...
The YMCA, therefore, embarked on a campaign of de-emphasis, only a few years after popularizing the sport it had invented. It discouraged the formation of club teams, and the conducting of tournaments.
Worst Team Ever?
You Lose Some, You Lose Some, Eric Furman & Lou Harry (2004)
One of the greatest arguments in sports is the MVP argument, and it goes a little something like this:
On the one side, you've got the folks who oly want to know: who is the best player in the league? That's it. That's your answer. When you find him, you've found your MVP. No matter how good or bad his team is.
On the other side, the criteria is a bit different: which guy, if taken off his team, would cause his team to absolutely crumble? This side believes you must take into account the team's position in the standings. If said team is horrendous, then its best player isn't all that valuable. ... They're the people who believe there's a reason why it's MVP and not MOP (Most Outstanding Player). That V stands for Valuable, and to figure out who that is, they've got to go a little below the surface.
And for all their efforts, we'd like to present them with this treasure of a should-have-been-MVP example: Billy Cunningham.
Any good argument needs background info, and here's ours: In 1970-'71, the Philadelphia 76ers went 47-35, good for second in the NBA's newly formed Atlantic Division. Clearly the team's best player was Cunningham. He averaged 23.0 ppg. He led the team in rebounding ... and he was second on the team in assists ...
The following year, the Sixers traded G Archie Clark to Baltimore for Kevin Loughery and Fred Carter. They also obtained Bob Rule and Bill Bridges in trades. With all the new faces on this team in transition, the record suffered at 30-52. But the future looked bright, especially with Cunningham shining brightly. ...
This is where you will start to see how this situation is so appropriate to the argument: Billy Cunningham abruptly left the 76ers after the 1971-'72 season to join the ABA's Carolina Cougars, and whatever part of the dam he had been holding together was suddenly a leaky - no, gushing - mess. The 1972-'73 Sixers - sans Cunningham - were a disaster.

L-R: Billy Cunningham, Roy Rubin, John Q. Trapp
The bad stuff was in full effect when a new coach arrived in town: Roy Rubin, who had no previous NBA experience (although he spent eleven successful years at Division I University of Rhode Island). "It was a joke, like letting a teenager run a big corporation," team leader Fred Carter told Sports Illustrated some years later. The biggest complaints against Rubin were that he was in over his head; he wasn't familiar with the NBA style, nor did he know the players around the league. "We had [Hall of Fame G] Hal Greer on that team, and Rubin had no idea who he was. After we went 4-4 in preseason, Rubin said, 'I don't think Boston will be so tough.' We just looked at each other and laughed," Carter said.
Rubin's Sixers lost their first fifteen games, and put themselves into a bigger hole than the Grand Canyon. From those First Fifteen, "it was clear we were the league's universal health spa," Carter explained. "If teams had any ills, they got healthy when they played us."
As you might be able to gather, the team didn't have much respect for Roy Rubin. Still, what John Q. Trapp did on December 20 was way over the line. In a 141-113 blowout loss, Rubin was trying to keep his troops fresh as they were run up, down, around and over by the Pistons. But when he sent a substitute in for Trapp, John Q. refused to come out of the game. He apparently wanted his garbage-time minutes. Badly. When Rubin insisted that the forward heed his instructions, Trapp told the coach to look behind the Sixers' bench. There, the legend goes, one of Trapp's consorts opened his jacket to reveal a handgun. Rubin gulped, turned back to the court, and left John Q. Trapp in for the rest of the game. No use getting killed just to hold a team under 140 points. ...
At the All-Star break, Philly got rid of Rubin. They named Kevin Loughery player-coach, and one of his first orders of business was to release John Q. Trapp. Which didn't change things too much - except for the coach's on-court safety level.
Still, the city of Philadelphia watched while its team struggled almost as much without Rubin as it did with him. It couldn't have happened to a more impatient bunch of fans. Philly sports boosters are known for their "What have you done for me in the last third seconds?" attitudes. They boo without must provocation; they curse with even less. ...
Maybe it's not all bad that these are the people who had to sit through an entire season that had the rival Celtics finishing fifty-nine games ahead of them in the standings. ...
Somehow, in February, the Sixers reeled off five wins in seven games. It's hard to come up with an explanation for it, so let's just move on. Because immediately following that five-of-seven streak came the thirteen losses to run out the year. ... Final record: 9-73.
And there's the real story. Billy Cunningham was so important - so valuable - to his franchise, that when he left, the rest of the players regressed into the Worst Team in the History of the NBA.
