Early Rule Changes In Basketball (The First 50 Years)

Let us take a trip to the past to look at some of the big rule changes that occurred during the first 50 years of the game’s development. The game of basketball is always undergoing changes. The rules of the game are constantly being reviewed to see if any adjustments need to be made to keep the game exciting.

One of the things that I really appreciate about the people involved with the game’s development is that for the most part, their primary concern was keeping the game exciting and enjoyable to watch. In other words, they wanted to make sure it was fun for fans to watch. That has been the guiding principle for many of the rule changes that we will share.

The Beginning

So let us just get right into it. I am going to talk about these rule changes in chronological order of when they were made.

Moving The Pivot Foot

The first significant rule change came in 1893 just two years after the game’s invention. The rule change allowed for the player holding the ball to pivot on one foot as long as that foot was anchored in its position.

You see, the original 13 rules of basketball said that a player could not run with the ball. So, most players interpreted this to mean that both feet had to stay put when holding the ball. But it did not take long for players to begin to pivot on one foot since that did not seem to constitute running with the ball. Well, some players liked to pivot on one foot while others deemed it as breaking the spirit of the rule, if not the actual wording of the rule.

Basically, some guys were saying, “Hey, you can’t do that.”

And the other guy says, “Yes, I can.”

“No, you can’t”

“Yes, I can.”

So, the powers that be got together and collectively decided that having a pivot foot was perfectly acceptable and did not constitute a travel violation. And this was a great clarification of the original rule. You can see today how just being able to pivot on one foot allows the player with the ball just enough movement to be able to get a clean pass away or even a clean shot.

The basketball courts on the terrace on the eastern edge of Rockefeller Park, along the Hudson River at River Terrace and Warren Street in Battery Park City, Lower Manhattan.
Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons in the public domain. Photo credit - Tdorante10 of The basketball courts on the terrace on the eastern edge of Rockefeller Park, along the Hudson River at River Terrace and Warren Street in Battery Park City, Lower Manhattan. Showing the glass backboard.

The Backboard

The next rule change occurred in 1895. The rule added a backboard as a standard piece of equipment on all baskets. Before this, baskets were simply attached to a pole or to a railing without anything resembling a backboard. In many games where the basket was attached to a railing you often had fans lean over the railing and interfere with shots.

So, let’s say you are a fan of the home team and the visiting team is taking a shot. Well, if you are sitting close enough to the basket you can just stick your hand out you can essentially block the shot, or shake the basket, or anything to keep the ball from going in against your team. And fans did this all the time.

This was a home-court advantage taken to a whole new level. Fan interference was happening with such regularity that a backboard was created to prevent fans from sticking their hands in the way.

Moving The Free Throw Line

There was also another major rule change in 1895. It was decided to move the free throw line from 20 feet back to just 15 feet back, where it is today. So, imagine taking your free throws from the top of the key. That is about 20 feet from the basket. And that was an incentive to foul like crazy.

At 20 feet away, making a free throw was difficult. So, as a defense, you were better off sending the other team to the free-throw line than letting them take an open shot. After all, they were just playing the percentages. And the percentages said, send them to the free throw line.

But, by bringing the free throw line 5 feet closer, it made the free throw easier to make which would help deter the opponent from fouling.

You see, that was the problem that they were trying to solve. With the free-throw line so far away you were better off just fouling the other team on nearly every possession and that turned the game into a free-throw contest. And nobody wanted to watch that, because now the defense had to think about it. Sending them to the free-throw line may not be your best move. The percentages were now leaning the other way.

You might be better off just playing good defense and taking your chances with the shot. And that helped keep the game moving. And that made for more exciting basketball to watch.

Made Baskets Count As Two Points

The next significant rule change happened in 1896. The value of made shots was changed. For a brief period, both regular field goals and free throws were all worth 3 points. Of course, a player only got one free throwback then on a foul, not two like today.

So, no, there were no 6-point trips to the line. If a player got fouled while shooting he took one free throw for three points. And there was no and-one back then. If a player was fouled, but still made the shot, then that was it. The other team gets the ball. But that was the year that they decided that field goals would be worth 2 and free throws worth 1 point a piece.

And those values have never been changed again until the introduction of the modern 3-point line in the 1970s. Now in my research, I could not find why they made regular baskets worth 3 points in the 1890s. It really does not make any sense and from what I could find it was not happening everywhere, only in some parts of the country.

But it was good to keep the game consistent wherever it was played.

Introduction Of The Dribble

Our next rule change was a big one. In 1897 the Yale University basketball team started dribbling the ball. And that would not seem like a big deal today except that dribbling was not a part of the game back then. Up until that time, you would pass the ball around, but you would not actually bounce it because that was not the intention of the inventor of the game.

However, the coach at Yale University figured out a way to exploit the existing rules. He used the tactic as a way to take advantage of a loophole. The rules simply said that a player could not run while holding the ball. Well, when the player is dribbling he is not technically carrying the ball. Therefore, a player could move around while bouncing it. Now this required a major meeting of the influential people of the day.

Should dribbling be allowed to continue, or should they close the loophole and disallow this new technique?
Thankfully, they were very forward-looking people and realized how exciting it was to see dribbling introduced into the game. However, it was considered a very risky technique because the defender could easily poke the ball away with their hand. It was the basketball equivalent of watching a guy riding a unicycle while juggling chainsaws. There was a wow factor to it and the fans loved it.

