The Continent of Cagers

While you were on vacation, the basketball world was hard at work.

Across the globe, national teams played in or prepared for regional FIBA tournaments, as they vie for a trip to next summer’s Rio Olympic Games. Host Brazil is automatically qualified, and the United States earned its berth with a gold medal last summer at the FIBA Basketball World Cup in Spain. Nigeria and Australia secured their places last month by winning their regional competitions, and Asia’s tournament will commence in late September. For now, however, all eyes are on Croatia, France, Germany, and Latvia, where the European championship – EuroBasket – is underway in September.

Born in Springfield, Massachusetts, in 1891, basketball is one of the few American team sports that is played around the globe and has a particularly strong following in Europe. Despite the rich body of scholarship devoted to other world sports, such as football and the Olympics, basketball at the transnational level is typically given short shift. Until now. The new collection of essays, Le Continent basket: L’Europe et le basket-ball au XXe siècle (The Basketball Continent: Europe and Basketball in the Twentieth Century), under the direction of Fabien Archambault, Loïc Artiaga, and Gérard Bosc, provides timely background to the EuroBasket tournmanent, offering a country-by-country account of the development of the sport, as set against Europe’s social, cultural, and political history.

The evolution of the European game is testament to the turbulent twentieth century, perhaps even more so than football. As the various authors in The Basketball Continent attest, Europe’s hoops division was indeed geographic, but not along the East-West axis of the Cold War that traditionally dominates Western (especially, American) concepts of sport. Instead, the portrait of Europe that emerges in this compilation is one split by influences, not ideology, by nation-specific and transnational considerations rather than a clash between capitalism and communism.

Europe was divided, hoops-wise, well before 1945. As Sabine Chavinier-Réla explains in her essay on interwar French basketball, the divide was between old versus new. The first countries to start shooting hoops – France, Belgium, Spain, and Portugal – did so shortly after the sport’s invention. In contrast, in places like the Netherlands, Italy, Greece, the Baltics, Balkans, and Central Europe, basketball was not introduced until the First World War. These latecomers received their first taste of basketball from Americans – US doughboys, the YMCA, or the American Red Cross – or emigres who returned in the aftermath of the war. For Chavinier-Réla, basketball’s bipolarization was revealed through its interwar development. From 1919 until 1939, the two Europes of basketball developed different systems, styles, and strictures. While the rules of the French game were at first imposed across Europe, they were “Americanized” during the 1930s, as the game was taken up by more countries that played per US regulations. Thus, the need to codify the game across national borders gained greater urgency.

By the 1930s, most European countries sported basketball leagues, clubs, and national teams, which prompted the formation of an international organization. Loïc Artiaga picks up the thread of interwar organization in his essay on the early development of the International Basketball Federation. The 1932 creation of FIBA (Fédération International de Basketball) placed the sport firmly within the globalizing athletic infrastructure. Artiaga rightly views this as an important step to secure basketball’s legitimacy. It also conferred respect, as basketball gained independence from federations under which it had been first placed, usually athletics or handball. Inclusion in the Olympic Games, starting with Berlin in 1936, further cemented the orange ball’s future. Artiaga highlights that FIBA had roughly 40 members by the Second World War, only a few less than FIFA – a strong statement about basketball’s rapid growth.

Another indication of growth was the advent of basketball exchanges. Julien Gueslin’s examination of 1930s and 1950s Franco-Baltic games, with the great title “When the Small Become Masters,” articulates how basketball became a sign of national vitality and strength. This was a sport in which smaller countries could make a name for themselves. For Latvia and Lithuania, he argues, victories on the court cultivated recognition at the international level. Baltic basketballers were thus very much the sports diplomats.

With the success of the Baltic nations, the bipolar division of European basketball came to the forefront. The independent Baltic states of the late 1930s, devotees to American-style rules and way of play, were hoops-swooshing successes. Results from the earliest European tournaments testify to their abilities: Latvia won the first European Championship in May 1935, Lithuania won in 1937 and 1939, and Latvia garnered second place in the last pre-war tournament. The ties and networks created between French and Baltic basketball clubs were vital escape routes after 1945, as many Balts were recruited to coach or train French clubs. Those who remained powered the USSR teams of the postwar period.

