The Sport that can Save the World
Jake Steel: Tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got to this position.
David Hollander: How I got to this position is almost purely by accident. It was never planned for me to be in academia. In fact, many who know me would believe that I subscribe to the Mark Twain theory of learning, which is, “Don't let school stand in the way of your education.” And so I've spent a great deal of time in various fields, related fields.
Everything from big time corporate marketing, to television production, to running an indie music venue on the Lower East Side called Arlene's Grocery, to major global outlet sports writing. I was the first sports writer for the Huffington Post, and that plus almost 32 years being in New York City somehow landed me in the absolute perfect job for me, perfect profession - which is the one I'm in now and I hope I do it until I die.
JS: I'm sure that all your experiences have influenced your belief that basketball can save the world. At least you seem very convinced of that. How did you get to that belief?
DH: First and foremost, by playing it. I think the magic - and I mean magic, which is a combination of mystery and spirituality - that one gets [from playing it]. The transportation from the here and now to an extremely special and safe place that basketball gave me and so many other people. Once you participate in either the solitary or team experience of playing basketball, you come to know a really beautiful system of beliefs, of sharing, and of human alchemy that are found nowhere else.
JS: That’s really powerful right there. I guess this is more of an off-the-record question, but I'm just very interested. I know that basketball tends to skew very liberal. In terms of that, do you think that a lot of it is because of those values that you mentioned, like it kind of brings you to the whole new spiritual level in a sense, or am I just misinterpreting the definition?
DH: No, it has absolutely no ideological agenda. In fact, you can leave this on the record, I don’t care. I would submit to you that whatever ideologies have come to prevail in the current world over time are proving to be broken, are proving to be fallible and major in perhaps existential ways.
The ideas of nation-states, geographical boundary - these things aren’t working. It’s the idea that the only kinds of people that really should be making decisions are those with law degrees or records of commercial success. I think we now see that, [and] maybe we should be turning to other areas of leadership, cultural forms: Artists. Authors. Doctors of Basketball.
JS: That’s pretty awesome. I believe your course starts this summer. How do you envision it going about?
DH: So it'll be this summer and then it'll probably be offered - it’ll definitely be offered - during traditional semesters, probably the semester after that. Hopefully we’ll do some global editions, J-terms, and the summer. That’s the ambition and vision. The course itself will be a combination - the sources that we use will be a combination of film, classic readings, special guest stars, and experiential learning.
The topics will first be looking at the game, its origins and principles, and how they are specific, distinct, and therefore especially powerful. And we will then, from those principles see how they have operated and can operate in multiple societal spheres - spheres that are relevant and compelling to all of us now. Immigration, indigenous people, race, gender, sexuality, culture and commerce. Global issues like peace diplomacy, things like that. And then of course always looking at not only why basketball historically has been so influential in taking the lead in many of these areas, but prospectively, how can we fix the most important things looking ahead?
JS: Well, that actually brings me to the next question. I pulled a quote from an AP article where you said that there was just something about basketball that seems to reflect what is going on in the world right now. You compared it to the movements from the 60s, and you said that it also continues to be [relevant to] the question of how global we want to be. Could you elaborate more on that?
DH: If I asked you [to] name one thing or one place, one activity where we can have the leadership of China, Tibet, North Korea, and Taiwan meet and be happy, create an environment of dialogue, comfort, what would that be, where would that be?
You may not have an exact answer, but if I said, “How about watching a basketball game?”, it’ll be hard for you to disagree. It will be hard for any of the leaders of those countries to disagree. That's an example of how basketball has become a global common denominator. It's become a safe space, and also an exiting, fun space for anybody from any background anywhere on earth. And that's not true of everything. That's not true of, I'd say, any other sport.
People say, “Well, soccer is the most popular sport in the world.” I guess it is by sheer numbers, but it hasn't quite reached that level of popularity in the United States. And whatever those reasons are we could talk about, but it's just simply a fact. And the United States is an extremely important place. Conversely, or looking at basketball, it actually is that popular everywhere else. It's especially popular among young people, which has a lot to tell us about the future. So I think basketball is on the rise as a cultural form, and therefore it's a good place to build all kinds of other things.
