Episode 4.3: “Did Lincoln ever play basketball?”
Every day at President Lincoln’s Cottage we engage with visitors in conversation on difficult topics, from grief to slavery to American identity. And occasionally, we get asked a question on a tour that stops us in our tracks – one we wish we could spend a half hour answering. Some of these questions, on their face, were innocent or simple, but on a second look they contain a level of complexity that leaves us wanting to know more.
Thanks to generous donations from our supporters, we created “Q & Abe” – a podcast that investigates real questions from visitors to the Cottage. Come on down the rabbit hole with us as we seek the answers – we always start with Lincoln and the Cottage, but we often end up in unexpected places.
For this episode, we’re answering a question from a young person impressed by Lincoln’s height. Along the way we talk about the peach basket story, Lincoln’s wrestling bouts, whether he would’ve been able to keep up in the NBA, and the intersection of sports and activism. Come along with us!
In addition to the embedded media player below, you can find the podcast on Apple Podcasts / Spotify / Stitcher / Google Podcasts or wherever you get podcasts. You also can read below for a transcript of the episode
Joan Cummins: Every day at President Lincoln’s Cottage, we engage with visitors in conversation on difficult topics, from grief to slavery to American identity. Visitors, young and old alike, connect with us from next door and from around the globe.
Callie Hawkins: And occasionally, we get asked a question on a tour that stops us in our tracks, one we wish we could spend a half hour answering. Some of these questions, on their face, seem innocent or simple, but on a second look they contain a level of complexity that leaves us wanting to know more. Each episode, we’ll investigate a single real question a visitor asked us here.
JC: At President Lincoln’s Cottage, we’re storytellers, historians, and truth seekers, so we called on people whose expertise could speak to all the facets of these questions.
CHawkins: I’m Callie Hawkins.
JC: And I’m Joan Cummins. This is Q&Abe. Come on down the rabbit hole with us!
CHawkins: Let’s take that half hour now. For this episode, we’re working on the question: “Did Lincoln ever play basketball?”
JC: I got this question from a young person, a 5th grader, who was listening to me describe our life-size statue of Lincoln on our grounds, and had heard me say Lincoln was 6 foot 4. She was suitably impressed, but very surprised when I then told her that basketball hadn’t been invented yet when Lincoln was alive. So, he never had a chance to play.
CHawkins: Let’s start there. How was basketball invented? We spoke with Dr. Curtis Harris –
JC: Who you may remember from Episode 2.2, where he spoke with us about his family’s experience with the legacies of slavery.
CHawkins: Curtis is an adjunct professor at American University, and studied the social, labor, and political history of basketball. We asked him to tell us how the sport got started. I had heard that there was maybe a peach basket involved?
CHarris: Lincoln dies in 1865. Basketball’s not created until 1891. It really is a, a creation, almost an invention. So it doesn’t just kind of organically sprout from previous sports, but it is kind of a deliberate effort to create, this new sport. So the inventor, the creator of the game is James Naismith. Uh, who was born, uh, near Ottawa, Ontario. But then he goes to, um, Springfield, Massachusetts, and, uh, I think it’s 1890 is when he began schooling there, at the YMCA Training School. So the YMCA is a very important part of this story. So, the YMCA Training School in Springfield was like the major training school for the institution in the United States. Uh, so what these guys would do is they would get this training and then they would go to other YMCAs across the United States and lead those individual YMCAs. But Naismith, he was charged in the fall semester of 1891 with trying to make an indoor sport for these, um, what Hoover called the incorrigibles, these students who were kind of unruly, just – not, not troublemakers necessarily, but they were definitely, uh, not easy to get along with, when it came to sports. They’re easy enough to kind of corral during the summer months and spring, because they could be outside and doing like the outdoor sports, but when it gets to be, start, starts to get colder, it’s hard to get them under control cause they want to do the rough play, but, but they can’t do that indoors. Uh, so Naismith tried to create, you know, various sports to try to get, keep their entertainment. And he would try to modify outdoor sports for the indoors, And they hated that. If I remember, right he tried to do football indoors and the guy’s like, this just doesn’t work. I think they tried to do a little bit of modified lacrosse indoors, and that