City of Basketball Love: Philadelphia and the Nurturing of Black Males' Hoop Dreams

Article excerpt

The highly disproportionate number of successful black male players at the collegiate and professional ranks has come to be taken for granted--African Americans are simply the best basketball players. Becoming a basketball player is a typical way for young working-class and poor African American males to establish their masculine identity. (1) Young African American boys are playing basketball and exhibiting masculinity simultaneously as they imitate other males they consider proficient basketball players. Moreover, playing basketball is, at the same time, a racialized and socioeconomically stratified activity. Most of the great players since the 1960s have come from relatively poor, African American neighborhoods. Social environment is central to possibility, identity, and mobility; an awareness of one's possibilities, opportunities, and networks is shaped by where we are. Social environments and locales have a profound effect on what children come to see as important, viable, and status-aggrandizing. People do not develop ideas, aspirations, or social identities in a vacuum; social environments are imbued with natural resources and opportunities. Philadelphia is arguably the most complete basketball city in the nation because of its long history of basketball, the number of legends who have hailed from there, and the levels and depth of social organization and competitive play (high school, college, and professional). (2) This essay is based on more than a decade of fieldwork and considers Philadelphia's historical and present influence on young African American men aspiring to become ballplayers. (3)

Claude Gross's basketball career coincided with the change of collegiate and professional basketball from being a sport dominated by whites to being dominated by African Americans. In the 1940s and 1950s Philadelphia proved to be a great training ground for Gross beyond high school, and eventually became his classroom for mentoring young African American men through basketball. Gross speaks of the instrumental role that older men played in his social and basketball development, as well as the social organization of basketball in Philadelphia. He played at several playgrounds and received "teaching" from and was coached by older African American men. These men went out of their way to advise, instruct, and correct Gross. They started basketball teams, organized games, and took teams around and outside the city to play. Philadelphia was and continues to be a place where basketball is prized and encouraged, teeming with basketball opportunities such that players can play throughout the city all year-round. (4) It is in this environment, living in a basketball city, that Gross grew into manhood and fashioned himself into a basketball player, a title he still carries in his seventies.


Although the evolution of sport is rarely included in discussions of cities or vice versa, the correlation between the two is significant. The growth of metropolitan areas influenced the development of organized sport and recreation in United States. (5) Most major, contemporary sports began or became highly specialized, organized, commercialized, and professionalized in cities. At the same time, sport has shaped cities, as urban areas have long been the primary sites of world-class sports facilities. (6)

Basketball was born in Springfield, Massachusetts. The game was created in 1891 by a Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA) recreational director. James Naismith, as a form of winter sports participation and has been a part of urban life ever since. The game traveled quickly throughout Fast Coast cities and into the nearby Midwest. It gained popularity because of its simplicity; it did not require the same amount of equipment and resources as baseball or football, the most popular sports at the time for urban denizens. Instead, one needed only a ball and basket. This made the game accessible to youth in the poorer classes who were often excluded from upper-class organizations and athletic social clubs formed in the city where wealthy white Anglo-Saxon Protestants (WASPs) competed and fellowshipped with persons of the same class, reinforcing social boundaries. …


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