Before i start getting into Puerto Rican history and Boricua identity, which i plan to do in the coming days, i want to talk about my first true love – basketball.
Canadian-born Dr. James Naismith created the first set of rules for basketball on December 21, 1891 while working at a YMCA in Springfield, Massachusetts. Born out of a real social need, basketball was invented to provide athletes, and people in general, a form of indoor exercise and entertainment during the harsh New England winters. The game quickly spread and is now a worldwide phenomenon. It’s even improvised in homes using balled up socks and hampers, paper and trashcans.
In 1970, sportswriter Pete Axthelm published a book focusing on that year’s championship-winning New York Knicks, and NYC playground legends such as Earl ‘the Goat’ Manigault. In the introduction to his book, titled ‘The City Game’, he writes, “Basketball is more than a sport of diversion in the cities. It is a part, often a major part, of the fabric of life.”
It was my father who taught me basketball, himself having learned growing up in 1970s Brownsville, Brooklyn. As a youth in the projects, the game was definitely a major part of the fabric of my life, and i would say was key in my early development. We spent countless childhood days in the open sun putting up shots and playing games of ‘21’ or 3-on-3, developing relationships with each other and the social skills needed for adulthood.
Flames, a local basketball league, also played a key role for all of us in the neighborhood. Created in the early 70s, Flames was established to bring together the mostly Black and Puerto Rican residents of Marlboro Projects and Coney Island, with the mostly White/ Italian residents that also live in the neighborhood. A specifically anti-racist project, its founder, Gerard Papa, literally risked his life to make it happen. Sent death threats on numerous occasions, especially during those early years, Gerard placed greater importance on the need for the program, stood his ground, and still runs it today.
As i started to learn about my history as a Puerto Rican, and about the native element of this history (aka my “Taíno roots”), i began to see my love of basketball as part of a tradition we began by playing on ball courts. This is something i definitely plan to post more about in the future. For now, you can read more about it here. Being Puerto Rican and playing basketball is a beautiful thing, and today, the game is more popular on the island than baseball itself.
In the future i’ll share basketball stories from the local court in my hood. Until then, i thought i’d share these thoughts about my first true love. Basketball is more than a sport to me; it’s also a tool for personal and social growth/change.