Elevating the Game

In ELEVATING THE GAME, Nelson George traces the history of American basketball and stresses the contributions African Americans have made to the style and vocabulary of the sport. George, who has written several books on popular music, draws many analogies between the style of African-American music, especially the blues, and basketball. George contrasts the half-court “classroom” style of white basketball with the improvisational, one-on-one African-American style that he claims is linked with rapping, sermonizing, and other manifestations of an African-American aesthetic. “Elevation,” for George, is not only physical—with emphasis on slam dunks—but also aesthetic and individual. “Elevation” reflects a positive self-image attained by embarrassing others, by behavior white fans have associated with “showboating” and bad sportsmanship. George effectively traces this assertive, individualistic, and threatening behavior from the blues image of “defiant African-Americans” who are “bad men bedeviling plantation owners and seeking legendary status for themselves” through boxer Jack Johnson, Marcus Garvey, Richard Wright’s NATIVE SON, and the Islamic movement.

Despite basketball’s white origins in the YMCA “muscular Christianity” movement, African-American basketball has a long, rich history tied to the developing black colleges and universities and to professional basketball. George provides fans with information about the early African-American basketball teams that predated the Harlem Globetrotters, whom he analyzes in terms of “style” and Jewish/African-American relations, and recounts the classic NCAA confrontation between Texas Western University and Kentucky. There are chapters on African-American referees, on the dynasties of Red Auerbach and John Wooden, and on the “stylistic” implications of the ABA/NBA merger.

Players whose “styles” receive extensive coverage include Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor, Oscar Robertson, Connie Hawkins, and Michael Jordan, while Earl Manigault becomes the symbol of the impact of drugs on African-American athletes. George has written a lively, entertaining Afrocentric history of basketball that entertains and instructs fans.