JS: You mentioned that basketball is a unique sport, and there's so many other team sports. There’s baseball, football, hockey - obviously those are more North American-centric - but then you have other sports like cricket and rugby. So why do you think it has been basketball?
DH: First is the practical reason, and the practical reason is that it has the lowest barrier to entry. You only need a ball and hoop and yourself to really enjoy it. All the other sports, you need much more. You need other people and a much greater expanse of field and land. Basketball courts are 94 feet in its fullest. Soccer is 110 yards. Cricket is a whole stadium and lots of other people. These are wonderful sports, and they have a tremendous amount of teachers, and you learn a lot from it. But basketball has the lowest barrier to entry. And therefore, it has been the easiest one for anybody from any background to adopt, and because of that, it has always been the sport of the other. The sport of the outsider.
Historically, basketball, in North America where it began, mostly, was really attractive to outsiders, others. Jews, Italians, Irish immigrants, and they found basketball as a really easy way to Americanize themselves. This has been true in other societies. It's been especially true recently in Canada, where Canada has tremendously liberal immigration policies. Lots of people have come from other countries - West Africa, the West Indies, the Caribbean - and hockey [has a] big barrier to entry. It’s expensive, ice time, it’s strange, lots of equipment, you play it in the winter. Basketball, you can play it all season, you can play it in indoors. And all of a sudden Toronto in particular has become like this hotbed, it’s become like a global capital of basketball. Two consecutive draft picks over the last four years were Canadian: Anthony Bennett and Andrew Wiggins. Tristan Thompson has obviously risen to fame for other reasons recently. Good for him, but culturally irrelevant. And you'll see R.J. Barrett [currently playing at Duke] will probably be the second pick [of the NBA Draft] or something like that.
Basketball’s been a way for new immigrants to find themselves because of the lower barrier of entry. It's not only true in urban societies, where it’s a safe space, where it's a place to get away from terrible feelings at home and poverty and danger in your neighborhood. It's also been a sanctuary for rural loneliness and be whatever the difficulties. Steve Nash, who came from South Africa, loves soccer [and] still does. Basketball was the way he combated the alienation he felt when he first came to a new country. There are so many stories like this. That's why it's both a rural and a city game. That's why it's global no matter the environment.
Its inception, its creator, was an immigrant who came from Canada. James Naismith, he came to the United States. On his application to Springfield College, he said, “I want to come here because I want to create a sport for good.” He tinkered with basketball because he wanted it to be a sport that promoted the maximum amount of sharing, the maximum amount of skill. You want to get away from the brute force of football. And amazingly, people don't talk about it that much, but basketball was global from the start. It immediately - and this is part of something called the Muscular Christianity Movement - it immediately was being taught in France and China just after Naismith sent out almost like missionaries to teach it in these other countries. I think the oldest basketball court in the world right now is in Paris. So, that’s kind of the thing.
And women were playing it when it was first invented. There were all kinds of articles saying, “It's not what a woman should be. It’s not feminine.” Basketball is being used immediately to challenge notions of femininity and gender identity as women have adopted it. You know why? Because it’s easy. You know why? Because there's a low barrier access. You know why? Because the sport was created for everybody.
JS: Speaking of women, this sport, more than others, gets the most coverage when it comes to women’s sports, other than maybe U.S. Soccer. It’s just outstanding what [basketball] has done with the WNBA and how much it's grown, especially with their advertising campaigns the past few years. What do you think the impact of the WNBA - and just basketball for women - has been?
DH: The existence of the WNBA - the only major North American sports league to try and have a headlining companion league for women - the mere existence of it has been extremely important to give young girls and boys national exposure to body types and faces that, before this instance, were not normalized, were not understood as acceptable and possible.
