“City / Game: Basketball in New York” with MCNY’s President Whitney Donhauser

“City / Game: Basketball in New York” with MCNY’s President Whitney Donhauser

The history and evolution of basketball is especially significant to the city of New York, which continues to host the game in its various iterations, from the street all the way to Madison Square Garden and Barclays Center. Eager to understand more about the sport, its origins, and the impact it has on society and culture today, we spoke with Whitney Donhauser, Director and President of The Museum of the City of New York, about the museum’s newest exhibit, City / Game: Basketball in New York

Tell us about City / Game: Basketball in New York and what this exhibit means to The Museum of the City of New York. 
City / Game: Basketball in New York highlights New York’s vibrant history of street and playground basketball, with the narrative focused on the players, the coaches, and the moments that have made the city’s high school, college and professional games the stuff of legends. It’s really a great moment for us to tell this quintessential New York story, especially as basketball from the very beginning has always embraced diversity. One of the great things about basketball is it’s the ultimate urban sport – it can be played solo or with others and requires minimal equipment. You don’t need a whole lot of space or people, and it’s a game that can contract and grow bigger. Ultimately it is perfect for any urban environment. 

How has basketball evolved historically speaking, thereby impacting and changing the face and vibe of our city and communities all over the world?
One of the amazing things that the exhibit does is underscore the energy and diversity of basketball. New York is a city that has always identified with immigrants and diversity, and from the very beginning of the history of basketball in the city, you’ve had different populations including the Irish and the Jews participating. It’s interesting to see how the city changes, but how basketball has remained a common thread throughout, and how New York represents a melting-pot. It’s interesting that basketball picked up that aspect of the city, and I think it’s fascinating to see how over the course of the 20th century, basketball has grown globally as an iconic sport. There are 1,800 basketball courts in the city, many of which have been incorporated as part of the city’s parks dynamic, and the exhibit really takes a comprehensive look at showing all five boroughs of the city, and showing how much basketball is incorporated into every one of those boroughs. 

What can viewers expect to see or learn while visiting City / Game: Basketball in New York? Any significant takeaways?
Certainly the history of diversity and the fact that basketball’s early roots are embedded in an immigrant community are key takeaways, along with the sport ultimately producing the calibre of celebrity players we see today. Basketball also reflects New York’s cultural, social and economic history, and when you come to see the exhibition you will see objects, including trophies and historic jerseys and banners (including Jeremy Lin’s jersey at the height of ‘Linsanity’). Aside from these objects, viewers will also see fine art photography including Richard Avedon’s shot of Lewis Alcinder, and professional footage including that of our own documentary maker, who went out to capture the vibrancy of the game in New York City. There’s also a section on New York City ‘trash talk’, which is a fun area that showcases how New Yorkers are known for their rich use of language. 

We often relate basketball with music; the two seem to be intertwined. What are the intrinsic connections between music, basketball and fashion, and how did those relationships form and solidify in popular culture?
What’s fascinating is we think about music and basketball being intertwined in contemporary terms, but it’s amazing to understand this is something that goes back to the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, where you certainly had jazz music and dances performed by African Americans that really had a profound impact on the game generally. Then you move up to Walt Frasier, who was really the first player to create his own identifiable look and brand, by using fashion and image, and he really honed that branding. And of course through to the 1990s and the impact and influence of Hip Hop and rap on the game. New York has always been at the center of fashion, marketing and image creation – basketball picks up on that. 

Prior to your role at MCNY, you worked at the Metropolitan Museum of Art for 23 years. How is this position different?
The Met is certainly a place I’ve always revered, loved and had the greatest respect for ever since I was a young child. The Met is a large, complicated place and things can move slowly there. One of the fantastic things about working at a place like the Museum of the City of New York is that we’re small and nimble. We’re able to adapt to contemporary issues that are happening, and really think about New York City’s past, present, which in turn makes us think about how those things inform the future. And for me as a New Yorker, to think about the things I love about the city, and to understand where the history is and how it impacts life today.

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