Seeing that this is the very first entry of this blog I thought, what better place to start than with the very first basketball game ever played. To do that I need to take you back to the year 1891 to western Massachusetts, to a town called Springfield. There we find a school called the School for Christian Workers. It’s going to later be named the YMCA International Training Center. It is part of the YMCA network.
At this school, men train to become secretaries, as the position was called back then. For the most part, women were still not allowed in an office setting. So, this is a man’s world. After all, this is the 1890s. So, these men are training to become administrative assistants. But, part of their training includes physical education (PE).
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YMCA Training School (Springfield, MA) - 1891
At this school, there is a PE teacher from Canada named James Naismith. He is about 30 years old when he takes this job and he is quite an athlete. When he was in college he played on the soccer team, rugby team, lacrosse team, track team, and gymnastics team. Then after college, he played a little bit of professional lacrosse with a team called the Montreal Shamrocks. But anyway, he is here at this training center leading physical education.
He would later go on to become a college professor and after that a Presbyterian minister. He would receive a Ph.D. in theology. That is why we know him today as Dr. James Naismith. At this point, he hasn’t quite gotten that far yet. He is still trying to control a class of 18 men in PE. He calls them “The Incorrigibles” because they are a rowdy crowd of guys. So these are guys in their early to mid-20s looking to become secretaries and go work at various YMCA locations.
This group of men would often play football in the Fall and baseball in the Spring and this is what they do to stay fit. But, what to do in the winter months? If you’ve never been to Massachusetts it can be cold and harsh in the wintertime. So, they move to take their PE classes indoors. And that means downtime to an extent.
During the winter months, they still worked on stuff to stay in shape, but it is more like calisthenics, tumbling, and basic gymnastics. There isn’t anything competitive about it like football or baseball. So, the guys do not like it. They know they have to do it because it is wintertime. They have to stay in shape, but they cannot wait until the Spring when they can go outside again and play baseball. As the winter months would wear on, these guys become more and more unruly. They become rougher and they are just a handful for Naismith.
Inventing The Game
Then, one day, Naismith’s boss gives him an assignment. He wants Naismith to create a brand new game that could be played indoors. It has to be competitive to keep the guys occupied and happy, and he only has two weeks to come up with it. If Naismith comes up with something that works it will be shared with the other YMCAs around the country.
Now he has two weeks to figure this out, so the next day he goes into PE class and takes the games that he is familiar with like soccer, rugby, and lacrosse, and tries to make some sort of a combination of those three games. He then has the guys try to play it on an indoor court. The guys did not like it at all. They could not stand the new game.
Every day Naismith is changing the rules here and there as he is experimenting to find something that will work. Let’s move this boundary here, let’s move that boundary there. Let’s have more players, fewer players. Let’s move the goal this way or that way. Well, he just couldn’t come up with anything that worked. It was basically a failure. Nearly two weeks of experimenting resulting in nothing.
He now has just one day left to go before his assignment is due of creating a brand new game. He goes all the way back and just clears the deck. He goes back to square one to create a new game. He did have a few parameters that he has to work with and these were just circumstantial in nature.
He has to have minimal equipment. He cannot create a game that requires things like gloves, helmets, sticks, racquets, or anything like that because they don’t have the budget for it. The new game could not require special shoes or anything like that. So, that is what he is working with as he is trying to come up with a new idea.
So, one of the first things he starts with is the ball itself. He realizes quickly that he is going to need a ball that is larger in size. The ball needs to be handled with bare hands. He noticed that games with a small ball always require equipment to handle that ball. Baseball requires a bat and gloves. Tennis required a racquet. Lacrosse required sticks. He cannot have any of this.
So the larger ball allows for barehanded handling. He also needs to avoid tackling. Remember, they are on an indoor court. He cannot have guys tackling each other on a hard surface like they do for football when you are on grass. You are going to get hurt and you are going to get floor burns. You are going to get injuries. So there cannot be any tackling. But no tackling also means no running with the ball.
If a guy is running with the ball then something or someone has to go stop that guy, and that means tackling. You could catch and ball and then turn and pass it to another teammate. This game has to be passing only. This is how the players are going to move the ball around the court.
The last thing he realizes is that he is going to have to do something with the goals. You cannot have the goals on the ground like a goal for soccer or an end zone for football because it will tempt the players to shove the ball into the goal using brute force. That will tempt the defense to create some sort of a wall in front of the office to stop them from going into the goal
So he thinks to himself, what can I do to get around this problem? And finally, it hits him. What if we move the goals vertically? What if we put the goals up in the air? Well, that was something different. That would require some finesse over force, which is what he was going for. A goal in the air becomes more difficult to defend. You cannot defend a basket that is way up in the air. To an extent, you can defend the shot and try to block it, but once the ball is in the air it was all skill on the part of the shooter.
They do not even call it a shot. They call it a toss. You tossed the ball into the goal. So, now he was excited. Now he is onto something and he cannot wait for the next day’s class to show the men his new idea.