However, the league is not doing well enough. Not just financially well enough. In terms of changing the landscape of moving towards what women's tennis has, and [women’s tennis players] are still not getting the same kind of financial and exposure opportunities as men, but they're about closer than anybody. The WNBA, it's an awful thing that many of these women have enormous followings, enormous exposure in college and then all of a sudden they go to the WNBA and people don’t know about them. I think much more has to be done with the marketing and broadcasting and much more has to be done with women's basketball. It cannot be that the best women in the world have to work three jobs. The WNBA maximum is $115,000. I think that’s probably - can you even exist on that in New York City? I mean you can, but…there needs to be more done with women and basketball. I think more can be done. I have no doubt the Commissioner of the NBA, Adam Silver, wants to do more, but we're not there yet. Team USA Women's Basketball is the most dominant team in Olympic team sports history. Nobody knows that except the women who play and that's just not right.
JS: Speaking of Commissioner Silver, over All-Star Game Weekend, he created quite a buzz when he announced the Basketball Africa League coming up, especially when he said that President Obama was going to be tied to the project. We know that African players can play. We've seen Luol Deng, Joel Embiid, and Steve Nash for that matter. We know these players can play, but big picture, what can this league do for the continent as a whole? Could the league make Africa into an emerging global player? What do you think?
DH: Many eyes correctly are turning towards Africa as a continent of economic and social growth. I hope that and I believe it's true that both Obama, Silver, and FIBA are seeing this new league as a chance to create endogenous economic growth models using the game. I've already reached out to both the NBA and FIBA with proposals to participate in those growth models, because I think it's very exciting. I hope that they replicate this in other places, but I think it's very exciting.
JS: I am excited as well. Moving east a little bit, Sacramento Kings’ owner Vivek Ranadive has been instrumental in the NBA India Games, [which will take] place in early October. What is your take on the sport’s potential in the second biggest country in the world?
DH: The potential is enormous, but it's probably already happening and we're just not seeing it, probably because of some basic kind of social prejudices that are held by North American scouts. You know, Jeremy Lin was, to my mind, since high school, discriminated against. Jeremy Lin did not receive an offer from a major DI (Division 1) basketball program - didn’t receive an offer. He played at Harvard, which is a DI program, technically. He did not get drafted. He was undrafted in the NBA. Clearly, Jeremy Lin is above-average NBA caliber. Why didn't he receive an offer when he was a high school state champion? Why did he not [get drafted] when he performed marvelously at Harvard? Well, it’s because he didn’t look like a basketball player. And so it's really important that we get past that.
I'm having lunch with Stan Tharangaj next Friday. I brought Stan here on MLK week when we did a program that week called ‘What’s left of the Dream Team?’ And we talked about race and sports. I got Stan on that panel and he got a great response from [NYU Chief Diversity Officer] Lisa Coleman and President Hamilton. He was so articulate. He talks about the South Asian experience with basketball in America and it's really a tie into all the we're talking about. All kinds of notions of Americanization, race, masculinity, intracultural global identity issues, how basketball became a funnel for all of those things. His book “Desi Hoop Dreams” will be part of my syllabus and I believe Stan will come in to talk to the class. But that’s a long answer to say that. There's no place on Earth that this game doesn't have huge potential, and it has absolutely nothing to do with race.
JS: Well that's wonderful. So I have two more questions. The NBA currently has 108 [foreign-born] players from 42 different countries. That's just insane. Do you think all that talent will still come to the U.S. like an international pipeline, or do you think that another country can end up rivaling the U.S. in basketball superiority?
DH: The only reason why all these players come to the U.S. is to come to the NBA. The NBA has become a commercial superstructure like no other, so the best talent comes because they get paid more. So the question really ought to be not about U.S. supremacy, but will there be a global commercial superstructure at some point? I hope so. I think the Basketball Africa League is one step.
The thing that has stopped it is [that] unfortunately FIBA has governance over everything that is not in North America, so it's always about ownership and control. It ought not be, but right now it's about ownership and control. Adam Silver may be the strongest commissioner of all the North American leagues. Still, he is employed by the 32 [NBA] owners of those teams. That's the leak. The North American League is a closed league. It’s not like European leagues where it’s promotional relegation - anybody can start league in any territory. The NBA pretty much has a monopoly. In some parts statutorily protected and other parts just de facto. So, if they moved to another part of the world, it has to benefit those 32 people or else they won’t let it happen. So really, the idea of creating other competing places to go to, to receive that kind of ownership and control whether you're a player or an owner, that's what we'd like to see.
