Over 75 years of the professional league—and for decades before—Black Christians brought a social conscience to basketball.
In 1949, 42 bronze bells were shipped across the Atlantic Ocean from the Netherlands and installed in the bell tower at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Harlem.
The bells have a remarkable history in their own right. As the first carillon in the world to be played by a Black musician, they have been described by scholars as a “cultural treasure” and “an irreplaceable historical instrument.”
But St. Martin’s didn’t just make history for its tolling church tower. When the bells were installed over 70 years ago, no congregation in the country better represented the melding of basketball and Black culture.
Many of us are familiar with basketball’s Christian origins. The sport, after all, was created at a Christian college (the YMCA’s International Training School) by an ordained Presbyterian minister (James Naismith) for the purpose of cultivating Christian values and spreading the gospel (“winning men to the master through the gym”).
Naismith and the YMCA, however, tell only part of the story. The sport would not have become what we know it to be today had it not been for Black Christian leaders and institutions.
This season, the NBA marks its 75th anniversary. By the time the league was formed, basketball had developed far beyond its Christians roots. And yet, when modern NBA players like Steph Curry splash a three-pointer, or when they champion the cause of racial justice, they bear witness to the past—to the lasting influence of a Christianity nurtured by churches like St. Martin’s that promoted excellence on the court and a social conscience off of it.
Culture making and Black churches
“Here in Harlem the bells are in the center of things, right …