A round-robin questionnaire on the best basketball game that you’ve ever experienced in-person on the first day of class. Course materials like Kendrick Lamar’s untitled unmastered album and the film Space Jam. Delving into the philosophy of basketball as one of the last free communal spaces in the world and how it’s an “antidote to isolation and loneliness.”
These are just a few of the many appeals of some basketball-centered classes taught at DI universities right now.
Here's more on how David Hollander, Chris Elzey, Matthew Andrews and Heath Pearson use basketball to teach deeper themes, such as race, gender, class, urban movement, capitalism and more.
How Basketball Can Save the World | David Hollander | New York University
David Hollander has always had an intuitive understanding of the game of basketball. The 15x15 court that Hollander’s father built in his childhood backyard was the platform on which Hollander developed relationships and a love for the game. Growing older in an increasingly divisional world, Hollander turned to language he spoke on the basketball court as a blueprint for explaining and fixing 21st century problems.
Hollander, the assistant dean and clinical professor with the Tisch Institute of Global Sport at NYU, invited a small group of students over for a five-minute lecture at his apartment in 2015. To his surprise, around 50 students showed up, and through stuffing their faces with fireside snacks, a dynamic conversation about how the sport could save the world was born.
“I thought to myself, ‘Wow, was it basketball? Was it wanting to save the world? Was it both?’” Hollander said. “That plus the immediate need of a world actually broken in so many places, in so many ways. That’s what motivated them.”
Inspired, Hollander did his research, developed a syllabus and tested a pilot course during a summer session in 2019. How Basketball Can Save the World quickly gained traction as the first-ever class to treat basketball — as an academic, social and athletic institution — as a practical philosophy.
Since, it’s been so popular that he’s taught a 157-person class every spring semester. Hollander just released a book based on his course teachings in February 2023.
Prof. David Hollander teaches the popular course, "How Basketball Can Save The World.” (Spring 2023: TCSM1-UC2550001) He asks his students to think deeply about WHY they love sports. From there, he explores the principles of sport/basketball that serve a much higher purpose. pic.twitter.com/dJgScqM0r8— NYUSPS Tisch Sports (@nyutischsports) January 5, 2023
The course tackles issues such as gender, race and immigration as well as modern problems like loneliness and urban and rural divide. Hollander outlines 13 principles in his course and the book, ranging from “Cooperation” to “Balance of Force and Skill” to “Positionless-ness”. He sees basketball as the most anti-hierarchical sport ever created and an intimate setting in which players are forced to see each other.
“You develop empathy. You humanize the other person, you don't just see them as another person, you see them as who they are, which is the basis for going forward doing anything with other people in this world,” Hollander said. “And isn't that what humanity is about? Negotiating, sharing, managing space, the space of this earth with other people, because we're not here alone.”
Throughout the years, Hollander’s class has gotten VIP access to the 2019 NBA Draft, visited Nike’s NYC headquarters and even took part in swaying the Vatican to recognize the patron saint of Basketball in 2022. Hollander believes the study of the sport is important, and sees playground basketball at its core is one of the last free communal spaces in the world — he still plays with his students on courts up and down 12th street.
“Nobody asks for your ID, your credit, checks your citizenship. There is no commissioner, no gatekeeper. The only rules are the rules assented to by those who are present. Where else on Earth is that access, is that kind of communal experience?” Hollander said. “I submit to you that nowhere else other than the basketball playground.”
Basketball and the American Experience | Chris Elzey | George Mason University
Race and Basketball | Matthew Andrews | UNC-Chapel Hill
From the historical perspective, Chris Elzey, professor at George Mason University and Matthew Andrews, professor at UNC-Chapel Hill, both teach courses on the sport’s past, Basketball and the American Experience and Race and Basketball, respectively.
What made teaching about basketball appeal to them? For Elzey, who played professional basketball in Europe and in Australia for six years before his teaching career, he always found a sense of community on the basketball court.
“Basketball was more than a game to me, right? It was always about seeing the world, experiencing different cultures, learning new languages, meeting people that I never would have met before, visiting countries, the whole gambit,” Elzey said. “You're forced to, or willing, I should say, to experience these new ways of living.”
