In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Basketball

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Primary Sources
  • Early Days
  • High School and Playground/Urban Basketball
  • Olympic and International Basketball
  • Rise of Professionalism
  • Women and Basketball
  • Basketball and African American Communities

African American Studies Basketball
David George Surdam
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190280024-0128


Basketball was one of the first sports to have a documented origin, beginning in late 1891. James Naismith’s charge was to develop physical exercises and activities to help develop the morals of his white, Anglo-Protestant male students. Naismith created the game to provide a competitive sport for wintertime indoor physical education. He probably never envisioned that the game would become popular across various groups. The game was amenable for urban populations, since the playing area was much smaller than for football and baseball. The simple playing equipment, too, made the game attractive for low-income participants. African Americans were early participants—segregated, of course, from white players. Black women, too, have long enjoyed the game. They faced the additional burden of fighting stereotypes about females and athletic competition. Aside from a few regions, female players only belatedly received acclaim. The white press paid scant attention to these participants. African Americans struggled against segregation and limited access to playing courts, but by the 1920s, black teams such as the New York Rens and Harlem Globetrotters competed successfully against white professional teams and began to be chronicled in mainstream newspapers. Despite demonstrations of black competence in basketball, colleges and universities often excluded blacks from their teams or refused to play opponents with black players. Although there were no integration events as dramatic as Jackie Robinson’s integration of Major League Baseball in college or professional basketball, blacks made steady inroads into the game. By the 1950s, sportswriters frequently recognized top-flight African American players and openly discussed the injustices faced by black players. The National Basketball Association integrated in 1950 and within a decade, Bill Russell and Elgin Baylor were top players. Black players earned greater prominence in college basketball, and by the 1960s, black players began to outnumber white players in All-American or All-Star recognition in both college and professional basketball. The 1963 Loyola Ramblers and 1966 Texas Western teams gained championships and notoriety for playing mostly blacks in their starting lineup. The 1966 Texas Western upset of the all-white Kentucky Wildcats induced college coaches in the South to integrate their teams by the early 1970s. Black players dominated basketball for the remainder of the 20th century, raising questions of why they dominated. Such questions were rife with potential for offense. Basketball is, however, one of the bastions of opportunity for black youths, although at a price. Scholars, ranging from sociologists to economists, began investigating African American sports.

General Overviews

There are some general histories of basketball, both amateur and professional. Most of these books contain chapters on African American basketball. There are few histories solely devoted to blacks’ experiences with basketball. Isaacs 1975 is a general history of college basketball. Peterson 1990 provides a general history of professional basketball, including black teams. The earliest overviews of the game’s history generally ignored African American participation.

  • Isaacs, Neil. All the Moves: A History of College Basketball. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott, 1975.

    Isaacs offers a history of college basketball aimed at general audiences, mostly describing key players and games. Isaacs never updated the book, limiting its value. As a history of college basketball up to 1975, though, it is a well-written general history. The book has a brief bibliographic section.

  • Peterson, Robert. Cages to Jump Shots: Pro Basketball’s Early Years. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.

    Peterson gives a general history of professional basketball, mostly highlighting crucial games, famous coaches, and prominent players. The book covers early black professional teams, such as the New York Renaissance and Harlem Globetrotters, as well as the National Basketball Association’s integration in 1950.

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