An Above-the-Rim Look at Basketball

When NBC promoted the National Basketball Association finals during the last game of the Philadelphia 76ers-Milwaukee Bucks Eastern Conference championship series, it chose to do so by showing dunk after dunk after dunk in split-second sequence. It was a scenario that Kenneth L. Shropshire could well have predicted, based on essays he included in Basketball Jones: America Above the Rim (New York University Press, 2001), the new anthology he has edited with University of Southern California professor Todd Boyd.

While one essay in particular, “Attacking the Rim: The Cultural Politics of Dunking,” by Davis W. Houck, speaks specifically to dunking the basketball and how it is connected to the economic well-being of the National Basketball Association, the book as a whole shows how basketball has grown in recent years as a cultural and economic force in America and, indeed, the rest of the world.

“The initial thought was to produce a book called something like, ‘How Did Basketball Replace Baseball as a National Pastime?’,” says Shropshire, the chair of Wharton’s Legal Studies Department and co-director of the Wharton Entertainment and Sports Business Initiative. “As Todd and I worked through it, we realized that that was not so much the key issue as the role and place of basketball is in society. The question is: What does it mean that this urban sport is the most popular sport in the country and, clearly, the second-most popular in the world?”

The essays in Basketball Jones span both an historical and a contemporary take on the cultural, political and economic issues in basketball. The editors particularly focus on race in many of the essays – both Shropshire and Boyd are African-American – with the mutual exploitation of basketball team owners and their players and would-be players for money and fame a major issue running throughout.

One of the essays Shropshire likes most is a contrary take on race and basketball. It is an excerpt from a book, Keepin’ It Real, by Philadelphia writer Larry Platt, in which Platt interviews Matt Maloney, a White man from the upper-middle-class Philadelphia suburb of Haddonfield, New Jersey, who played his collegiate basketball at Penn. Maloney talks about the problems of being faced with being a minority – a White shooting National Basketball Association guard in a league overwhelmingly stocked with taller Black athletes.

“In some ways, Matt doesn’t think about race but about not being a star,” says Shropshire. “He feels he doesn’t get the benefit of the doubt from the officials because he is somehow not important enough. It’s essays like that, which made me look at different perspectives, that intrigued me most,” he says.

Shropshire also points to an essay by gender-studies scholar Tara McPherson on the issues of gender in basketball, especially with the slow rise in influence of the Women’s National Basketball Association, and another by USC doctoral student Sohail Daulatzai on the relationship of Islam to basketball. “These are important topics, particularly in the marketing of basketball,” says Shropshire. “The selling of sexuality is interesting. The worry about marketing to lesbians in Los Angeles: is this good or bad for the league? These essays taken together are insightful.”

Shropshire himself has had an off-again, on-again relationship with basketball. As a youngster, he was taller than most of his friends and so was always pushed into playing. But as his friends caught up to him in height, he found out that the game he had been taught to play – that of the tall guy underneath – was no longer the one appropriate to an average-height guy. He then virtually gave up the game, becoming a football star and going to Stanford University on an athletic scholarship.

Yet Shropshire still harbors thoughts that but for a small family incident back in his Los Angeles childhood, he could have been a big player. “My father decided not to put up a hoop in our driveway,” said Shropshire, recounting – as he does in his own essay in the book – a colloquy between his father and an architect friend about how poorly a hoop placed on their roof would look. “I use this as the excuse for my lack of basketball prowess.

“But the fact remains that the one guy in my cohort who had a hoop in his driveway was Marques Johnson,” says Shropshire of the fellow who had a long NBA career and is now a basketball analyst for Fox TV Sports. “His dad had him out there every night, night after night. We were all convinced it was just the hoop, though. If we had the hoop, we could have been like Marques.”

His lack of basketball prowess didn’t stop Shropshire from having an ongoing relationship with the game. “I have always gone to the court and hung out,” he says. “Even when I didn’t play, I would do something else. I might be the commentator. It is a nice communal thing, a break from the world. What I miss now is that I haven’t played consistently through life, so it is hard sometimes to know how bad you are and continue to try to play at that level,” says Shropshire with a hearty laugh. “You know, you can really feel left out.

“You walk up to the courts where you’ve never played before and if you have, say, the wrong shirt on, you will hear about it. Whoever is guarding you has the opportunity to do the Sam Cassell on your game,” he says, referring to the Milwaukee Bucks guard who never stops chattering to his opponents during a game.

Like many African-Americans, Shropshire does lament the perception among young Blacks that they, too, can reach the stratospheric skill and monetary heights of the Michael Jordans and Allen Iversons. “But I do feel that there is a disproportionate amount of reporting on how out of whack it is,” he says. “First, a lot of middle-class White kids interviewed in surveys also think they can be NBA players. And second, people can realize early enough that they aren’t going to make it to have other careers.”

Shropshire says that realization came to him his sophomore year at Stanford. “I said, let me use my sports to find another way. Frankly, even if I had made it, I would be out of work now anyway, so it wasn’t a bad move,” he says. “Now I’m a professor doing something else with sports, so it certainly wasn’t a waste of time.”

Still, Shropshire and Boyd recognize that basketball has been used as a metaphor for Black urban street life in many other areas. Essays in their book either lament or laud the basketball influence in clothing, sex stereotypes, movies and music, among other things.

“But it’s not just the imagery that has made basketball prominent in poorer communities. It is an issue of access,” he says. “In other countries, soccer is predominant because all you need is a ball to kick around. Similarly, all you need is a ball and some kind of hoop for basketball. And not every White community has organized hockey leagues. There are rural Midwestern places where, for the same reason, basketball dominates.”

But sometimes, even in his academic life, Shropshire finds some humor in basketball’s domination. “I was negotiating for a research assistant, and I had to tell him that we couldn’t come up with as much money as we thought we could for him,” says Shropshire. “He said that, yes, it was important that he had a wife and two kids to support, but more importantly, he had basketball playoff tickets he had to pay for.”

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