Tiger Basketball ... a New Dawn
This article appeared in the program for LSU's first football game of the 1972 season.
That was also the first year of the LSU Assembly Center.
Dale Brown teaches a fast break style of basketball. And, it's his way of life also.
Named last March to guide the Tigers back to national basketball prominence, Dale has utilized every available waking moment toward that goal, and his pace is somewhere between a brisk jog and an all-out sprint.
"I jumped at the challenge here at LSU," Brown explains, "and I knew we would have to get out and promote. Once we get into practice in October, our time will be limited in getting out to meet people, so we have gone to them every chance we have had since arriving. We want the players, the coaches, and the people of Louisiana to know us, to know what we are striving for, and to join with us in our task to make basketball at LSU a success again."
Brown has coined his effort the "Tiger Safari," and along with associate coach Jack Schalow and assistant coach Homer Drew, the legion of followers grow daily. They held a clinic for the youngsters, a free throw contest for all ages, and in their journeys have given away over 800 nets throughout the state. All while recruiting Louisiana talent to play for the Purple and Gold.

Dale Brown and the Assembly Center in 1972
You might come upon the coaches anywhere, strolling through the campus introducing themselves to students and faculty, at your front door where they give you a net for that goal you have in your driveway; or at any number of civic, fraternal, or church gatherings where they have gone to tell of their goals for LSU basketball and asking you to be a part in it.
"We know we have the finest facility in college basketball in the Assembly Center; we have tradition of great basketball in seasons past; and we know from talking to the wonderful people of this state they want LSU up there at the top," Brown points out, "so we are very pleased with the reception we have been given, and we know in time the goals will be attained. When that comes about, it will have been accomplished with the help of the people throughout the state, and we will all share in it."
Brown is a 110 percenter, and he promises his teams will be too. "I can't promise victories and success right off the mark, but I promise when people come to see us play, they will leave saying to themselves, 'that LSU team hustles every moment, they play with desire, and they are unselfish.' We won't be ashamed of any effort if the people can say that," Brown vows.
"Support this young team we will have this winter, stick with them in the tough times we will face, and the taste of success will be that much sweeter when it comes," adds Brown.
You like a challenge? Then come aboard and "Join the Tiger Safari."
Paris, October 1997
Playing for Keeps, David Halberstam (2019)
In the fall of 1997, Michael Jeffrey Jordan, once of Wilmington, North Carolina, and now of Chicago, Illinois, arrived in Paris, France, with his team, the Chicago Bulls, to play a preseason tournament run by McDonald’s, one of his principal corporate sponsors, as well as a very important corporate sponsor of the National Basketball Association. Even though it featured some of the better European teams, the tournament was not, in terms of the level of play, likely to be competitive for a top NBA team like the Bulls. Nor was it supposed to be: It was a part of the NBA’s relentless and exceptionally successful attempt to showcase the game and its star players in parts of the world where basketball was gaining in popularity, particularly among the young. It was also done in no small part because it delighted the league’s corporate sponsors by opening up and solidifying critical international markets. Not surprisingly, the American players did not take the competition very seriously. (Nor did their announcers. When the Celtics played in the tournament a few years earlier, their longtime announcer, Johnny Most, a man who did not always have an easy time with the names of American players, gave up completely, and fans back in Boston were treated to, “And so the short guy with the mustache throws it in to the tall guy with the beard. ...”)
The Bulls arrived to play for the hamburger championship of the world, as they often did these days, with all the fanfare of a great touring rock band. They were the Beatles of basketball, one writer had said years before, and in fact they flew over in the 747 normally used by the Rolling Stones for their tours. There had been a time when Michael Jordan had regarded France as a kind of sanctuary, a place where he could vacation and escape the burden of his fame, sitting outdoors in front of a cafe and savoring the role of anonymous tourist. His appearance on the Olympic Dream Team five years earlier and his subsequent mounting international fame had ended that. His gross income had more than doubled, but he had lost Paris; he was as recognizable and as mobbed here as anywhere else. Huge crowds waited outside his hotel all day long hoping for the briefest glimpse of the man French journalists called the world’s greatest basketteur. At the games themselves, the French ball boys seemed unwilling to serve their own team and wanted to work only with the Bulls. Some of the French players inked Michael’s number, 23, on their sneakers as a means of commemorating their brush with greatness. At Bercy, the arena in which the games were played, copies of his uniform jersey sold for the equivalent of a mere eighty dollars.

