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Basketball has changed the world, and it can do even more

The game is a place of progressive ideas, leadership, diversity and hope

Thirteen years ago in Davos, Switzerland, David Stern, the visionary NBA commissioner, participated in a panel discussion, “Can a Ball Change the World?” That’s asking too much of a ball. But a ball has certainly helped over the generations, and there is every reason to believe that in these times of global despair it can do even more.

For centuries, civilizations have held the ideals of politicians, economists, monarchs, nation-states and theologians as the epitome of nobility and importance. Yet, when differences arise, often propelled by strong personalities and financial unrest, anger, fear and wars erupt. Without another Tolstoy, or Gandhi, or Mandela, or Martin Luther King Jr., whose lives were shaped by the Sermon on the Mount, it is time to look elsewhere. Why not question the old pecking orders, in which expressions of art, beauty and sport are relegated to afterthoughts except as forms of release and entertainment? Why not look to the “ball” — the basketball — a global common denominator that has established itself as a culture of progressive ideas, leadership and diversity?

To excel, one must understand how to lead and practice those tenets: the nobility to compromise and listen, to work day and night to improve, to be aware of strengths and weaknesses, to be decisive and emphatic.

Basketball, a game invented by a Canadian teaching in America, was first embraced by turn-of-the-century immigrants who settled in Northeastern port cities, then adopted as part of the national experience: by Southern blacks migrating North, company towns, church leagues, YMCAs, settlement homes, barnstorming clubs of men and women. It was and remains revered for its simplicity, escape and balletic free-form nature, as well as by its lessons of teamwork, discipline and sacrifice. It brought pride to the struggling individual, the group seeking to assimilate — and the community.

Its nakedness, unhidden by helmets, face masks, shoulder pads or caps, made it easier to identify with. Over the years, those virtues and lessons have spread throughout Europe, Africa, Latin America and Asia. David Falk, the agent behind the Michael Jordan image, said, “There are more people playing basketball every day in China, 300 million, than reside in the United States.”

Of course, other “round” balls have made their mark in terms of realpolitik. President Richard Nixon’s pingpong diplomacy opened a new era of Chinese-American communication. Branch Rickey’s decision to embrace the black athlete Jackie Robinson broke through baseball’s wall of segregation. The strength of mind of tennis player Billie Jean King challenged a dehumanizing gender caste system. These moments have all served to go beyond mere symbolism.

Basketball, though, has always been at the forefront of change and action on a global scale. In the late 1950s, coach John McLendon started free clinics in Africa. In the ’60s, Red Auerbach did the same in Europe. U.S. college teams toured Soviet bloc countries in the ’70s. The integration of college teams began in the late 1930s. The establishment of a strong NBA players’ association was formulated 55 years ago. A push to enact the benefits of Title IX, an act of legislation that had nothing to do with women’s sports, took hold in the early ’70s. AIDS education in the early ’90s finally opened doors to gay players and executives. A grassroots AAU anti-gun violence campaign, which I helped to start three years ago, continues to gain traction, as youth teams across the country wear the orange patch in support.

Recently, Kim Jong-un, the North Korean dictator, invited a team of former NBA stars to his nation’s capital. Iranians have played in the league, as have Serbs, Croats, Muslims and Israelis. Support for the game’s growth has been a focus of multinational corporations. There was even that time when the Grateful Dead paid for the uniforms of the 1992 Lithuanian men’s Olympic team, whose new government lacked the finances.

The game has always reflected the sacred teacher-student relationship, based upon dialogue, change and reason. In spite of its imperfections, it has been a proving ground for leadership. Take a look at the influence of Stern, Pat Riley, Mike Krzyzewski, Adam Silver, Michele Roberts and John Thompson. It is no accident that creative tech giants gravitated to the owners’ circle — Steve Ballmer, Paul Allen, Vivek Ranadivé — and esteemed women, whose careers were blocked and minimized, built winners in the face of huge pressure: Pat Summitt, Cathy Rush and C. Vivian Stringer. Most recently, former players have started schools around the world whose central goals have nothing to do with winning or losing games: Dikembe Mutombo, David Robinson, Wes Unseld, George Gervin, Kevin Durant and, now, LeBron James.

To excel, one must understand how to lead and practice those tenets: the nobility to compromise and listen, to work day and night to improve, to be aware of strengths and weaknesses, to be decisive and emphatic. The ball insists you grow; if not, there is always a replacement. Success has been built through clarity and sacrifice from all team members. There is a certain ruthlessness required, which is why the ball takes unfavorable bounces. Belief in the art, the calm and beauty of the passion, is necessary. These men and women have been trained and exposed to principles higher than elected or appointed officials from the moment they joined their first team at 6, 7, 10 years old.

Ben Jobe, who coached at six historically black colleges in a distinguished career, who taught the game in West Africa, who sat in at the lunch counters of Nashville, Tennessee, and worked as a full-time scout for the New York Knicks until he died two years ago at 84, would say: “The game taught me it was OK to hug and hold other men — and tell them, white or black, ‘I love you.’ ”

Dan Klores is a Peabody Award-winning filmmaker. His latest work, “Basketball: A Love Story,” is currently running on ESPN.