Students from the Art of Basketball course in Berlin, Germany

Back from Berlin

March 7, 2023

American Studies

Students reflect on what a weeklong trip to Germany taught them about American culture.
By Matthew Dewald

On a Tuesday night just before finals last semester, a dozen sophomores were unpacking one of their newest experiences in a classroom in the Humanities Center.

Just three days earlier, they’d woken up in central Berlin at the end of a weeklong trip during Thanksgiving break. The main attraction wasn’t Checkpoint Charlie. They went to see how people in Germany play and think about basketball.

The students were participants in an American studies course called the Art of Basketball with English professor Bert Ashe. It was an SSIR seminar — Sophomore Scholars in Residence. The program combines traditional academic coursework with cocurricular components, including short-term travel, often internationally.

Before leaving for Germany, they read selections from The Norton Anthology of African American Literature, viewed the films Hoosiers and White Men Can’t Jump, and visited a museum exhibition described as “an experimental portrait of improvisatory Black life” that drew material from, among other places, the NBA’s rule book.

Their goal was understanding the harmonies and tensions between individual creativity and team play as expressed in the playing and presentation of competitive basketball, a sport long interwoven with and strongly influenced by African American culture.

“The key thing we’re exploring is how a rhythmic, improvisational Black culture has influenced the playing of basketball over the years,” Ashe said.

Part of the class also included attending Spider home games and a game at Virginia State University, a historically Black institution, to compare and contrast the playing styles and arena cultures they encountered. The trip to Germany expanded that comparative analysis with examples from a European context — a professional EuroLeague game, a night streetball tournament, and a basketball camp among them. They also met with three coaches — two white Europeans and a Black American expat.

During their first class session after the trip, they sorted through all they’d noticed. One of the first things? Clapping. As in, the Richmond students were not in sync with when German fans clapped or didn’t. There was also no pregame national anthem and little in-game entertainment. “No kiss cam,” one of them observed.

There were also similarities. The music that played was familiar — mostly Black American artists like Jay-Z and Grandmaster Flash, “the kind of Black music white people like,” a student joked. “Crossover music,” Ashe said, diplomatically. But for the most part, it was a different game environment than what they know.

With a small sample size, they could only speculate about the reasons. “There’s a difficulty in knowing what’s normal and what’s not,” Ashe reminded them.

But the wheels were turning as they drew in more than game references. They had also noticed that Berlin’s public transportation operated largely on an honor system for payment and that Germans memorialize the most troublesome aspects of their past more visibly than Americans. They speculated about reasons for those differences, too. As with any comparative analysis, the data illuminated by one example shed light on all of them.