didn’t work. Sorry to sidetrack just for a second here, but Gulick uh, I didn’t give him enough credit earlier – the head of the school, Luther Gulick, also an important figure here – he’s the man that devised the triangle for the YMCA, so I know it’s a very noticeable symbol for the YMCA, you know how you have the Y, and there’s a little triangle in the Y? He’s the guy that came up with the triangle, uh, which stood for mind, body and spirit. And he said, all three of those things have to be equally developed to have a, not like a perfect person, but like a good a person, uh, someone who’s balanced in life. So, getting back to James Naismith and his trying to him trying to make the sport, he was trying to make a sport that will, you know, be in line with the triangle concept where the student’s mind, body and spirit, would all be kind of in perfect sync with each other. So finally, uh, towards the end of the, end of the semester, uh, Naismith was kind of just like at the end of his rope, like thinking like, I’ve been trying for months and everything’s failed, and he started, he strikes upon this idea of, well, what if I take a little bit of soccer, and if I have it where we progress, like you know think of like a soccer field, like we have a sport where it’s going to be teams and we try to progress the ball. He was tryna think like, you know, what, what gets people engaged? Gets them having fun. So like that soccer and football concept of advancing the ball up the field – people love that. But then he said, well, the trouble is, though, is that football has the egg-shaped ball. And so people are naturally gonna want to hold it. And if someone is holding the ball, that’s going to invite, uh, violence or roughness, cause the only way to get the ball out of somebody’s hands is to knock them over, like you literally have to like hit them to try to dislodge the ball. So he said he definitely wanted a round ball, like they had in soccer. So the first basketball was actually a soccer ball. Then he also realized that having a goal was also really important. But he was also like, well, but that’s also a problem because that’s going to invite force, cause to get the soccer ball into the soccer goal, you got to kick it. So he’s like, uh, if we, instead of having a goal like that let’s have an elevated goal. So that’s, that’s going to cause people to like, try to aim the ball toward a goal instead of like forcing the ball into the goal. Uh, yeah, so it’s inviting more thought, more you know, skill if you want to call it that, I guess it’s a different kind of skill, finesse skill, and also teamwork. So he’s like, ok, this is great! Except he didn’t have any idea what he wanted that basket to look like. And so he just stumbled across a peach basket and he’s like, this is good enough. A soccer ball fits inside of it if you throw it in there. So he’s like, all right, he grabs the peach basket, nails it up in the gym and the railing in the gym that they were using just happened to be 10 feet. And that’s the only reason why basketball goal is 10 feet high is because, just because the railing in that gymnasium happened to be 10 feet.
CHawkins: Well, I’m just relieved to know that the peach basket myth is true. I for awhile will admit that I thought that maybe I had only, you know, that’s, that’s something that you hear when you grow up in South Carolina, near a lot of peach farms and peach trees and stuff like that. So I’m glad to know that that is in fact, the real, a part of the real origin story of basketball.
CHarris: Yeah, no. So yeah, just total accident. Coincidence. The peach basket was there and it just happened to work out. Naismith wrote 10 simple rules for the game before they played the first game. And so he got in there in the gym, the incorrigible students, as they were called, you know, they’re at the end of the semester, so you can imagine how they were. And Naismith comes in and one of the students, Naismith recalled, said like, oh great, another new game… But the guys, it turned out, they really loved the game. Very similar in some regards but also much different to how we play basketball today. So, they were shooting into a peach basket. It’s a bas, like I said, it’s an actual basket. So if you shot and you made it, somebody had to walk up and grab the ball out the basket. Uh, but the bra-, but the first game only had one goal. So it was 1-0. So that was the only goal ever scored in that game. But yeah, but that’s the origin story, uh, in a nutshell for basketball.
JC: One of the other things I said to the student who asked me this question was, I know for sure Lincoln didn’t play basketball, but he was a skilled wrestler. Which is often also surprising to people!
CHawkins: We went to talk to Lee Roy Smith, the Executive Director of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame, to find out more. Are there other US presidents that have wrestled?