Development of the women’s game occurred simultaneously across most of Europe. In fact, basketball was perceived primarily as a girls’ sport in many countries. As Davia Majauskieine, Vilma Cingiene, and Mindaugas Bobikas note in their essay on women’s basketball in interwar Lithuania, the game was seen as an aesthetically pleasing endeavor, well suited for women as it exercised all parts of the body – but not too vigorously. The authors examine the story of basketball pioneer Elena Kubiliunaite-Garbaciauskiene, the first woman to introduce hoops in Lithuania as well as facilitate its spread through her translations of the YMCA’s rule book. Through her story, they demonstrate the power of an individual to sow the seeds leading to a sport’s growth.

It is unfortunate that there are not more chapters in The Basketball Continent devoted to the women’s game, since the Lithuanian example speaks to the near-parity that existed in men’s and women’s basketball in the first half of the century. An indication of this was the launch of the women’s European Championship in 1938. In contrast, the first European tournament in women’s football was held only in 1984 (the men’s European Championship began in 1960). The fact that the Soviet Union insisted in the early 1950s that the International Olympic Committee create a women’s Olympic basketball tournament is another poignant illustration of the place of the women’s game. As the editors point out, basketball became such a Cold War clash because both men and women played.

The battle was waged at all levels. The men’s European tournament resumed in 1946 in an effort to draw the continent together again after years of war and destruction. The Soviet Union competed in the European Championship – and won – in 1947. Aside from the 1949 tourney, the USSR medaled at each iteration of the competition until 1991, an exceptional feat given the sport’s slow incursion in Russian and early Soviet life.

Basketball first made its way to Tsarist Russia in 1908 thanks to an American YMCA gymnastics coach. Robert Edelman tells us in his essay on Russian and Soviet basketball that the sport remained a cloistered endeavor in the pre-revolutionary empire, as in so many other European countries, played by the bourgeoisie who could afford the gymnasium fees. It remained a marginalized sport in early Soviet society, a victim of football, a sport prized by the working class. Conversely, women’s basketball was quite popular in several of the republics. For Edelman, one of the virtues of Soviet basketball was that the game was played by both sexes, by nearly every nationality, and in unique styles.

Basketball helped forge unity in other polyglot states, as Loic Trégourès shows in a fascinating study of Yugoslavia. As elsewhere, basketball was not popular in Yugoslavia until the Second World War. Thanks to its popularity amongst Tito’s partisans, basketball emerged after the war as a unifier of the country’s peoples. According to Trégourès, the Yugoslav game’s emphasis on team spirit, a multi-ethnic player base, and creativity based on American-style play and rules, helped produce strong teams in the 1960s and beyond.

The regime’s commitment to youth development also contributed to the strength of Yugoslav basketball. The model in that country was to build basketballers from the ground up, nourished by a growing hoops culture and bolstered by titles and trophies won by the national side and leading clubs. The Soviet Union, in contrast, jump-started its basketball program before building a system. As Sylvain Dufraisse explains, the Soviet men’s silver medal at the 1952 Helsinki Games was the result of several factors, the most immediate of which was the absorption of Baltic players into the national team. Olympic success served notice of Soviet determination to build competitive teams after the government’s 1948 decision to strive towards athletic dominance. Integration of Soviet teams into European tournaments and exchanges enabled the game to improve in the USSR through observation of different styles of play, tactics, and techniques of East and West European opponents. Basketball was thus a multifaceted tool that encouraged a pan-European spirit in a variety of ways. Of course, it was also part of the Cold War contest between the Soviet Union and US. In the aptly titled essay “Three Seconds of the Cold War,” Fabien Arhambault looks at the Soviets’ controversial victory over the US in the final at the 1972 Munich Games. The contested outcome was heavily mediatized in both countries, Archambault argues, adding to the cultural antagonism between the two superpowers and casting a long-reaching shadow over other Cold War sports skirmishes – testament that basketball was at times more than just a game.

