Friday, March 1, 2024

Q&A: NYU professor and author David Hollander on book ‘How Basketball Can Save the World’

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In 2016, David Hollander, a professor of sports business with the Tisch Institute for Global Sport at New York University, saw our world breaking down, struggling with division and distrust and failing institutions.

It was the complete opposite of the feeling he had when playing basketball, which brought a sense of integration, building relationships, the creation of peace and sanctuary.

The cover of “How Basketball Can Save the World” by NYU professor David Hollander.

He wondered: could he look at the source of that peace, the guiding principles behind basketball, and use them to try to solve the world’s problems, rather than using the same ideas that continued to fail?

With the thought came a hypothesis, research, and eventually a course at NYU titled “How Basketball Can Save The World,” which struck a chord.

The class grew from 28 students in its debut, to 100, to 125. The pandemic hit, and the course was paused, but a New York Times article sparked additional interest in Hollander’s ideas for finding harmony and community through the game. He wrote a book, entitled with the same name as the NYU course, which hit shelves Feb. 7.

Hollander spoke with NBA.com’s Brian Martin to discuss his research for the book, key lessons he’s learned from the game, his appreciation of Draymond Green, the ultimate goal of his philosophy, and, as one would expect, his still-standing record for career technical fouls at his high school.


Editor’s note: The following 1-on-1 interview has been edited and condensed.

How does a game that was developed 130 years ago lay the foundation for solving generational problems? What makes basketball – and the principles behind the game – fit so seamlessly into today’s society?

What’s remarkable is that this game, basketball, was created in the midst of an historical epoch that looks a lot like today.

In 1891, where James Naismith was standing in the United States of America, there was unprecedented immigration, unprecedented wealth inequality – they call it the Gilded Age – unprecedented tech advances, racial political polarization and the entire globe, the world was hurtling toward all-consuming mechanized, armed conflict.

And I’d argue that the game was a response to issues of that time and, thus, it makes it a good response for us to consider for this time.

In those 130 years, as wars have been fought, and won, and lost, and nations have formed and reformed, and corporations have come and gone, trends have come and gone, this thing, basketball, that was a pebble in the pond, during the Gilded Age has only continued to grow and become more ubiquitous, and become more influential all over the world.

When I think about the evolution of the game, the game that Naismith created does not look the same as the game we see played today on playgrounds and in the NBA. But even as the game evolves, the principles behind the game remain the same. Is that how you see it?

You’re 100% right there. There are certain non-negotiable principles of basketball that just make it different than other sports: the small space, the requirement that you can’t just run with the ball past or over somebody, you’ve got to pass to advance the ball, then dribbling came later, that everyone can do everything, the idea of position-lessness — a very anti-hierarchical, non-positional principle — that no other sport has. (The game) had to be easy to access and easy to play and unlike any other sport, the elevated goal. It’s amazing, what he did.

The idea of learning life lessons through sport is not new, whether it’s teamwork, sacrifice, commitment, practice, or discipline. But you see basketball as uniquely different from other sports when it comes to the lessons that can be derived from it.

So, I am very careful to say to my students, and in the book, that I love other sports –  and I agree with you, I think you learn all kinds of great things from all kinds of different sports.

My thesis is that basketball is especially good because of all the different elements about it for making the kinds of human beings that we need to solve the kinds of human problems in the 21st century.

There are a few principles that you discuss in the book that really stood out to me – the first was empathy and the second was the idea of alchemy. We just had the trade deadline and we think about new-look teams and how Kevin Durant is going to develop chemistry with Devin Booker and Chris Paul – you choose the word alchemy over chemistry to describe team-building, not only in basketball but as an overarching principle.

It’s a fine distinction, but you’re right – it’s a next-level understanding of what happens on a basketball team when it’s done right, and then, by extension, what needs to happen for a society that really wants to evolve and progress.

Alchemy, it’s different to me than the kind of hackneyed phrase, team chemistry.

Team chemistry means, okay, this guy’s like this, and she’s like that, and then if we put them on the same team, we think that because she’s like that, and because he’s like, that, it’ll work.

Alchemy means that she’s like this, he’s like that, but somehow, when we put them together, they both become something else entirely. They transform into something different – better different, both of them.

And that’s the new level of progress; that’s really what we want from our basketball teams. And the great basketball teams do believe that these players should become something else when they’re doing it right.

You’re not trying to take old institutions, or old ideas, or old beliefs and see if they can kind of work together. It’s all of us trying to become new, in the way we are with each other, which creates a new bunch of institutions in society. And that’s elevation and progress.

Thinking of team-building from an NBA perspective, I’m thinking of a team that is formed and adjusted over years, consistently practicing, and playing 82 games a year together. But a big part of what stood out to me when reading the book was the idea that all of these things also happen in pickup games every day, and they happen on the fly immediately, in real time. Do you think the pickup game, the playground game, is the purest form of the game?

