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The history of Black churches and basketball

The early spread of the sport of basketball had a religious connection.

St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Harlem first organized basketball in 1905. Black churches helped spread basketball across the Black community of New York in an era of segregation, entwining the sport with its Christian origins.

Lessons of racial equality from early Black churches also gained mainstream attention with the prominence of Black NBA players from the 1960s. While religious influence is less evident today, lessons of social conscience remain an important topic to professional basketball.

Paul Putz of Christianity Today writes:

Many of us are familiar with basketball’s Christian origins. The sport, after all, was created at a Christian college (the YMCA’s International Training School) by an ordained Presbyterian minister (James Naismith) for the purpose of cultivating Christian values and spreading the gospel (“winning men to the master through the gym”).


Naismith and the YMCA, however, tell only part of the story. The sport would not have become what we know it to be today had it not been for Black Christian leaders and institutions.


This season, the NBA marks its 75th anniversary. By the time the league was formed, basketball had developed far beyond its Christians roots. And yet, when modern NBA players like Steph Curry splash a three-pointer, or when they champion the cause of racial justice, they bear witness to the past—to the lasting influence of a Christianity nurtured by churches like St. Martin’s that promoted excellence on the court and a social conscience off of it.


“Here in Harlem the bells are in the center of things, right in the market place of community life.” – John Howard Johnson


For Black residents in New York City, organized basketball started around 1905. The game had been invented 14 years earlier, but the YMCAs that spread the sport were segregated. While white branches had buildings and facilities to support basketball, few allowed Black athletes to participate. And only a handful of Black YMCA groups had their own building, much less the equipment and space for basketball.


Enter Black churches.

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