He gets to the school early and asks the janitor if he has two boxes available that are approximately 18 inches on each side. Unfortunately, the janitor does not have any boxes. But he has a couple of peach baskets and he offers them to Naismith. Naismith accepts the baskets and will work with them. He goes ahead and sets them up in the gym. Also, Naismith cannot ruin the baskets. He is now allowed to cut out the bottoms because the janitor still needs those baskets to be returned after the game.
Now, this is an important detail. It’s a small detail, but a very important one. If the janitor had boxes the game might be called boxball. But because he had peach baskets available, it is called basketball.
Now, let’s talk about the game itself. Naismith sets up the two peach baskets on each end of the gym. The gym has a running track that went around the gym and was above the gym floor.
If you are standing on the track you would look down on the gym floor. Naismith attaches the baskets to the bottom of the railing of the track. That railing just happens to be 10 feet off the ground which also makes the basket 10 feet off the ground. It could have been 11 feet or 12 feet, but it happened to be 10 feet and that is where we still have the baskets today. So, now we are getting ready for the very first game. It is around early December.
Nobody knows the actual date of the first game. History is not often recorded in cases like this because nobody realizes that history is being made. These were just regular guys trying to do a job in their everyday work life and nobody wrote down the date.
The First Ever Basketball Game
There are 13 rules that Naismith comes up with. I am not going to go through all 13 of the rules right now because that is going to make this really, really boring. But I will say this. There is no running with the ball. It is passing only. The baskets are going to count as 1 point. They are going to do a tip-off at the beginning of the game and a tip-off after every made basket. Players only get two fouls and then they are out until the next basket was scored. So, if you get two fouls you have to go sit on the bench and you cannot be substituted. Your team has to play a man down. They have to play this way until the next basket and then everyone can come back onto the court.
So, in this early game, there were so many fouls because these guys were just trying to figuring it out. So there were half the teams had gotten two fouls each. Half the bench was filled with players waiting for a basket so that they could come back on the court.
So, for that first game, Naismith takes the 18 men and divides them into two teams. But he does not think about substitutes or backups, or anything like that. All 18 men are on the court at the same time. Is it a little bit crowded? Yes. But that is how it is. After all, they are trying to figure it out. They are still experimenting.
Also, they did not have an actual basketball the way we think of it today. I mean, Naismith had just invented the game the night before. So, what they use is a soccer ball. It is big enough to be handled bare-handed and serve the purposes of the game. Basketballs will be manufactured in about a year or so.
The First Ever Basketball Game Is A Hit
Well, the great thing about this is that it is a huge, huge hit. The guys love it. The idea and the challenge of putting the ball into the basket is just really neat. They really enjoy it. Within just a couple of weeks, they have as many as 200 people showing up to play. The word has spread about this new game and guys want to check it out. Being that it is December the guys only play for a few weeks before going home for Christmas break. It is like going home for the winter break during college.
So everybody goes home for a few weeks and they take the idea of the game with them. There is one guy who is from North Carolina, which was about as far south as the guys went. Some are from Canada, and then some are from other areas of New England, Philadelphia, New York, so the game spreads really, really quickly as these guys take the game back to their local YMCAs where they were from.
Within a month and a half of the first game, this thing is spreading like wildfire all across the northeast and into Canada, and it was super exciting. YMCAs start forming their own teams to play against other YMCAs. Even colleges catch on to this. It fills a need that they all have, which is not having a fun game to play indoors during the cold winters. So, this is fantastic. This game can be played in the winter, it keeps you in shape, and it has a competitive aspect to it. It is an amazing solution to a winter problem.
Now, some of the guys come back from winter break and want to call it Naismith ball, in honor of the guy who created it. He says that it will kill the game. He wants something generic like baseball or football. So they call it basketball and that is the name that stuck.
By the way, the game did not keep a box score. So nobody knows the score of that first game. But most people agree that the game was 1-0. Remember there were no Steph Currys back in those days. The idea of shooting a ball into a basket was the first time anybody had ever thought of that, at least in this context. I know that there are some ancient games that the Aztecs played where you tossed a ball through a ring. There are also some old Native American games where you throw a ball through a hoop.
But in terms of this context, this is a brand new skill. So the guys are not sure if you toss it one-handed or two-handed. Do you toss it overhand or underhand? Nobody knows. There is no proper way to do any of this. It is too new. Just toss the ball any way you can and pray for the best.
Within just a couple of years, manufacturers are making proper balls, rims, nets, and everything you need to have a basketball game. That went on to support the development of the game even more because you have equipment designed for this game.
Basketball In The 1936 Olympics
One of the nice things is that before Naismith died he got to see basketball played at the Olympics in 1936 in Berlin. Those are the Nazi Olympics where Jesse Owens wins four gold medals against Adolph Hitler’s superstar. That is also where basketball is played for the first time for a medal. He was invited as a special guest all the way to Berlin to witness his game being played for a gold medal. The US was there, Germany was there, England was there, Japan, Brazil. So, this was a really neat way for him to see the growth of his game. It had truly become international.
So, that was the first game. That is how basketball got started. This is just one story from basketball’s history. I’m going to keep looking for more stories that really deserve attention. So come back for the next entry where I share the story of the New York Renaissance, one of the greatest barnstorming teams of the 1920s.
You can learn more about Basketball History 101 here.