January 19, 2018:

On January 20, 1892 the first official game of basketball was played at a YMCA in Albany, New York. Records show that the final score was 1-0, the only basket being a 25-foot field goal. Not much else is known about this landmark event- not even the names of the teams. What we do know is that the game of basketball was invented one month earlier at the Springfield, Massachusetts YMCA by Dr. John Naismith.

A native of Canada, Naismith became a minister shortly after graduating from McGill University.  He moved to Springfield to study at the YMCA’s International Training School. Naismith played rugby for the local team and taught physical education at the Y. In December,1891, looking for an indoor activity to engage his students, Naismith went to the gymnasium armed with two peach baskets, a ladder and a collection of rugby, football and soccer balls. He nailed baskets at opposite ends of the gym at a height of 6’. He immediately decided that it was too easy to toss a ball into a 6’ basket so he elevated them to 10’ (today’s official height). Naismith took elements of rugby, lacrosse, soccer and baseball to develop a game that would keep his students fit while not being too rough. He called the game “basketball” and pinned 13 rules of the game to the gym wall. Incredibly, 12 of those rules still exist today.

It is astonishing that it took only 2 weeks for Naismith to create a game that is now played by over 400 million participants across the globe. Compare this to baseball, the rules of which took decades to develop in the 19th century. In fact, baseball’s development is so involved and murky that it wasn’t until 1953 that congress officially recognized an inventor- Alexander Cartwright (Apparently the claim that Abner Doubleday invented baseball in 1839 is a myth). 

Basketball quickly became an international sensation, primarily because students from across the globe came to study in Springfield and tried out the new game. Within 2 years, international tournaments were being held and many universities were forming teams. 
Meanwhile, Naismith obtained a medical degree and joined the faculty at the University of Kansas. He became the country’s first college basketball coach and has the dubious distinction of being the only UK basketball coach with a career losing record (55-60). He never sought recognition for or profited from his invention. In 1936, the National Association of Basketball Coaches convinced the modest professor to attend the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Naismith was given the honor of tossing up the first ball in the first Olympic basketball game. The U.S. won gold, his native, Canada won silver and Mexico took the bronze. 

Refining Naismith’s game

  • The first game in Springfield featured 9 players per side since 18 students showed up to the gym. After experimenting with as many as 50 per side, the team size was set in 1897 at 5 players.
  • The first games were played with soccer balls which were not conducive for ball handling. A bicycle manufacturer developed the first basketball in 1894 and soon after, Spaulding started production.
  • Players were not allowed to bounce the ball until 1901 when players were allowed one bounce.  Continuous dribbling was instituted in 1909.
  • Originally, someone climbed a ladder to retrieve the ball after every made basket. In 1896, a player from a semi-pro team cut out the bottom of the baskets with a scissors, thus enhancing the pace of the game. It wouldn’t be until 1938 that the center jump after each basket was abolished.
  • Originally, a goal was counted as 1 point, and a point was awarded if 3 consecutive fouls were called on an opponent. Free throws were introduced in 1894, each freebie being counted as 1 goal. An 1896 rules change made a field goal count as 2 points.
  • The 3-consecutive foul rule is the only of Naismith’s original 13 rules that hasn’t survived
  • The first intercollegiate women’s game was played between Stanford and California in 1896. This was 3 years after women’s basketball was introduced by Senda Berenson, a gymnastic instructor, at Smith College. Berenson was inducted into The Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 1999.

Have a great weekend.

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 Ted Curtin