Lee Roy Smith: We had a couple of presidential historians do some research for us on Wrestling Presidents, that was the name of the book and From Pins to Patriots, and we had discovered that there were 13 U S presidents in total that had wrestled, at the time of this publication. Only to find out after President Trump served his term, he had actually participated in a wrestling tournament at the military academy he attended in New York. So, to be truthful about it, there are 14 presidents now that, have, have wrestled. Of course we can’t really compare sport in the, in the 17th, 18th, necessarily 19th century to what – well, certainly the 19th we can – to the sports we know today.
JC: What would wrestling have been like when Lincoln was participating?
LRS: Now understand that we’re talking about probably the world’s oldest sport. So we go back millennia and wrestling, obviously formed out of a necessity to survive without tools, without weapons, you had hand to hand combat. So it was part of survival and conquering and as, the ancient Olympics, the Greeks formed the, the Olympic Games and in those games, they had a style of Greco-Roman, and that’s all upper body. You couldn’t grab a hold of legs and lower part of the torso, you couldn’t trip. It was all upper body and that style and those rules that went with that style carry on even today in the Olympic Games. But a more common style was the total body where you could grab legs and you could, and the upper body and, as well. Lincoln would be exposed to a, what is called a “catch as catch can” style, and that really, that style evolved into – the late 1800s evolved into, into what we call a folk style of wrestling of our time. It didn’t influence the Olympic styles that much, but it did the style that our schools adopted in the United States. It was pretty open, in that legs and trips and everything was in play. So that kind of sets the stage for his wrestling, uh, term.
CHawkins: Lee Roy also told us about one of Lincoln’s most famous wrestling matches, against a wrestler named Jack Armstrong. Lincoln was working at a store in Illinois when his employer set him up in a match against Armstrong, who was kind of a bully and talking a big game around town. While the match was apparently pretty intense, you’ll be relieved to hear that Lincoln won.
JC: We knew that part of where this question came from, for the visitor, was from thinking about Lincoln’s height. Would his height have made him better at wrestling?
LRS: The leverage is critical in any, in executing any skills in hand-to-hand combat. So the more leverage you have, the more length you have, it can be favorable to you. You take the opposite of that, a small or a short statured person would have to try and not allow you to even use your leverage, if they wanted to win. But in Abe’s case, I’m sure he would go and tie his uh, opponent up so that he could use his leverage in such a way that would take you to the ground, with whatever skill it was, whether it was a throw with an upper body, uh, what we call under hooks, and bear hugs and, or, or grabbing legs and, taking you to the mat with some kind of a trip. I say mat, it was the ground in those days. He had the, the, that edge and would use that, that frame and that length to, execute a winning take downs, winning turns, tap outs, you know, getting them down where. You quit? Yeah, I quit. [laughs]
JC: And what about basketball? Would Lincoln have been any good?
CHarris: Uh, hard to tell. No one ever noted, like the spring that Lincoln had, like how, how –
JC: [laughing] How bouncy is he?
CHarris: Yeah! Like, uh, cause a lot of things about basketball is, um, your reaction time to what’s happening. So I obviously we know Lincoln was a good wrestler, so he has good strength. Strength is a good asset to have in basketball. It’s not the only thing. Now, what he had going for him is that he was tall, 6’4”, also had long limbs. That’s also really good at basketball. As you two can attest, I also have, uh, long limbs. So, sorry for listeners, y’all can’t see me, but I have really long arms, so when I play basketball, like that is what people always gripe about, like not, not angrily, but they’re just like, I didn’t think he’d get the ball! Like he just reached over me and grabbed it – cause I just have like, really long arms. Um, you can reach and grab rebounds, or make steals that people don’t anticipate or block shots that people don’t anticipate that you might be able to. So Lincoln, those are his pluses. He does have good strength, long limbs, decent height, it’s just the jury’s out on the reaction time. So I think he has the raw material to be a good basketball player.