For Andrews, it was the inspiration of teaching about the sport that his blue blood university was known for, which includes informing his students of North Carolina and Chapel Hill history in the process.
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Some of the themes that both classes examine include ethnic and gender discrimination, the role of media in American society, the difference between Blackness and whiteness and the decline of the American Dream in a post-industrial world. Whether it’s discussing the Magic Johnson and Larry Bird rivalry, the role of hip hop and the Black aesthetic of basketball or the significance of the 1992 Olympic "Dream Team," these classes look at how historical forces have shaped the game.
In one of his first lectures, Andrews explores four critiques on race and basketball that he uses to connect with the history of the sport:
- The “Hoop Dreams” critique suggests that Black Americans rely on basketball and the unattainable goal of professional hoops as a means of living the American dream
- The “Plantation” critique theorizes that the American sports landscape confines Black athletes to the realm of the physical
- The “Sad Song of Jackie Robinson” critique explains that the success of a few Black athletes masks a segregated reality
- The “Air Jordan” critique talks about Black athletic excellence as seen as athletic superiority, but intellectual inferiority
“Pretty much every time I do [that lecture], I get at least one email from a student saying ‘that's the most meaningful lecture I've had in years,’” Andrews said.
These two courses are popular not just because they have basketball in their registrar titles, but because they explain themes such as Civil Rights, gang violence, rap culture and freedom in the United States in the context of a beloved sport.
“This is a serious intellectual exercise here,” Elzey said. “Using sport as a way to examine all of these things that you've talked about probably in many of your other classes, whether it's about business, whether it's about economy, whether it's about race, whether it's about ethnicity, whether it's about politics, internationalism, globalization, all of these things kind of fall under that umbrella.”
Racial Capitalism & the NBA | Heath Pearson | Georgetown
As a Princeton grad student, Heath Pearson often played pickup basketball with his peers and then buried himself in books that broke down metaphors about the sport. When pitching course ideas to the undergraduate director at the University of Michigan, the basketball material was what stuck.
“I was trying to think, ‘If someone really loves basketball, how can I tap into that love of basketball and give them a way of thinking about politics and thinking about the economy, land, power, wealth, and distribution?’” Pearson said. “And by thinking about those things in a much smaller and more contained world of the NBA.”
He continued teaching the course when he moved to Georgetown as an assistant professor of cultural anthropology and justice & peace studies. The first quarter of this anthropology course starts with relationships and explains the ins and outs of racial capitalism, then the second and third quarters examine real-world examples involving time, space, power differentials, the distribution of capacity, and more.
Finally, Pearson calls the class to use the tools previously learned and apply them to the most recent NBA season. Pearson uses modern course materials to illustrate his points, updating his research every semester he teaches the class.
“Sometimes we will read the Communist Manifesto, and there are times we'll watch a video by Kendrick Lamar or, or we'll watch a movie by Spike Lee,” Pearson said. “Those pieces are highly significant because it's really important for opening us up to all of the different ways in which we come to understand and make sense of this world and our place in this world.”
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One of Pearson’s lectures breaks down Tweets from the owners of the 76ers in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, when some of the players paid for the arena workers’ salaries. He uses these current examples to demonstrate a class difference, revealing to his class that it would take center Joel Embiid 83 seasons (who makes about $33 million a year, before taxes) to accumulate enough money to buy the franchise.
“If you are not already in the ruling class, you never will be. It reminds us that even in this space, we can kind of see the realities of U.S. society by zooming all the way down into a tiny basketball team,” Pearson said. “It's really tangible for someone to say, ‘Wow, even Joel Embiid can't be an owner of an NBA team.’”
Hailing from the basketball mecca of Marion, Indiana, Pearson said that his entire town of 25,000 people would shut down for basketball games — his high school arena held nearly half of Marion’s population. In his teachings, Pearson looks to use the ideas he’s ruminated on about the sport to inspire his students to think critically about global capitalism through the Black radical tradition.
“My life has always been so entangled with basketball and I use it in certain ways to think about other aspects of my life,” Pearson said. “The NBA helps people to be more excited about engaging with non-NBA things.”