When PE teacher James Naismith was tasked with finding an “athletic distraction” for a rowdy class of boys during a cold, dark, New England winter, he approached the problem with considerable thought.
Charlie Troman for CAM
Seeking something that could be played indoors without special equipment, that was easy to learn, and above all required skill as well fitness, Naismith invented a sport in 1891 that has since become one of the most widely-played in the world.
These elements – in particular the marriage of skill and strength – continue to attract players like Chris Haar, captain of Cambridge University Basketball Club, to the game. “I think basketball is the ideal sport,” he says. “It’s very physical, but at the same time you have to be technical in the way you understand the game with your head, and you have to have some technical ability with the ball, be that shooting or dribbling or passing.”
At 6ft 2in, Chris is not the kind of player that basketball is most famous for. “There are two kinds of players. One is the purely athletic, the kind that’s 7ft tall and gets all the TV coverage,” he says. “The other type of player is the one who has the balanced skill set – physically very able, but also with a good understanding of the game; the guy who holds the team together and who’s the brain of the game.”
Half Czech and half German, Chris owes his love of basketball to a grandmother who lived in Florida. “As a kid I was exposed to the sport during visits to America to see her. There, it’s a big thing,” he says.
Here, too, the men’s game is growing. Together with the Blues and Lions – the University’s second team – the 24 college teams mean there are some 265 basketball players regularly competing at Cambridge.
And training is arduous. As well as matches on Wednesdays, there is team training on Saturdays and Sundays, topped up with shooting practice twice a week and a circuits session.
Putting in the hours is vital if they’re to stand a chance in the Varsity match against Oxford. “We’ve struggled lately, to tell the truth,” Chris admits. “The last two matches I played in we lost, and we lost a couple before then, too.”
But with Oxford languishing in the middle of the premier division, and Cambridge at the top of the first division, he fancies their chances: “We’re on track to finish second in our league, so it could be quite a close game this year. That’s what I hope for.”
As well as the competition and training, which provide a welcome break from his PhD research, Chris loves the social side of basketball at Cambridge, and in particular its internationalism.
“Getting involved is crucial for your time in Cambridge, and clubs and societies are a great way of getting to know people,” he says. “The basketball team is always international. As well as English players, this year’s Blues squad has Welsh, German, Austrian, American and Lithuanian members, and our coach, Nebojša Radić, is Serbian.”
The sport also opens up opportunities for undergraduates and graduates to mix, something Chris sees as benefiting both.
“I’m a hostel keeper at Darwin, so undergraduates can be quite formal with me; but in basketball we mingle easily, which is nice. It’s good for undergraduates to see that you can be an excellent student without being exclusively academically minded. That’s what’s lovely – the international aspect and postgrad-undergrad mix, which I’m sure is mutually beneficial.”
Now in the second year of his PhD, Chris is keen to stay in academia, but says: “My PhD is in the history of political thought and there aren’t many post-doc positions at the moment. That’s plan A, but I’m well aware one has to be realistic.”
Whatever his future holds, it will include basketball. “There’s a social, summer league here set up by a post-doc for Blues alumni, post-docs and lecturers, and I’ve played with them a couple of times. That’s where I see myself in future, because the love for the game doesn’t stop. Watching basketball on TV isn’t enough, so I’ll definitely continue playing.”
For more information about the Cambridge University Basketball Club, visit www.srcf.ucam.org/cubbc
This first appeared in the 65th edition of the Cambridge Alumni Magazine (CAM)