Len Elmore: Well, first of all, at 6’4”, I think he probably would have had to be a pretty good shooter and a ball handler, but again, proportionally back in those days, 6’4” was kind of like me at 6’9”, 6’10”, you know, when you’re head and shoulders above the average person. Uh, so that probably would have given him an advantage had he played in those days. Uh, as I said today, he probably would have been a guard and would have to work on a number of other skills. But, but I, I do believe again, he seemed to be someone who, one, had personal pride didn’t want to be embarrassed, and that translates into working hard, in, in practicing those particular skills and developing the fundamentals. But beyond that, uh, I’m not sure, you know, I know he was 6’4”, but I’m not sure he could jump, that’s the thing… [laughs] you know, like I said, the only athletic evidence that we have is the fact that he was wrestling champ, and that’s a relatively stationary and, you know, deals more with, uh, you know, how much you’re grounded as opposed to, you know, how much you can elevate exactly.
CHawkins: That second voice you heard there was Len Elmore, who played basketball professionally for 10 years with the ABA and the NBA. He then went on to a career as a lawyer and currently teaches at Columbia University. We knew the breadth of Len’s experience would mean he had great insight to help answer this question.
JC: Len and Curtis agreed, the key question for whether Lincoln could play basketball today is whether or not he could jump, because he’s actually not tall enough to compete in the modern NBA environment. But Curtis says, in earlier iterations of the game, you didn’t need to be tall at all in order to be good at basketball.
CHarris: Yeah. So it definitely has not been true for the sport’s history, or the entirety of the sport’s history. So, you know, in 1891, when Naismith makes the game, like he didn’t make it with the thought process of, I want to make a game for tall people, but of course, you know, people just, you know, just naturally begin to notice certain things work better than others. And they begin to realize like, Hey, you know, taller people are closer to the basket. [laughs] Like just from a physical standpoint, like, it takes less distance for them to get the ball into the hoop, so. But even then, like, you know, tall people in basketball really, were only like, you know, 6’3” or 6’4”. Now, that really doesn’t change until the 1940s. So you’re talking for the first 50 years, even 55 years of basketball history. So the person who really does, uh, kind of re-imagine or, um, helps other people re-imagine what tall people can do for basketball is actually George Mikan, uh, that’s a name that many people will hear, and he kind of gets made fun of now, cause like, oh, he’s the guy with the glasses, he couldn’t play basketball today. And it was like, this is like he played in the 1940s and 1950s, and he was six, six feet, 10 inches tall, at least 250 pounds. So he’s like a really big guy. And of course, the natural presumption at the, at that point, in the 1940s was: a guy this tall really can’t play. He’ll be uncoordinated, he, he’s not, he won’t be athletic, you know, all these, all these kinds of things. He went to DePaul university in Chicago and he’s from Chicago. Um, and then of course he, he plays for the Minneapolis Lakers and his teams – he played eight years of professional basketball and his teams won to title seven of those eight years in the leagues that they played in. So, people were like, huh, maybe tall guys can be great at basketball. So um, [laughs] I would say teams kind of went overboard, you know, after George Mikan, cause like, again, like they were like, oh, we got to like, you know, get on the latest, uh, fad, I suppose you can call it. Like Wilt Chamberlain comes along in 1959, 1960, and he’s seven feet one, it like, he’s like really large, and like Bill Russell came around that same time, he was 6’10” as well. Teams were like, you know, we got to get these really tall players, like they’re the key to success. But shorter people, shorter players, have always had a benefit too in basketball. So, now people are short as Muggsy Bogues, you know, he’s five foot, he was five foot three, when he played in the NBA, that’s extremely small for any, any era, like, you know, 1890s, early 1900s, teams didn’t have a whole lot of guys who were five foot three. A lot of guys who were 5’6”, 5’7”, 5’8”, 5’9”, that kind of stuff but not like 5’3” – that would have been extremely short for any era. Now guys that size have the benefit of, it’s hard to take the ball away from them. Like if they’re dribbling, like they’re so short, it’s hard to actually get down that low. Conversely, they can steal it from you very easily, no problem. So he’s easily able to get up under them and take the ball away. So definitely the advantage for him in that regard. Uh, but now he did have a disadvantage, obviously, cause on defense… that gets to the uh, that gets to the teamwork aspect though of basketball, that Naismith always envisioned being so important. So like, you can kind of balance out their different skills and kind of create offenses and defenses that play off their heights and their different, um, utilities around the court.
