The secret reason basketball is not popular in the south

Today is the beginning of college basketball season, but it does not feel like it to me. By this I don’t mean that my own personal psyche is not quite prepared for the sport to begin, or that I have lost ties with the sport emotionally. I mean that I just stepped outside to walk my dog, and now I’m sweating. By noon, I will have turned on the air conditioner.

And I wonder if this isn’t secretly the reason basketball is not popular in the south.

As you know, I live on the Gulf Coast, as a great many “southerners”* do. Relative to the weather I grew up with in Kansas, it still feels like it should be the nonconference portion of football season. It’s still, you know, muggy out there. It feels like summer is still kind of hanging around. If I were to drop the exact weather I am experiencing on Kansas right now, some people would reflexively pull the boat out of storage.

*I put that in quotes because I don’t consider myself a southerner, and even though I am technically a Texan now, the term “The South” is kind of ambiguous when it comes to the state of Texas. For purposes of discussing weather, however, Houston is TOTALLY southern. So that’s what I’ll be meaning when I use this terminology throughout this post. 

I know that, on me, this has a discombobulating effect. In part this is because it is still somewhat unfamiliar. It still feels strange that I could, without total discomfort, jump in a pool on the same day big guys jump center for the first time. But I wonder if this has something to do with the southern sports psyche altogether.

Basketball, of course, was invented by a Canadian who was living in Massachusetts and later taught in Kansas. The whole point of it was to be something that could be played indoors during the winter. And it really became part of the DNA in places where that was important. Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, etc.

I don’t mean to oversimplify this. There are hundreds of other factors that influence where certain sports become popular. Football was huge in Nebraska, basketball in Kansas. The early years of both college football and college basketball were dominated by teams in the upper midwest and northeast. I am not trying to explain American sports culture by using barometric pressure, although I’m sure there’s a sabermetrician out there who will be happy to try.

I am really just saying that in the midwest, in Kansas, you can feel basketball season coming. You can feel it with your skin.  And this adds to the anticipation of it. There is something about walking in from the dark and the gray and the cold — shoulders bunched together, face tucked down into your chest to get away from the sharp wind — and into a hot gym, where you scoot your feet across a mat to knock off the snow and it smells like popcorn and a brass band is blowing “Carry On Wayward Son” with full lungs and pattering hearts and tiny girls in short skirts are being thrown into the air and your eyes take a minute to adjust to all the light.

At the risk of coming off as maudlin, I write that it feels a little bit like coming home for Christmas. Well, that’s how coming home for Christmas feels in the Midwest anyway.

It doesn’t feel like that on the Gulf Coast. Here, it still feels like football season is just getting started. And it will feel that way until football season is over. On the Gulf Coast, the winters are not something to escape. It’s where birds hang out in November.

So basketball doesn’t seem as necessary here. But it is still in my DNA.

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