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Under The Hardwood, The Sand: The Case for Basketball on the Beach

Basketball as it is played today bears little resemblance to the game James Naismith invented. But to get back to basketball's roots, we must go to the beach.
March 18, 2016, 2:47pm
Photo by Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

PART ONE: NAISMITH

When basketball was invented by Dr. James Naismith in 1891, dribbling was not a part of the game. The person holding the ball had to remain stationary while his teammates, either by outrunning their defenders or utilizing screens, tried to free themselves up for an open shot. Dribbling came to the game nearly as an accident: someone, at some point, figured out that the ball holder could perform a kind of temporary controlled dispossession and so move with the ball without technically violating traveling rules.

Naismith himself liked the maneuver, but others in his Muscularly Christian cohort found the move ostentatious and thought it encouraged rough, individualist play. They also disliked bounce passes and the idea of professional players; their thoughts on, like, women in the workplace are lost to the ages but you can probably guess. In fairness, 19th Century America was insanely chaotic, and everyone in and around the YMCA was totally convinced that fair, sporting play was the only reasonable path to a more stable future for the nation. Moral impropriety coded in the game's very rules really FELT like a big deal.

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Rules around dribbling were legislated back and forth for the next two decades, first banning dribbling for women, then altogether for everyone, then banning it contextually. Finally the entire sport surrendered to the inevitability of continuous dribbling in 1909, charting the course for the game we all know today. (There was a two-week relapse in 1927, in a desperate attempt at speeding up the game. The pace problem would eventually be solved by the advent of the shot clock, in 1954.)

It was for the best:

But even if you don't believe that dribbling encourages promiscuity, succumbing to strong drink, and vile language, isn't there something fascinating about basketball's original manifestation? The person who has the ball, fused to the ground, practically useless, while his or her teammates work in tandem to open up a sliver of space? While we're at it, let's get that shot clock out of here. We're TAKING OUR TIME to really BUILD an OPEN SPACE where two points can get built, carefully. Double screens to assist cutters, weird daisy-chained give-and-gos to advance to the hoop, much high-post scheming by big men.

Doesn't it sound like a really fun game? Why, when the dribbling revolution came, did the game leave its past behind? And why is basketball's original manifestation left rotting in the past?

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Actually, the answer to that last one is not complicated. If you tried to get your friends together to play basketball according to Naismith's original rules, they would probably not go along with you, unless they were very specific types of exercise nerd. The attempt would just feel unnatural at this point—to have a basketball in your hand, on a basketball court, and then to play Naismith-style basketball just wouldn't be right. Any attempt at Naithsmith revivalism would be doomed.

Or would it?

PART TWO: THE BEACH

Basketball is really a very narrow sport. Baseball has innumerable variants and applied contexts: softball, kickball, wiffle ball. Soccer is played in sand, in-doors, and on grass. Hockey happens on ice, in fields, on solid surfaces. Tennis' core rules allow for literally ANY solid surface, even if they only use three at the professional level.

Basketball, on the other hand, is pretty much always played on hardwood or blacktop. The leagues have rule variants, of course: different shot clocks, variance in bonus structure for foul shots, different goaltending rules, differently shaped lanes. The NBA banned zone defense for nearly six decades. The Minnesota State High School League still doesn't use a shot clock. North Korea's version of the game deducts a point for every missed free throw. Sometimes, someone affixes a hoop to the edge of a swimming pool or hangs a little flimsy nerf goal on a door. Fundamentally, though, basketball is pretty much the same everywhere. The most outrageous variant FIBA, basketball's international federation, has managed to cook up and promote is a three by three, half-court take.

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This, we can agree, is weak fucking tea. If our context for "basketball" is ever going to expand in different logical directions and address its abandoned past and that past's strategic and good-times-related possibilities, the sports is going to have to leave hard surfaces behind. It's going to need to make a home in the sand. Basketball must go to the beach. I'm not the first to say this. There is also the creator of this wildly outdated website, which set an actual record for defunct-ness. But I am the first person to make this argument without the use of clipart.

A beach, seen here. — Photo by Daniel Schwen via Wikimedia Commons

There are, of course, a nearly infinite number of terrific things about exercising on the beach. The ocean is beautiful. The sand provides a proper cushion for the fragile human foot. The subtle action of the sand makes running a little more involved, adds a light film of chaos to the proceedings. Falling down on sand is not only comfortable, it's even a little fun! Beach variants of sports are beloved around the world: volleyball, soccer, and surfing, which is a well-loved, board-aided variant of swimming.