We know that China has the CBA [Chinese Basketball Association]. That's a professional league, but that's government owned, so what's really going happen? We see trends, again, being led by the NBA. It’s happening - it just happened with Antonio Brown in football. Have you seen that wonderful movie High Flying Bird? The players should really be in control, and how do we start to tilt that power? We'll see about that.
The NCAA has a lot to do with it. So many of the best basketball players come and play DI College Basketball in the United States, and so many of the best U.S. players play DI College Basketball. They don't get paid, it's an unfair system. It inhibits them and warps their sense of why they're enjoying the game from the time they’re very young. I'm not as interested in expanding closed ownership and control of the highest paying opportunities in basketball. What I am interested in is seeing basketball as more than just a professional league. I’m interested in seeing basketball as really special cultural form, from which every single human being in all kinds of aspects of society can learn from and benefit. I want to elevate basketball - not the NBA, basketball - to a level of core educational value, no different than math, science, history, and literature.
I just happen to believe that one of the commercial outgrowths of this very special sport, the NBA, is one of the better ones, and they do it in a way that's so much more meaningful. They've done things for - could they do more, yes - but in the areas of race, sexual preference, gender, players’ rights, entertainment, [and] digital innovation, they’re just so much further ahead. And that’s good. I’m proud of that. Because - and I'm not surprised by it - because it comes from the core thing, which is to me, it lends itself to so much more innovation, so much more human equality than the other sports. Therefore the other leagues are really aren't getting there, even though they've been around longer.
JS: Yeah it's unfortunate. I’m such a huge baseball fan and not seeing the sport you love do well...it’s disheartening. The NBA is definitely ahead, and speaking of that, that kind of leads into the last question: 50 years from now, what is basketball going to look like?
DH: When is that, 2070? Here's what it'll look like: You'll be able to get a Bachelor of Science in Basketball Studies. They’ll be a Nobel Prize in Basketball. Basketball diplomacy will become so commonplace, that it might just become synonymous with the generalized term of diplomacy. Basketball will actually save more lives from global conflicts, gang warfare, and racial violence. It will be recognized in 50 years as [responsible for] saving more lives in those three areas than medicine, law enforcement, and what we now call ‘education’.
JS: And just a little bit of a bonus question: who wins this years NBA Finals?
DH: [after a long pause] I want to get this right - owing to maturity, I will not psychologically allow myself to make predictions in sports…because knowing how competitive I am, it will ruin my pure enjoyment of every game.
JS: That’s great. Well, I'm going to go with the Houston Rockets, but I don't know. I think that the Greek Freak [Milwaukee Bucks’ superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo] - we didn’t even talk about him but he's just wonderful [to watch].
DH: He is the incarnate! The example of everything I'm talking about. Where is he from in Africa? [He is the son of Nigerian parents]. He’s an immigrant to a small country [Greece] with a culturally overwhelming society and became, through basketball, totally Greek, the pride of the nation. He has the nation asking itself, “What does it mean to be Greek?” And it’s all because of basketball. He is the personification of everything this is about.
Professor David Hollander is a Clinical Associate Professor at the NYU School of Professional Studies, where he recently won the NYU Distinguished Teaching Award. He earned his Bachelors Degree in Philosophy from Brandeis University and his JD from the Quinnipiac University School of Law. Professor Hollander served in a variety of roles before joining the world of academia, working with the Huffington Post, AOL Sports, MTV, Arlene’s Grocery Productions, The American Basketball League, and the New Jersey Nets. He has taught sports business courses and always been fascinated with the impact of sports beyond the playing field. Recently, he made national headlines when he announced that he will be teaching a course titled ‘How Basketball Can Save The World: An Exploration of Society, Politics, Culture and Commerce Through the Game.’ In addition to professional basketball, Professor Hollander is an avid College Basketball fan. He loves higher education and believes that his greatest professional reward is working with students.