In Depth: Basketball As Religion

Mar 31, 2012

LEXINGTON, Ky. - It’s often said that basketball is a religion in Kentucky. What might that mean for the historic matchup this Saturday between the Cats and Cards tonight? 

Well, it may not be the Apocalpyse, but Centre professor David Hall, whose course “Basketball as Religion” garnered national attention in 2004, says something big is certainly brewing in Big Blue Nation.

"A battle of religions obviously," he jokes.

Hall says it’s no surprise basketball and religion often come up in the same sentence and one need not look too hard for examples. Howard Fineman, senior politics editor for the Huffington Post, has called this Saturday’s game “Armageddon, catered by KFC” and likened it to a battle between Jesus and Moses. One Louisville official put it in even more blunt terms, saying it's "good versus evil.” Hall says all the religious language is no coincidence. When he looks out at the crowd at a sporting event, he can’t help but notice some similarities.

"The manner in which people align themselves with their teams, wear sporting colors. The regular chants that go on during the game actually look a lot like ritual chant, the donning of vestments and so on," Hall says.

And Hall isn’t alone. Jerry Walls is professor of philosophy at Houston Baptist University and co-editor of “Basketball and Philosophy” and author of “Wisdom from the Hardwood.”  To him, a frenzied crowd of UK fans brings to mind a quote from a man some consider a founder of existentialism.

"Søren Kierkegaard , the famous Danish nineteenth century philosopher, made the claim that what really matters most about religious faith is a kind of passion, and not just any kind of passion, but, as he put it, passion of the greatest possible intensity," he says.

But basketball and religion share more than just passion. They both have a narrative, high and low points, along with heroes and villains. Basketball can even provide a sense of structure to fans’ lives.

"It's got its Holy Week, i.e. the tournament, and if you win, it's like Easter, right?" Walls laughs.

As for Kentucky’s attachment to basketball, it's not just about winning – but also the history behind the sport.

"There's this natural affinity between reason, religion, and roundball that goes all the way back to the very beginning of the game," he says.

Call it basketball’s Creation story, and legendary UK coach Adolph Rupp provides an interesting connection to the game’s past.

"When Rupp was at Kansas as a player, he got to know James Naismith, the man who founded the game. A lot of people may not know the guy who invented the game was a Presbyterian minister," Walls notes.

For Walls, it’s these deep roots, combined with a tradition of excellence, that explain basketball’s hallowed place in Kentucky culture. And what advice would a philosophy professor have for the players and fans tonight? Walls has these words of wisdom:

"Play your best. Enjoy the game. Enjoy being part of something historic. Make great memories, but keep in mind that life is a longer - and bigger - than basketball."