L-R: Michael Jordan, Dennis Rodman, Scottie Pippen
JORDAN AWAITED LIKE A KING read the headline announcing his arrival in the sports daily L’Equipe. The games had been sold out for weeks, and the French press seemed ready to give Jordan head-of-state treatment and cut him some slack — when, during a press conference, he confused the Louvre, a great museum, with the luge, a dangerous winter sport, no one came down hard on him, though it was just the kind of mistake an American might make that normally the French would have seized on with great enthusiasm, to show the barbarity of the new world. MICHAEL HAS CAPTURED PARIS said another newspaper, and a writer added, “The young Parisians lucky enough to get into the Bercy must have dreamed beautiful dreams, for their hero had been everything they could have hoped for.” Noting that Jordan was wearing his celebrated beret, journalist Thierry Marchand enthused, “We shall be able to call him Michel.” France-Soir went even further: “Michael Jordan is in Paris,” it said. “That’s better than the Pope. It’s God in person.” The games themselves were not, in fact, very good; if anything, they were just short of an embarrassment. The Bulls performed sluggishly but managed to beat Olympiakos Piraeus of Greece in the Final. Jordan’s celebrated teammates Dennis Rodman and Scottie Pippen were not there, and Toni Kukoc, once the best player in all of Europe, scored five points. Jordan scored twenty-seven, but was not pleased to have to play without two critically important teammates. Staying home would have been more restful, as his toe was infected. Jordan was well aware that the true triumph of Paris belonged less to him than to David Stern, the commissioner of the league. The tournament was not merely a reflection of the growing internationalization of the sport, which Stern helped engineer, but a celebration of the NBA’s connection with McDonald’s, one of America’s blue-chip companies.
Stern, surrounded by most of the NBA executive staff and all sorts of McDonald’s executives, had a wonderful time. Almost everybody in the basketball structure who was anybody had come. There was one notable exception, and that was the absence of Jerry Reinsdorf, the Bulls’ owner, who rarely showed at things like this. Stern had pushed Reinsdorf to come and enjoy some nachas, a Yiddish word for pleasure, but that kind of nachas did not seem to appeal to the Bulls’ owner, a man who seemed to prefer his privacy to the semi dubious glitter and adulation that even an owner could be a part of at occasions like this. In addition, there had been a good deal of speculation at the last moment among the NBA people as to whether one other VIP, Dick Ebersol, the head of sports for NBC, would come. There was a powerful rumor sweeping Paris that even though the McDonald’s championship coincided with the start of the World Series, Ebersol, whose heart was said to belong to basketball rather than baseball, would come to Paris instead of sitting in some highly visible box seat being seen by his own cameras at the Series. Appropriately, given the symbiotic relationship between television and big-time sports, Stern and Ebersol were very close. Ebersol was wont to call Stern his boss, and Stern was wont to call Ebersol his. Stern was the most passionate and sophisticated of modern imagemakers, and it was Ebersol’s company that determined which images went out to the nation. Stern understood, as not everyone in the world of sports did yet, that image was more important than reality in their business. He monitored the league’s coverage of his sport very closely, and often seemed to take quite personally any departure on the part of the broadcasters and their cameras from what might be considered an image upgrade. In fact, when he had first ascended at the NBA, at a time when the league’s image was still largely negative, he had been famous for calling network executives on Monday to complain about any image downgrade that might have taken place on Sunday.
Both Ebersol and Stern had a shared stake in the good name and the public image of basketball, especially in the public behavior of its best players, and the two men had worked closely in a collaboration that had seen a dramatic rise in the popularity of the sport, and in time in its network ratings as well. That the question even arose of whether Ebersol would bag the World Series for exhibition basketball games against weak opponents in a foreign land for a cup handed out by a hamburger company showed how much the fortunes of the two sports had changed in recent years. This World Series, between Cleveland and Florida, did not, as it was about to begin, seem to the average fan a particularly tantalizing one; it seemed to lack the sense of a traditional rivalry, or at the least, some degree of geographical animosity. It pitted a Miami team, one that few fans knew very much about, against a Cleveland team that was talented but not well known. Neither team, to the general sports public, had yet created any kind of persona. There was no rivalry, neither historic nor geographic, between the two teams. Eventually Ebersol had stayed in America to watch the Series. Stern had teased him about that—“Dick, if you want to stay back in the States and watch the lowest-rated World Series in history, feel free to," he had said. (Stern was wrong: It was not the lowest-rated World Series; the one in 1993, when for the first time the NBA Finals had been rated higher than the World Series, was.)