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Equality In and Through the Game of Basketball

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The first official basketball game in history was almost a shut out: Trenton, NJ: 15 to Brooklyn: 1. It was the year 1896, and the first game of “official” basketball had occurred (“official” meaning that the teams actually travelled to play each other). The players, undoubtedly, had no idea that they had just created the beginning of something that would weigh heavily on the social, racial and gender equality issues of the 20th century. But first, we must examine the road that delivered basketball into these issues.

It didn’t take long for surrounding Eastern states to mimic these teams; within months new squads of basketball players increased faster than they could design jerseys. Now, just for kicks, imagine this: You’re watching the Lakers play the Jazz, and every time Kobe Bryant makes a basket, a man with a ladder has to climb up and take the ball out because the basket literally is a wooden basket. It could have been the same basket your kids use to gather cavity-inducing eggs on Easter. Or the same basket your mother-in-law gave you along with a pair of pot holders, knowing full well that you don’t cook. The first basketball “basket” was a wooden, portable basketball goal. And the first basketball games were played in Masonic Temples. Does Michael Jordan even fit in a Masonic Temple?

Eighteen years later, the basketball backboards of this game would morph from recreational enjoyment to become an emblem of power, athletic achievement, and cultural equality among African Americans. In 1916, the prestigious CIAA (Central Interscholastic Athletic Association) was formed by faculty and educators from Virginia Union, Shaw, Howard Universities, and Hampton Institute. The CIAA kick started a sport that African Americans not only excelled at, but that they dominated. It didn’t matter if they used a portable basketball goal or a custom made and designed basket – the basketball backboards of African American cultures were pulsating emblems representational of inner-city youth. Backboards were the crests of racial barrier annihilation. And today, with pro-athletes like Michael Jordan and LeBrown James, basketball is still the one sport that destroys racial preconceptions and discerns ability and capability. The Michael Jordan Nike motif, for example, is one of the most widely recognized sports symbols around the world; you can’t walk into a sports store without seeing it on basketballs, uniforms, shoes, or even sports drinks. It’s an image that soldered in both our minds and our subconscious – it’s a signifier of both bravery and abolishment.

The implications of basketball backboards represented a critical landmark in early women’s rights, as well. When the first all-women’s league was formed in 1893, the rules were modified to make the game less aggressive than how the game was organized fundamentally. It wasn’t until 1938 that a women’s league stood up to the injustice, and demanded a scrimmage – using the men’s rules. The organization of this scrimmage and released the bonds of weak women stereotypes. However, it would not be until the 1970’s that women could use a full-size court.

Basketball has quietly leveled uneven ground in the battle for racial and gender equality. The courts of basketball, no matter how they’re drawn, are courts filled with affluent narrations of battles fought, and battles won; the basketball backboards of the streets, of the inner-city schools, and at the YMCA proudly bear the weight of collective equality for all races and genders. The history of basketball is so much more than winning or losing; for some, it’s a matter of winning life through equality, or death through discrimination.