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Talk to the Basket Ball Men

As Berea College struggled through the Great Depression, President William J. Hutchins delivered this postseason talk to the men’s basketball team on Tuesday, April 18, 1934. The Mountaineers had recently completed the greatest season in their history to date, a 14-3 campaign under Coach Oscar Gunkler in which the team advanced to the finals of the SIAA tournament in Jackson, Mississippi. This typescript was discovered in the Berea College archives.

My thesis tonight is this: I like basket ball.

My reason, perhaps I am irrational. Give me a reason why a baby likes the light. He cannot explain.

Probably one might trace one’s liking for basket ball to one’s remotest ancestors who loved to throw cocoanuts from tree to tree to see whether they would lodge upon a certain head, or within the circle of a given nest.

In the days of the early inhabitants of Mexico men played a game not unlike that of basket ball within the neighborhood of the old pyramids.

But I like basket ball because we play the game in [the] gloomiest season of the year. As the days grow short and the winds blow cold, and the snow and sleet are on the ground, man bids defiance to the elements and in the brilliantly lighted gymnasium he laughs at wind and snow and sleet and darkness.

I like basket ball because it brings practically all the men and women of the student body and of the faculty together, not to solve a problem, not even to sing a hymn, but just to watch the game. The game may mean a following night of toil or fear, but for the moment unanswered letters, unpaid bills, [and] unfulfilled requirements are forgotten and we have a chance of cohesion as one united glorious throng we call Berea College.

I like basket ball because one does not have to freeze to death to see the game. You may have sat far up on top of the great stadium at the Yale-Harvard game at Soldiers Field. In the midst of the sleet or driving rain or bitter cold, wrapped in every blanket that you can beg, borrow, or steal, you watch a few muddy little fellows swaying back and forth in the field, boys who can scarcely be seen without a field glass. Every once in a while a man you take to be a physician rushes in and takes a player out. The pageantry of the great throng is of course wonderful. But I have sometimes sympathized with the college executive who definitely believes that in a comparatively short time the amazingly extravagant stadia of the United States will be as deserted and as ruined as the Coliseum at Rome.

I like basket ball because in a kind of vicarious fashion I, too, play the game. Our old friend Jay Nash has a delightful book entitled Spectatoritis. He says, “The average man who has time on his hand turns out to be a spectator, a watcher of somebody else, merely because that is the easiest thing.” He says that in two seasons Notre Dame alone has played to approximately a million people. He goes on to say that over $1,600,000 were taken in at the Georges Carpentier -- Jack Dempsey fight. A minor contest between Dempsey and Luis Firpo for a roll brought in $1,082,000.

But when I see one of our men swinging swiftly from one end of the floor to the other, passing to the sure hand of a comrade the ball which I know perfectly well I could not catch, hurling a ball with precision from well nigh the middle of the floor into a basket which seems to contract as the ball reaches it, I share the thrill of the experience and I am not altogether a spectator sitting on the side lines and criticizing. I become a participant. I try to be philosophical about basket ball, but the heart beats faster and the blood flows more bravely through the arteries and veins.

It seems rather absurd for us to yell to a team weary with the contest, “Fight, team, fight.” What we mean is this: “We are with you, we are playing the game, not as critics, not spectators, [but] participants, comrades all.”

Again, I like basket ball because of what may be called its universal availability. It is a game which can be played almost anywhere. Over in Burma one of our American missionaries had induced the boys for the first time in their lives to use pick and shovel and wheel barrow in order to level off a hillside and to make a basket ball court. In our mountain counties where there is scarcely flat space enough to lay a pocket handkerchief level, you will see that some grade school teacher has taught his boys to level off a basket ball court. Indeed one of the most prominent features of the landscape is the posts and the baskets of these outdoor courts of our schools and high schools.

Nor is basket ball financially impossible. An undershirt and a pair of shorts, a ball, not extravagant, no great foreign imported coach, no polo ponies in the stable, no great overhead. Wherever you can find a dozen boys or a dozen girls there you can play basket ball.

I like basket ball for Berea because it is a game in which Berea men have a fairly even break. I remember seeing a game in Cincinnati [in December 1925] when Henley Wright and his compeers fought with Cincinnati men, men who had apparently been chosen because they were each six feet four inches tall, and they didn’t have to throw the ball in the basket, they simply let it down into the basket.

Sometimes this year I have felt that you were fighting against Hittites, Jebusites, Amorites, and Amalekites, and I could not but think that you must have regarded yourselves as grasshoppers in your own eyes. But then as I considered these matters, I thought of another scriptural illustration, namely, that of David and Goliath. And there you were, little Davids with just a sling and, as it were, five smooth stones from the brook, and Goliath was at your feet.

I suspect that if you had won every game we should have become conceited and intolerable to our friends. On the other hand, if you had lost every game this year our spirits would have drooped and we should have seemed to ourselves and to others inferior.

In every defeat you have been victors; in every victory you have been fraternal.

And we are proud of you and your coach.

You have given new and richer meaning to the name we bear, Berea.

I like basket ball because of what one called disciplined freedom. Everywhere freedom, apparent freedom. One runs down the floor, how free, he throws the ball to his comrade, how free. But the ball gets out of bounds, immediately the whistle. That whistle is to me one of the most irritating sounds among all the jarring noises of life, but if a boy uses profanity he seems to keep it from passing between his teeth, if he is mad it seems simply to make his hair redder, not his face, everywhere freedom, everywhere discipline, everywhere cooperation, and the game is won.