Being active in both the playing of basketball and the study of Puerto Rican history and culture, I have had the pleasure of realizing connections between the two subjects that I may not have realized otherwise. Admittedly, the connection that will be expressed here is not particularly world changing at face value. If we look beneath its surface, however, we can appreciate how it points to the potential in basketball, and other ball games played on courts, to serve an educative role in the interest of building peace and unity.
The connection I have realized is that the Puerto Rican basketball player today continues the tradition of playing ball games on a court that was once a big part of life in Puerto Rico and the Greater Antilles before Christopher Columbus’ fleet arrived there in 1492.
While ball games played on a court are known to have existed as far back as 1,500 B.C., around modern day southern México, the oldest ball courts dated in Puerto Rico suggest that they existed anywhere between 700 A.D and 900 A.D. Located in the Tibes barrio of Ponce, the set of at least eleven courts are the oldest known ball courts in the Caribbean. According to archaeological evidence, as Tibes declined, the site at Caguana was developed, becoming fully so by about 1,300 A.D with some thirty ball courts.
Each court was called a Batey, as was the ball game played on it. Each Batey was built with varying shapes, sizes, and uses. Other activities included ceremonies (including the community ceremony known as Areyto that included dance, song, and sometimes oral performances), trade, intermarriage, and other community exchanges. Clearly, the Batey was not simply a ball court but something much more. While they served in many cases as the center of the village, providing a source of community interaction, they also appear to have been built within border areas between communities, suggesting the use of the Batey as a site for inter-communal interaction. Prime evidence for this use of the Batey is the presence of courts on Mona Island, which lies between Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic.
As I learned this history, and made the connection between it and my own playing of basketball on the park courts of New York City, I felt a kind of special connection to my Puerto Rican roots. It was as if every time I stepped on the basketball court with my friends I was continuing a tradition held by the native element of my Puerto Rican self. Of course, knowing the significance of ball courts in the native culture of Puerto Rico, I could not help but also see the potential of basketball in the parks to be a tool for building peace and unity. Just as a Batey would serve as a place for members of a community to engage in activities with each other, so can and does a basketball court. Basketball is also known as “the city game” precisely because of its commonplace in neighborhoods throughout New York City. And just as a Batey would serve as a place for people from different communities to interact with each other, so can and does a basketball court. Even more so today with the use of social media, players can travel to other parks to play games with friends in distant communities, essentially establishing links between communities.
For those of us who enjoy basketball and, like me, have an actively growing understanding of Puerto Rican history, particularly our ongoing struggle against colonialism, it could be worthwhile to recognize the potential of basketball in the parks as a tool for education and even organizing. The game, genuinely loved by many, is a healthy form of activity that can be used to promote physical health. At the same time, the social aspects of basketball as a common activity in city parks and playgrounds provide the opportunity for discussions to be introduced on a number of topics, from the history of basketball, to the use of leagues and tournaments as a response to a lack of healthy alternatives in poor and working-class communities of color. And, by extension, topics simply dealing with our shared human concerns. Basketball is also a sport that requires the development of characteristics like discipline, commitment, innovation, teamwork, leadership, creativity, and more. There is little reason why we cannot therefore use basketball at a grassroots level to empower our people to become better persons. We can use basketball to serve our human needs: to build unity within and between communities, establishing engagement and dialogue between people. In this way we can provide a foundation for solidarity and collective struggle.
Cave Of The Jagua: the Mythological World Of The Tainos, by Antonio M. Stevens-Arroyo
The Indigenous People Of The Caribbean, edited by Samuel M. Wilson
The Archaeology Of The Caribbean, by Samuel M. Wilson
The Tainos: Rise And Decline Of The People Who Greeted Columbus, by Irving Rouse