Basketball and New York share a rich, vibrant history dating back to the early 1890s, and the city and the sport have intersected in many ways that have helped define the city, its residents, and the sport. This fascinating and important story will be told through an exhibit titled “City/Game: Basketball in New York” beginning February 14, 2020 at the Museum of the City of New York.
SC&I’s Assistant Professor of Practice in Library and Information Science Marc Aronson conceived of the idea for the exhibit and accompanying book, and he collaborated on the project with SC&I’s Assistant Professor of Communication Jeffrey Lane, by inviting him to join the exhibit’s advisory board. Lane, a long-time basketball player, wrote his first book, “Under the Boards” about basketball.
The exhibit is the first of its kind, Aronson said. “There was an exhibit at the New York Historical Society on the Black Fives — early African Americans teams — but nothing about the entire history of the sport across the city. It should be a rich experience for those who know basketball and could learn more about the city's history, and for those who know the city's history and could learn more about basketball.”
Aronson was inspired to work on the exhibit and accompanying book because, he said, he grew up in Manhattan “playing pick-up basketball and continued to play well into my adult life. My doctoral adviser at NYU was Dr. Thomas Bender, an urban historian who also played basketball in college. So I knew the game as a lived experience and as a focus of study. It was clear to me that fans of the game could learn a lot of the city's history, and fans of New York history could learn a lot about basketball. For basketball is the ultimate city game – it doesn't need much space, it’s not expensive, it’s played by every ethnic group and gender, it is a story of ethnic conflict and also of mixture, pick-up is the true meritocracy — if you've got game, you can play. And in New York there is street ball, high school, college, and pro basketball, all filled with legends and stories. I knew that taken together this would make a great exhibit.”
Aronson conducted research for the exhibit with his son, Sasha, an undergraduate at Tulane University. They dug through old newspapers and other primary sources for data, and “the museum staff made contact with the key high schools and colleges, many of which shared archives. The in-house curator Dr. Lilly Tuttle (another student of Dr. Bender's) and I found secondary sources on many of the key players and teams, and members of the advisory board added their knowledge,” Aronson said.
Some of the history they discovered that illustrates lessons about life, humanity, equality, and the shared culture of basketball and New York, Aronson said, are, “Mixture is good. New York basketball integrated before much of the nation — in schools, on the streets. New York basketball is not just the game, it is also style, language, trash talk, rap, hip hop. Through New York basketball we can see how the city works best. Because it is a global media capital, New York was the stage that, for example, introduced the jump shot to the nation (12/30/36, Madison Square Garden — the shot had been taken many places, but this is where the media noticed). It can also teach us appreciation for the creativity that sprang up in each neighborhood where the game was played — Catholic Queens, Jewish lower east side, African American Harlem, now East Asian Chinatown and Queens — each creates its own version of the game, and then they mix.”
Of his decision to ask Lane to join the exhibit’s advisory board, Aronson said, “He was a perfect choice. His first book, ‘Under the Boards,’ is an informed, scholarly look at basketball, race, and masculinity. He played in high school and still plays, and his current research on youth in Harlem and digital culture gives him a real sense of how the game fits into the lives of one important set of young people.”
Lane said the sport has deeply influenced his scholarship and teaching. “I grew up in New York City obsessed with playing and watching hoops and my first book was really motivated by how my experience of NYC was shaped and distinguishable through basketball. I came to understand differences in neighborhoods and childhoods by playing on traveling youth teams, for my high school in the Public School Athletic League, and in the parks. In terms of teaching and scholarship, I started doing serious research by interviewing basketball people and doing archival research for ‘Under the Boards.’ That book led me to graduate school — and allowed me to get into a great program.”
Basketball and New York City are so closely tied, Lane said, because “Basketball is a truly accessible sport that’s played throughout the city. It cuts across differences in people and urban spaces. But there also particular styles of play associated with different boroughs, neighborhoods, schools, clubs, gyms, parks, etc. Basketball carries the human commonality, diversity, and stark distinctions and boundaries that define NYC as well.”
Lane said he hopes what visitors to the exhibit enjoy the most is, “the interaction between the city and basketball and the different ways to visualize and think about that connection in the play, fashion, competition, and so forth. I also hope visitors take away the significance of girls and women in the development and culture of NYC basketball.”
Additional details and information about exhibit, including specific parts of the show, are in the Museum of the City of New York’s press release.
More information about the Communication and Library and Information Science Departments is available on the Rutgers School of Communication and Information website.
Photo credit: Susan Johnson (City Museum)