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At N.Y.U., Explaining an Unraveling World Through Basketball

Shortly after New York University honored David Hollander, an assistant dean, with the college’s highest faculty honor in March 2019, he turned his attention on fine-tuning the syllabus for a new class that he had wanted to teach for 15 years.

Hollander, 55, viewed the world as broken. Having identified deep fissures within politics, culture and commerce, he explained to his bosses that his ideal course would explore all these elements — through the prism of a game.

“I want to elevate the study of basketball to the same plane as a science or history course,” he said.

Hollander named the course “How Basketball Can Save the World,” and posited that the sport, through its easy accessibility and global reach, offered distinct antidotes for modern issues. In all, he compiled 13 principles — a tribute to James Naismith’s 13 original basketball rules — for his proposed philosophy. Hollander’s tenets included, for example, applying basketball’s values of cooperation and balance to real-world issues like the evolving global economy and systemic racism.

Hollander, a quirky academic who wears black Chuck Taylors in the classroom, believed he had captured the zeitgeist of 2020, but he did not envision himself lecturing about his thoughts over Zoom amid a pandemic. When the N.B.A. suspended its season on March 11, Hollander watched as society followed the league’s lead after it shuttered to protect players, coaches and fans.

College learning went remote, and New York City removed rims from the basketball courts at public playgrounds to enforce social distancing. As scores of N.Y.U. students largely uprooted from Greenwich Village for their hometowns, whether in New Jersey or China, Hollander doubled down on his belief that basketball could be instrumental in reshaping the way the world worked.

“Here we are in this moment, and, my God, the world needs saving,” he said. “Every piece of life is being disrupted, reconfigured. Nobody knows what this will look like on the other side.”

When he looked at the future of work, he saw the value basketball places on players being “positionless” and its relevance in a gig economy. When he thought of urban planning, he saw the need for better spacing, highlighting basketball’s ability to thrive in city, suburban and rural settings. Above all, he saw basketball as a solution to isolation because of its low barrier to entry.

“Whatever remedy you have to save the world, it must be accessible or it cannot work,” Hollander said. “It cannot be elitist. James Naismith did not want basketball to be a country club sport or a hyper-commercialized sport. He didn’t even want coaches. He wanted it to be a sanctuary for the outsider.”

In 2020, Hollander saw parallels to the chaotic era when Naismith invented basketball in 1891 amid the Gilded Age. He did not foresee the pandemic, which forced him to adjust quickly.

He had his class watch the director Dan Klores’s short film on Magic Johnson and his impact on the public’s understanding of the AIDS epidemic in the 1990s from “Basketball: A Love Story.” He spoke about race and culture, agency and ownership, showing the students “High Flying Bird,” a movie about an agent negotiating his way through a professional basketball lockout. He cued up songs like Kurtis Blow’s “Basketball” to demonstrate the sport’s cultural impact.

The guest list included Big East Commissioner Val Ackerman and the N.B.A. deputy commissioner Mark Tatum. The former Nike marketing executive Mark Thomashow helped guide an exploration of culture and commerce, as well as the grift and graft of the sport’s grass-roots scene. Walt Frazier, a member of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame and a Knicks broadcaster, appeared via Zoom, welcoming the opportunity to engage with others while Manhattan was locked down.

“I haven’t gone out in five weeks!” Frazier said when he appeared. “I had to spiff myself up for class.”

One guest was fresh off serving 90 days in federal prison: Emanuel Richardson, the former University of Arizona assistant coach who pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit bribery during a prospect’s recruitment. After a discussion about the merits of amateurism and the role of Black assistant coaches in college recruiting, one student asked him about his relationship with basketball after incarceration.

“Did I fall out of love with it? Yes,” Richardson said. “I hated basketball, but it wasn’t basketball. It was people. Because basketball is still pure. Basketball is still one of the sweetest joys.”

“Basketball in its highest form is a balance of self-interest and self-expression in service of the collective,” Hollander said. “It does not surprise me that it has been a leader in so many areas of social impact and social change.”

But while the N.B.A. returned to play in a bubble, the professional form of the game was far from utopia. Though the N.B.A. had shown some progressiveness when the Nets signed Jason Collins, the first openly gay athlete in major American sports, and Commissioner Adam Silver dismissed the Clippers owner Donald Sterling for racist remarks, the delicacy of its business partnership with China came into view last October.

After Daryl Morey, the general manager of the Houston Rockets, posted support for pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong on Twitter, Chinese sponsors cut ties with the league, and China Central Television, the state-run television broadcaster, refused to air games. A few months later, ESPN reported that coaches at NBA China academies complained of player abuse.

Hollander maintained that all levels of the game should abide by the principles of equality and equity in order to maintain Naismith’s ideals.

The conversations are continuing, though still not exactly how Hollander originally planned. Many N.Y.U. students were back in the city by late August. Others stayed home, like Alessandro Gherardi, a student in Hollander’s class, who was in Bologna, Italy, when he signed in via Zoom for a scheduled talk.

It was an hourlong discussion with Nets wing Kevin Durant. After questions about his recovery from his Achilles’ tendon injury (he’s doing fine, he said), Gherardi asked Durant about how he used basketball to better understand the world and what “epiphanies, opportunities” he experienced because of the sport since growing up in Prince George’s County, Maryland.

Durant considered the way basketball had shaped his life experience as he traveled from game to game as a youth.

“I started to crave more and more of those experiences and I realized they were tied to the game,” he said. “I understood it was a way for me to learn more, see more and have more friends. Once I played the game for that small reason, the world started to open up for me. I’m just craving more and more experiences, more and more perspectives.”

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