I do, because the whole idea behind basketball was not just to see it as an athletic institution, but as a social institution, as a space for people who are feeling alienated, disenfranchised, and isolated to belong. When you play pickup basketball, typically, you enter a space with a bunch of strangers who don’t know and very quickly, you have to find ways of knowing them. And what happens is, by you doing that, and by those strangers doing that with you, immediately, fluidly, continuously.

You are engaging in a communal exercise, which not only was the intent of the game in the first place, but it’s so intense and the bond is so strong that when you leave that space, I think it gives you a greater belief in trust and cooperation in what is possible between people who have never met before.

When I think to my younger days, going to the playground to play pick-up ball and joining a group of strangers like you’re talking about – you never know how your teammates are going to be going in. You can have a guy that’s a great scorer but never passes the ball and you’re like, “do I really want to play with this guy because we might stay on the court, but may not have much fun while we’re doing it?”

And then I’m reading the book, about players like Draymond Green and Steve Nash, and I feel like these are the kind of guys that you would want to play with. Is it a stretch to say that those are your guys and the heroes of this book?  

No, it’s not a stretch. Again, I really appreciate your seizing on these great examples of the game — that’s really the whole game.

The whole game is this idea that we’re going to value you because of who you are and what you bring – not only value the person who puts the ball in the basket, but value the person who does the thing that leads to the thing that helps the person put the ball in the basket, because the person who puts the ball in the basket knows that without the person who did the thing that led to the thing, they don’t get to do the thing they’re good at.

Ultimately, it’s about the whole team. And that’s the metaphor, that’s how we start to figure out how to balance a society.

We need to value everyone in the chain, not just the superstar entrepreneur, the billionaire with a loud voice in the room. It’s everybody – all the things they bring to the social fabric. Steph and KD and Klay – boy do they value Draymond Green. Amar’e and Shawn Marion, what a different experience they all had with Steve Nash doing those things, those 100 little things – this is the beauty of this game. It’s really the valuing of people’s actions when the spotlight’s not on, when nobody’s looking. It’s hard to measure. But it’s easy to understand when you’re among them.

I give the example that Nick Collison is the only player that has a retired jersey for the Oklahoma City Thunder. They’ve had many great star players, many legendary players who had overpowering statistical seasons. Collison has underwhelming statistics, but everybody in Oklahoma City knows that without all the things he did, the achievements of (Russell) Westbrook and, once upon a time, (Kevin) Durant, and, once upon a time, (James) Harden, those things don’t happen.

I love when that credit is given because that means we love this game.

Now that we’ve come out of the pandemic, has the course continued and is it as popular in terms of enrollment?

It’s extremely popular. We hover in that 130-student mark; I looked at the roster just the other day and I think we have students from nine different degree programs, from six or seven different schools across NYU undergraduate programs. It’s really remarkable. Charles Barkley said he’d get a PhD if he knew this course was happening when he was in school.

I’m sure a lot of us would; to be able to study and do something you love is incredible. I’ve been blessed to find a way to build a career covering basketball. And the idea of this philosophy and this course, of taking the game and elevating it to a great level only fascinates me more. With that being said, when are you running for office? How do we get these ideas from the classroom, to a book and now into action? Because if this was required reading, it would be interesting to see if people would accept it and put some of the ideas into practice.

I appreciate this question because I believe this is how it works. The first thing is, I do a course like this, and I stand up and I say, this is a serious academic enterprise. And then the next thing we do is we do more in the academic space, with basketball and happily with other athletics. More academic, and I know what to do, I knew exactly what to do. And from there, my dream is that people start seeing that playing is learning, that the athletic is actually academic. And we develop a new language, a new vocabulary like we’re doing with the sport of basketball in this book, in this course. And sure, if I can serve, it would be my honor, to put this in the mainstream of governmental policy and decision-making. That’s always been what I wanted.

I have to wonder what it would have been like during the Obama years, with a president that played the game of basketball regularly and understood the game. And even the First Lady’s mission to get kids active and playing.

I use the Michelle Obama quote from her autobiography, “Becoming”. She said [basketball was] the moment when she saw really for the first time, this guy, Barack Obama alchemize into something different than she had ever seen before. It happened while she was watching him play basketball.

For my final question, I have to ask because it’s in your bio, about the technical foul record. This is perhaps the quintessential kumbaya book about basketball I’ve ever read, written by the guy that holds the single-season and career records for technical fouls in his high school. Perhaps Draymond Green is the correct hero for you. I love the dichotomy that the person saying basketball can heal the world’s problems is coming from a guy that was the Draymond, or Rasheed Wallace or Dennis Rodman of the teams he played for.

I like to think of myself as constructively subversive. This book is an intention to subvert traditional institutions by treating basketball as an academic discipline, and it looked like I had a germ of a notion to subvert the traditional institution, way back then. That’s all those technical fouls were – just creative release of the subversive instinct. And they weren’t all verbally based.

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