CHawkins: Curtis was also clear with us that basketball, from the beginning, was a sport that welcomed many different kinds of people.
CHarris: It’s a really, uh, adaptive sport. So like I said, men, first played it December, 1891. Women play at December or, excuse me, January, 1892. So like it, it had no distinction between sexes, right from the get-go. Distinctions were imposed later on, uh, where women were forced to play basketball a certain way, but women were still allowed to play basketball. So it was actually one of the few sports, um, during like, you know, the mid 1900s when women were really forced to not play a lot of sports, this is one of the ones that kind of survived, uh, kind of the axe that was taken to women’s sports. Also it – even though it was created by middle-class white Americans – or white Canadians, uh, in James Naismith – Black Americans took up the sport very quickly. It’s actually, was also very popular amongst Native Americans, in the early 1900s it a very popular sport with them. Uh, so, you know, racially, it was never pigeonholed as like one, one person’s sport. Even though at one point it was also called Jew ball cause Jewish immigrants love to play it so much. But, that’s because again, it’s adaptive. Uh, Jewish immigrants mostly lived in urban areas and basketball was an indoor sport, but all you really needed for the game was, you know, the hoop and the ball, whereas football needed all this equipment, lacrosse, you need all this equipment – basketball you just need the hoop and the ball. And then like even, um, people with disabilities, like, uh, people in wheelchairs have played basketball since at least the 1940s. So it’s, it’s a sport that, it’s just been able to have lots of people that they’ve been able to play it, uh, for such a long period of time.
CHawkins: Lee Roy told us similar things about wrestling, that it’s a sport for folks of all sizes, colors, and genders. Women’s wrestling continues to grow more and more popular.
JC: Lee Roy says, when we get our first female president,
LRS: She will have been a wrestler, yes!
CHawkins: We also spoke with Tamika Dudley, who coaches the girls’ basketball team at Sidwell Friends School here in Washington, DC.
Tamika Dudley: I coach at Sidwell Friends, in Washington DC, and, you know, currently we are the number one team in the country, in basketball, girls basketball. So, super excited about that. Um, we have a great team of young ladies that not only are high academic students, but also very high in skill athletically. There’s other teams in the country that are just as talented as us, but you know, one of the things I think makes this group super special is that they all are really willing to kind of, sacrifice their own personal goals for a common team goal.
JC: I’ve definitely seen photos of Lincoln where he looks awkward sitting in furniture, like he doesn’t have enough space for his legs. We wanted to know from folks who’ve lived it – besides basketball cred, how might Lincoln’s height have impacted other parts of his life?
TD: That’s a – I mean, I think that, it’s funny because I have a daughter that’s plays on the team and she’s 6’2”, and I can remember very – and she’s always played basketball, but I remember very early that she hated being tall, like that was a big part of it. Like she could not, she was like, I hope I’m done growing. She was very tall, very early. But I also think there’s a – people kind of, um, stereotype you because you’re tall at times. I mean, just like to ask the question, was Lincoln basketball player because he was tall, yes. I think that automatically comes with the territory of having that, that height, but I think for, for female athletes, sometimes you can be super uncomfortable when you’re really tall, because I mean, I guess it’s not, not normal, and kids want to fit in and they don’t want to stand out. And I’m, I think those things are things that have resonated with a lot of our players.