France also struggled with the American presence in Europe during the Cold War, and this tension was reflected in basketball. According to Gérard Bosc, already in the interwar years the French style of play (ripopo) faced increased isolation, as the American-style game advanced elsewhere on the Continent. The French medalled four times at the EuroBasket tournamaents in the 1950s and won the silver at the 1948 London Olympics, but the national team failed to qualify for the Olympics from 1964 until 1984. As they struggled to improve, the French incorporated more American elements. They resisted, then acquiesced – to a certain degree – to “mercenary American players” who entered French leagues in the late 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. Elsewhere, Bosc has termed this incursion the “American colonization of French basketball.” Although contentious at the time, it is widely acknowledged today that American players helped revive the French game and elevated its competitiveness.

The Cold War demonstrated the divisions in how hoops cultures were developed. The post-war climate also produced national basketball myths, many of which are still in evidence today, particularly in Europe’s Mediterranean basin. The volume’s last essays show the power of some of these sports legends – whether surrounding an individual, team, or league – and their lasting influence. For example, Juan Antonio Simón’s essay about Raimundo Saporta shows how the French-Spanish banker who moonlighted as a basketball administrator left his mark on Spanish hoops. In the immediate post-1945 period, Spain was isolated diplomatically due to the country’s questionable neutrality during the war. This isolation extended to Spanish basketball. Beginning in the 1950s, Saporta changed this, as he brought his nation’s players into the European fold. He helped create the European Cup, and paved the way for Spanish clubs to play Soviet sides in the competition, a near miracle in an era before Madrid and Moscow established diplomatic relations.

In Greece, the sport was long associated with the intelligentsia and bourgeoisie, Thessaloniki’s Jewish community, and the longstanding fascination with the American way of life. In the 1970s, the game received a jolt from the regime’s commitment to youth development. The investment paid dividends in the 1980s when Greek clubs started to dominate internationally. The national team’s first-ever appearance at the 1986 World Championship (now the Basketball World Cup) stoked interest, but its EuroBasket gold medal win the following year took Greek interest in the game to a totally new level. Lampros Flitouris points out that after the victory, the first of its kind for basketball, courts were filled with kids who wanted to emulate their new basketball heroes, thus feeding the myth of Greek hoops prowess.

With EuroBasket 2015 underway in four countries – a first for the tournament – the basketballing histories of Europe East and West, North and South, are unfolding together on the court. In recent years, two of Europe’s original basketball nations have won the tournament – France in 2013, and Spain in 2009 and 2011. Serbia, Croatia, and Slovenia have followed on the success that Yugoslavia once had in the 1970s and 80s (Serbia won silver both at EuroBasket 2009 and last year’s World Cup, while Slovenia and Croatia took fourth place in Europe in 2009 and 2013). And Lithuania continues the great tradition of Baltic hoops, finishing second to France in the last tournament, a decade after winning the title in 2003. This new collection of essays shows the long history of the game in all corners of Europe, just as it reinforces, in a broader sense, how the social, cultural, and political changes of the 20th century significantly shaped and sculpted today’s sporting world.

On a side note, one essay of particular interest to scholars and students of European sports history is Daniel Champsaur’s on the digitization of Basket-Ball magazine, which bridges the transom between past and future. Through a public-private partnership among the French Basketball Federation, the Musée du Basket, and the National Library of France, begun in 2009, the entire archival catalogue of Basket-Ball, the federation’s official publication, was made available online through the portal. Champsaur describes this tremendous accomplishment, important on many levels for enabling researchers access to the changing perspectives and attitudes of the federation – and the sport’s place within France – from 1933 through 1993. If other sports federations could engage in something similar to the FFBB/BNF’s golden standard of resource digitization, the field of sports history would be exponentially enriched.