But I want to focus on the new dimensions of basketball that will be absolutely blown the fuck open by sticking its player in the sand. Because, friends: you can't dribble in the sand. Watch:

The ball doesn't bounce! If you have a basketball in your hands and sand beneath your feet and are still abiding by the rules of traveling; the holder of the ball being inherently limited in their movements is, I believe, THE fundamental concept of basketball. Transposing the game to the beach guarantees this—if you have a ball in your hands on the beach, you're going to have to pass or shoot! If you have a terrible shot, and some person is waving his or her hands in your face, you're probably going to want to pass. And if you're going to pass, your teammates need to get open. If they want to do that, they'll have get away from their defenders, either by making use of screens or by running really fast. Next thing you know you're playing Naismith's basketball, RESURRECTED FOR THE 21st CENTURY!

Getting a hoop on a beach would be easy if you had four able-bodied people. Just make sure you ballast the base; sand works, so does water, and there should be plenty of it around. Institutional play, if it ever comes to that, is going to need a stable court that won't fly away in the wind. I personally think PVC pipe covered in coloured cloth would do the job there. But if it's just you and some friends, you can draw the lines with your feet. Or, if you want, you can choose not even to HAVE boundaries!

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If you live in the midwest or something, just cover some area in like a foot or so of sand. If you do this, make sure you watch it with the physical play: there is concrete underneath that sand, and you're out there to have fun first and foremost. Do not play the sand variant of basketball in snow without a helmet. As a matter of fact, just don't do it at all. That's extremely unsafe.

As sand basketball is a fresh start, it should also go back to basketball's pre-modern dimensions. Three point line? GONE. It's kind of useless without structured dribble penetration, anyway, if the NBA from 1979-2003 is any measure. Shot clock? WHO NEEDS IT. Possession in this world is more rigid and more considered, more like soccer, with everyone slipping and plotting around the court, trying to create tiny pockets of space. And if you wanted to get really fanatical about it we could outlaw dunks. Even as the words leave my fingers, though, I realize this is zealotry. The alley-oop ought to be the apotheosis of a beach basketball play well-executed. Should you lower the baskets to dunking on sand easier? Maybe!

I want to make it perfectly clear: I am not an anti-dribbling zealot, or a reclusive weirdo who thinks modern basketball is broken or deficient. I love basketball, and enjoy socializing with friends and family! The NBA and the college games should remain pretty much as they are. But it drives me nuts how narrow the application of its rules is. There was a point, way back in the game's inception, during which it could have evolved in one of two ways—one the way of the dribble, the other a more stationary, off-ball action game. The practice of both at the same time could have created a pair of sports that influenced and informed each other, made the whole institution wider-reaching and more textured.

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It didn't happen, of course. BUT IT STILL COULD, if we, as a country, a community, and a WORLD just embraced the common sense solution of playing and promoting a sand-based variant. But there is a problem.

PART THREE: THE OBSTACLE

As you read this, you slap your head. "My God," you say, "He's right! How have I never thought about this before? Why have I been blind to the possibilities of a beach variant of basketball!? Why is FIBA promoting a feeble 3-on-3 product that isn't firing ANYONE'S imagination, while this BILLION DOLLAR IDEA just perches itself on the mind of one brave sportswriter?*"

And so it is my responsibility to set you straight: you have been blinded by multinational corporations.

Who bankrolls FIBA, the NCAA, AAU, the NBA, and all organized basketball on planet Earth? That's right: shoe companies. WAKE UP.

It seems safe to say that if it weren't for these CEOs—sitting in their skyscrapers, wearing gold tracksuits, smoking cigars the size of sweet potatoes—there would already have been an International Beach Basketball Tournament every four years. But of course these CEOs would have no interest in that. "A basketball without shoes?" They would shout. "I can't make money off this! GET OUT OF MY OFFICE!"

And so the machinations become clear: sand basketball is a threat to the bottom lines of several publicly traded companies. They will do anything in their power to destroy it. They are probably doing it already.

No, if a sand-based basketball variant is EVER going to get traction, it's going to have to come from the bottom up, and it must start with us. You and your friends are going to have to heed my good advice. Haul your hoop to the beach. Pass the rock. Do not attempt to dribble the rock, which to reiterate is prohibitively difficult. Play the game. Honor James Naismith. Under the hardwood, the beach.

Curtis Harris's thesis "From the Triangle to the Cage: Basketball's Contested Origins, 1891 – 1910" and these timelines were instrumental in writing about the origins of dribbling in basketball. Any errors or exaggerations my own.