CHawkins: Anything that makes you stand out from others comes with a whole suite of ups and downs. Len shared some of his experiences with moving through the world as a tall person:
LE: In positive and sometimes negative ways. From a negative standpoint, uh, people always seem to be – in the circles that I’ve traveled in, they’re always, there’s always someone who is quote intimidated, simply by size. And, and, you know, that’s obviously not my intent to intimidate anyone and, you know, it requires me to be more open, and, you know, try to engender that kind of trust and, and, and to get a feeling from people that, you know, I’m not a 6’9” monster, I’m just a normal person. I, I think from a positive standpoint, I certainly taller people, in, in business particularly seem to, you know, have some kind of edge, whether it’s from a, a perception of leadership or something along those lines. And particularly when you combine education with size, in that regard and, and with, um, you know, the ability to interact with people, it’s certainly been a positive. I’ve never lacked for attention, that’s for sure. Uh, so, you know, it wasn’t as though I could, you know, be a part of the wallpaper. Uh, so it’s kind of really, you know, forced me to be a little more outgoing. I mean, as a, as a child, I wasn’t, I was relatively shy and, you know, certainly, uh, I wasn’t necessarily proud of my height, but as time went on, started to show me that it was an advantage in many ways. I certainly sympathize, empathize, all of those things, uh, simply because the world wasn’t made for people taller than the average person. Um, you know, I, I get that today. Uh, even though you have king size beds, my feet will still hang over. Uh, there’s so many things. Doorways are barely – right now, they’re seven feet tall. I can imagine what they were like a hundred, you know, 150 years ago, walking through those doorways. And of course, Lincoln had the nerve to wear a stovepipe hat, which probably made him seven feet tall. [laughs] So, you know, it, it had to be, you know, a double whammy there.
JC: Like Curtis told us earlier, basketball was a deliberate creation. It was intentionally designed to cultivate not only the body, but also the mind and the spirit.
CHarris: So I found Naismith, what he wrote about the three principles or three values of basketball, that I thought really stood out that he wrote about. The three things that really stood out for me was that he wrote about self-sacrifice, self-control, and sportsmanship. And he wrote that sportsmanship was the player’s insistence on his own rights and his observance of the rights of others. Yeah, so he said sportsmanship is not just about like, making sure that you’re able to play the game right, but to make sure that everybody’s able to play the game. Self-sacrifice Naismith defined as the willingness to place the good of the team above one’s personal ambitions. And then self-control was the subordination of one’s feelings for a purpose. So, uh, yeah, I think definitely Lincoln would have, um, definitely would have agreed with those ideas, with those ideas right there.
CHawkins: So, we wanted to think in more depth about, what’s the interplay between the physical and mental, for athletes? Maybe we need to think about sport as a whole-self experience.
JC: Tamika was very clear with us that her team is really living that second principle of Naismith’s, the self-sacrifice. She also reminded us that all of her athletes are also students at the same time:
TD: I feel like it definitely shows up on the court because there’s a certain level of like, perseverance and, uh, being resilient to be able to be a, uh, an athlete and still juggle the demands of the classroom. And so because you have to demonstrate that, on a daily basis, whether it’s managing your day to day schedule and meeting with teachers and getting extra help, uh, and those things, but then also having to come to a practice at night and giving, you know, your A-plus effort at practice as well. I think it definitely like fosters a sense of like, commitment, perseverance, you know, hard work, dedication, like all of those things that, you know, we want our student athletes to kind of embody. Um, but I think the classroom definitely helps, I mean, it just kind of all translates to the court. Um, and then even goes deeper than that now, because you know, there may be things that you want to accomplish on the court because it’s something that’s recognized or notable in like the basketball world. Maybe you get an accolade because you score a certain amount of points. Um, but to even be willing to sacrifice those, like, those accolades, individual accolades, for the team. Then those things kind of go through your mind as you’re playing the game. And it’s whether to make the extra pass or do I shoot it because I might get noticed more because I score another point. You know what I mean? There’s a lot to manage. And I think it’s interesting to lay the, the extra layer of intensity that the social media world brings to the table, because especially for teenage girls or young kids, they’re like managing their emotions and that whole world so differently, like we didn’t have that when we were younger and playing.
CHawkins: Len talked about how physicality can also be a form of intelligence, in and of itself.