Now, what did make it a risky maneuver was that the basketballs of that time had laces that protruded from the ball the way that the laces protrude on an American football. Imagine dribbling a basketball that had football-style laces. The player always had to be aware of where the laces were. He did not want the ball to hit the ground on the laces or else it could easily bounce away.

So, when guys did dribble, they used it minimally. They only dribbled far enough to make the pass or take the shot. You would have never seen someone back then pulling a James Harden and just dribbling it a thousand times before taking a step-back jumper.

So, this was a really great rule change that forever changed how the game was played and opened things up to start developing plays with movement from the dribbler.

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    The Glass Backboard

    In 1910 the glass backboard was introduced. This was simply to allow fans sitting behind the backboard to better see the game. It was a great idea that still exists today. There really is not much more to say on that one. I mean, this was an obvious one. There was a problem and someone came up with a simple solution.

    Done. A see-through backboard was great for fans.

    Out Of Bounds Rule

    In 1914 another big rule change came into existence. The out-of-bounds rule was changed so that the opposite team of the one who touched it last automatically gets the ball. Today, everyone at every level of basketball knows this one. I coach 7- and 8-year-old boys in basketball and I do not even have to explain this rule. Everyone just gets it. If you touch it last before the ball goes out of bounds, then the other team gets the ball. It is simple.

    So, you are probably wondering, what did they do before that? Well, if the ball went out of bounds, the first person who could secure the ball got to inbound the ball. Therefore, out-of-bounds balls became insane scrambles for the ball. Players would be shoving and falling all over each other to be the first to gain possession of the ball while it was out of bounds.

    It looked like a fumble in American football. Once you claimed possession you could throw the ball into a teammate. This was the reason that players used to wear all kinds of pads back then. If you ever look at old photos of basketball players they are often wearing knee pads and sometimes elbow pads.

    Could you imagine watching NBA basketball back in the 1980s and having Charles Oakley and Bill Laimbeer both racing to get to the ball first? You would be creating a situation where you were just asking for fights to happen. Basketball was a really rough game back then. So this rule change was definitely necessary and it significantly reduced the number of injuries that occurred from trying to be first to an out-of-bounds ball. And reducing injuries was good for the game.

    Not Everything Was A Foul

    In 1924 they changed the rule so that violations do not always result in free throws. Before this, all fouls and violations resulted in free throws for the other team. If you traveled with the ball, the other team got free throws. If you double-dribbled, the other team got free throws. If you stepped over the line on the inbounds pass, the other team got free throws.

    The game made a distinction between contact fouls like pushing a player, or bumping the shooter, and simple violations, like traveling. There were no more free throws for non-contact violations. This was a good change because it sped up the game. And keeping the game fast was important when you are trying to sell tickets. Nobody wants to see a free-throw parade.

    No More Stalling

    In 1930 and 1933 there were two rules put into place to prevent stalling. The first was that you could not stand in the backcourt and hold the ball for more than 5 seconds. After 5 seconds you had to start dribbling or pass the ball. The other rule forced the team to bring the ball across half-court within 10 seconds of gaining possession. This was to keep teams from stalling.

    However, once you got into the front court, you could just stand there with the ball for as long as you wanted to. But at least you were closer to the defense and stalling was far less likely in the front court. Of course that didn’t stop the Ft. Wayne Pistons from stalling their way into a 19-18 victory over the Minneapolis Lakers in the 1950s. But the tactic was less likely to happen with these new rules.

    No More Center Jump After Every Basket

    The last major rule change of the first 50 years was to eliminate the center jump after made baskets or made free throws. In some areas of basketball, they were doing a tip-off after every basket. This slowed the game down considerably and also allowed people to play the game who really had no business being out there.

    With a tip-off after every basket, many teams went out and found the tallest guy they could find. It did not matter if he was athletic or not, and often they were not. They were just really tall. Their only job was to jump center and gain possession of the ball for his team. This is the way that it went.

    Team A would make the basket and then their guy would win the tip so they could make another basket. And then do that again. Teams were able to maintain possession of the ball for five, six, or even seven possessions in a row with the other team never even touching the ball. It became terrible basketball.

    You see, a lot of times these really tall guys were really slow and were not able to really participate in the normal part of the game. They were good on defense to block shots, but if you had to play against a fast team, these guys were of little help.

    Once they eliminated the center jump after every basket, these tall non-athletes disappeared from the game. Later when tall guys started coming back into the game, they were much more athletic. Back then nobody could have ever imagined a guy like Giannis, Kevin Durant, or Anthony Davis; guys who are in that 7-foot range, who are as athletic and fast as anyone else on the court.

    If you tried to describe Giannis to a group of basketball players from the 1930s, they would have thought that you were out of your mind. You might as well be describing an alien. Back then, nobody that tall could move that fast and that fluidly.


    It is always interesting to see how rules have changed over the years as the players have gotten faster, taller, and more athletic. These types of changes become necessary as the context changes. Other changes were required as coaches were always looking for new strategies that exploit loopholes in the rules.

    Honestly, I think it is great that players and coaches are always pushing the boundaries of this game. And I look forward to seeing where the game is going next.

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