LE: To be an athlete, to be a good athlete, you know, requires, uh, an innate intelligence that, we probably can’t necessarily look at, put our finger on and measure, but certainly it’s there – to understand, uh, where you are, what you’re supposed to do, to understand, particularly in team sports, how everything fits, uh, you know – that requires, uh, a bit of thought that, um, I wouldn’t call it deep thought, but, but certainly it requires thought, it requires the ability to anticipate, the ability to formulate. And, and I think that in those areas, you know, whether you’re a deep thinker or not, it certainly requires that level of intelligence to be able to put it all together and make something of it. Obviously people learn and people express their intelligence in different ways and to take what you, uh, what you absorb cerebrally and to put it into action physically is another aspect of that intelligence and you know, those who can do it extraordinarily well, wind up in the hall of fame, they wind up becoming presidents.
JC: And Lee Roy agreed, that it’s a combination of physical skill and mental acuity that leads to success:
LRS: You need that drive to perform well, to compete well, to execute well. So the, the mental is extremely important. And part of the reasons why so many, I think presidents have wrestled is that it’s been often described that a wrestling match is like a chess game, but it’s going at about a hundred miles an hour. [laughter from JC & CH] And so you’re, you’re on automatic pilot when you touch each other and you start competing, you know, it’s, everything’s going quick. So it’s automatic responses that have had to have been trained to execute, but you also have to be ready for the unexpected and be able to respond, so you, your, your head’s gotta be, you’re mental has got to be functioning well and on automatic pilot, really.
CHawkins: How might these less tangible aspects have played out for Lincoln? We wanted to know from Len, since he has experience with both – do you need the same kinds of skills to succeed on the basketball court as you do in a court of law?
LE: No, I, I think that there are many skills that, that are pretty much the same. Um, at least, uh, on the surface, I think that to be a great athlete, you have to be steeped in, and very sharp, fundamentally. The fundamentals of basketball, the abilities that are necessary for your position. Now, when I was a center, I didn’t necessarily have to dribble the ball much, but, you know, rebounding, playing defense, certain offensive skills, you know, over and over, you have to, you have to polish those. And I think throughout law school and, you know, in my practice, I began as an Assistant District Attorney and in New York City in Brooklyn, New York. And, you know, I did some defense work and I was an agent, trying to represent and speak up for athletes as well as in other areas of public interest, you know, being steeped in the fundamentals of the law, steeped in the fundamentals of that particular business were extremely important, because you can only build and improve off of a base of fundamentals. And I think that that’s important. And you know, when you look at, uh, say a person like Abraham Lincoln, who was self-taught as a lawyer, but nevertheless, his understanding of the Constitution, his understanding of the law from everything that I read was so fundamentally sound that, that it allowed him to build off of that. And again, it also allowed what I call that, that moral evolution, that he kept his mind open and was able to make changes through his reasoning power. And I think all those things were important. For me, you know, as a trial lawyer, particularly, it was all about understanding the rules, within court, court decorum, and also being able to utilize those rules and recognize various ways that, um, you could use them to your benefit.
JC: Yeah. They’re both very intense, uh, environments with a lot of rules attached to them, and how you operate within the rules that are around you determine – helps determine your success.
LE: Yeah. You find ways to, to utilize them in, to your benefit.
JC: One of the key things we talk about with Lincoln is his ability to work under pressure. His presidency was full of intense challenges, both personal and national. It was interesting to think about his athletic background as a part of this, as Lee Roy told us about how wrestling builds resilience.
LRS: The self-confidence just grows enormously, when you feel like you can defend yourself. You learn these skills and acquire these skills so that you can defend yourself. You just watch their self-esteem grow with that learning experience. And as a result, you’re helping people become more self-reliant to a certain degree. It’s not an easy sport. We always say, why is it not easy? Well, when you get thrown down, you got to get back up, and you got to keep getting back up. Well, none of us like to get thrown down and some of us, after we don’t, we keep getting thrown down, we, we may quit, and give it up, but those who stay with it and stick it out, they have learned that that getting back up is the key to life. And, uh, we like to share that message with people who really don’t know why wrestling is important and what it’s all about as a sport today.
CHawkins: At Columbia, Len teaches a course on athletes and social justice. Is there something particular about athletes that makes them effective activists? Better at getting back up?
LE: Well, it really depends on who the athlete is and what the athlete has experienced, I believe, and then recognition of their platform. The courage to stand out, the courage to stand up, you know, those are very important virtues that are required. Not all athletes can be advocates for social justice, as I said, I, I think a lot of it has to do with experience, their experiences as well as those around them. And when you take a look at those who have been, I guess, placed on a platform that reaches others, we can go back into history, uh, at the beginning of when sport was a thing in America, and look at those who suffered through, you know, laws, uh, whether it’s Jim Crow laws, laws of segregation, those who suffered the slings and arrows of racism, unto itself, whether it be Paul Robeson who obviously was Phi Beta Kappa at Rutgers and, you know, valedictorian of his class, but you’re even talking about people like Jesse Owens, Joe Louis, and their inimitable ways. Jackie Robinson, uh, Muhammad Ali, who did not have a college education, but nevertheless stood intelligently for, for something. And then, you know, we have Tommie Smith, John Carlos, go on and on, Colin Kaepernick. You know, we can talk about women who have experienced the dual edge of the sword of discrimination, both as women and you know, as women of color, those who were in the Olympics, Wilma Rudolph, uh, among others, Althea Gibson. You look at all of them, uh, and you go to today, Colin Kaepernick, Megan Rapinoe, people like that. And you recognize that they’ve experienced something. They felt something. And they’ve been able to put that together and recognize that I have a platform, and the courage that it takes, not only to, you know, become a great athlete and to step beyond, you know, the constraints, many times that, keep those who have talent from, uh, maximizing that talent and really allows those who have that talent to step forward to, utilize that courage in a way to essentially stand for social justice, you know, obviously sets them apart. So, you know, there, there are many people who have some of those skills who certainly have the opportunity, but not everybody seizes the moment.
CHawkins: Part of what Len’s talking about here is a combination of the circumstances of a person’s life and their willingness to take action, to step forward and use the situation that they have to try and make a difference. This made me think a lot about Lincoln and immigration. Lincoln saw the country as a beacon of hope for all seeking freedom and opportunity. And he believed the steady arrival of people drawn to the country’s founding ideals and opportunities were crucial to the success of the American experience. So although he had relatively little personal experience with immigrants in his formative years, he expressed full support of immigration throughout his political career, and advocated for their aid through legislation and personal pleas to Congress.
JC: When I asked Tamika about how people can best support the young people in their lives, including athletes, she said:
TD: I think one thing is, you know, staying focused on like the positive things when it comes to the game of basketball or when you’re watching your child or your peers, or, you know, family members playing sports. Because many times, if you are constantly scrutinizing the game or your, whatever, your child, or it takes the fun out of watching and you can’t really enjoy what is actually happening on the floor. And, you know, it’s just kind of like sometimes when you’re watching, you know, sometimes it’s good to be kind of mindless and just watch the game and enjoy it. Um, and so I think that’s something that I would love to share, like share with others, like don’t scrutinize so much, just enjoy what’s happening on the floor.
JC: Just be in the moment of the experience.
TD: Exactly. Yes.
JC: The Cottage provided space for Lincoln to do just that, to be where he was, and in that way it supported him in his work towards justice – even if it never served as an arena for him to show off his basketball skills.
CHawkins: We want to encourage you to think about: What are your values, and how can you instill them in all the different things you’re doing? How can you be deliberate, in the way that James Naismith was, in building the world around you?
JC: This episode was produced by me, Joan Cummins, with Callie Hawkins and support from the President Lincoln’s Cottage team. Music for Q&Abe was written, performed, and is copyrighted by Clancy Newman.
CHawkins: Q&Abe is possible thanks to generous supporters of President Lincoln’s Cottage. To find out how you can support this podcast and other programming, visit www.lincolncottage.org. And if you’re enjoying the show, please tell a friend!
JC: To the young person who asked this question, thanks for taking us to whole new arenas. We also owe particular thanks for this episode to Johnny DiLascio, Rebecca Kilborne, and Brodie Remington.
CHawkins: Comments? Questions? Write to us at [email protected].
JC: President Lincoln’s Cottage is a home for brave ideas. Stay curious!