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How Basketball Was Invented: When & Where Was Basketball Invented?

Publish Date: 11.07.2024
Fact checked by: Jackson T. Pierce

All sports have to start somewhere, and that includes basketball. While the high-flying game is now one of strict rules, fleshed out guidelines, and international prestige, it wasn’t always that way. It has rather humble beginnings that started more than a century ago.

Most modern games have a shrouded or secret history. Basketball breaks that mold because it has one creator; athlete and graduate student James Naismith. He may not have created basketball as it is known today, but the sport would certainly not exist without him.

Inventing a sport is not easy, especially back in the late 1800’s. However, Naismith created a strong foundation that others built upon. It has only grown since then, and is now one of the most popular activities on Earth.

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Background and Invention

It’s often hard to say where a sport started. That is not true of basketball. It’s easy to see how basketball was invented because the game had one inventor. The 31-year-old graduate student at the International YMCA Training School named James Naismith is who invented basketball.

Born in Almonte, Canada in 1861, Naismith had a knack for education and a love of games. Both of those aspects helped him graduate from highschool in 1883, and then pushed him to search out higher learning and enroll in McGill University later that year.

Naismith then taught physical education at McGill for a few years before moving onto the YMCA International Training School in Springfield Massachusetts. There, he was hired as a full-time faculty member and put in charge of a particularly rowdy class during the winter of 1891.

The boys were stuck indoors due to harsh weather, which made them irritable and short-tempered. To combat that, Naismith sought to invent a game that could keep them occupied. That led him to the first form of what we call basketball today.

The Creation of Basketball

Looking at the question of “where was basketball invented?” the answer is a small gym in Massachusetts. After laying the groundwork and putting together the correct rules, Naismith gave basketball a proper shot by holding the first official contest on December 21st, 1891.

That is the official date for organized play, while the cold day in the gym is the first time it was ever played. Looking at that, the answer to “when was basketball invented?” typically just comes down to sometime in 1989.

However, the original sport was a far cry from its current iteration. Rather than using hoops, which hadn’t been invented yet, the teams shot on peach baskets and used a soccer ball. They then played the game in two fifteen minute halves and had a five minute halftime.

There are many rules to modern basketball, but in the beginning they just had 13. Many of those still exist, such as “the ball may be thrown in any direction with one or both hands,” “a player cannot run with the ball,” and “the side who makes the most goals shall be declared the winner.”

A few of them were also phased out with time. The rules of “the ball shall never be batted with the fist,” “a foul is striking at the ball with the fist,” and “if either side makes three consecutive fouls it shall count as a goal for the opponent” are no longer in play.

Their spirit lives on in many ways, but they have all shifted throughout history. Basketball is an ever-changing medium, and the early rules went through a range of alterations during the first half of the twentieth century. That’s true of the equipment too.

While jerseys came about with time, the first uniforms were simply gym clothes. Players tended to wear baggy shorts and wool shirts. It wouldn’t be until 1920 when the outfits started to shift into what we know today.

The balls and hoops went through similar shifts. The first balls were made of leather, cloth lining, and a rubber bladder. The uniform model wouldn’t exist until 1942, and the synthetic covering didn’t come about until the late 90’s.

It would also take time for basketball hoops to evolve. The peach basket design held on for a while, but eventually the bottom was cut out to make the ball easier to retrieve. Nets and rims quickly followed.

Early Spread and Popularity

Many games have been invented throughout history, but few have had the staying power of basketball. The sport is extremely fun and exciting, two traits that made it an instant hit when Naismith created the first rules all the way back in 1891.

In fact, unlike many other sports, it took off immediately. The first public game occurred when the secretarial class faced off against their instructors on March 11th, 1892. That was the first time the game went beyond closed gym doors, and marked a big shift for the sport.

From there, basketball only grew. Education institutions all over the United States adopted it, as they saw it as a good way to encourage physical education among students, and the first professional league came about in1898, just six years after the first game.

There are many reasons for that growth, but the biggest is the YMCA. The organization loved basketball and sought to spread it to as many people as possible. They even put together international matches in Paris, Japan, India, and China.

Colleges also took to the sport, with the first collegiate game occurring on February 7th, 1893. That multi-faceted push quickly placed basketball as one of the most popular sports in the world. In just one decade it went from a fun game to something much, much bigger.

Professional and Collegiate Basketball

As mentioned, basketball exploded only a few short years after its inception when the National Basketball League came about in 1896. It was the first pro organization for the sport, and put the game on a national level.

Though the league soon folded a few years later in 1904, basketball proved to have true staying power. The Eastern Basketball League arose in 1909, the Metropolitan Basketball League came about in 1921, and the American Basketball League was founded in 1925.

Such leagues didn’t have a ton of popularity, but they all furthered the sport and helped pave the way for what would eventually become the NBA in 1946.

At the same time as the rise in professional leagues, college basketball rapidly grew. The first games occurred in 1893, and the first modern match featuring two teams of five players happened in 1896 between the University of Chicago and the University of Iowa.

Though basketball had a huge following across multiple states and countries, collegiate contests are what took it to the next level. The NCAA formed in 1909 to create a more uniform structure. They then came up with the NCAA tournament in 1939.

Global Expansion

Basketball’s expansion into foreign markets may seem like a recent endeavor, but the game has always had international success. The YMCA took it to a range of countries during the early years, and the first international game happened in 1909.

Something else that helped put the game on a global scale were both world wars. World War 1 and World War 2 brought American soldiers all around the world. There, they inevitably talked about basketball and spread it to other places.

Such events all built until 1932, when eight countries came together to form the International Basketball Federation (FIBA). That was a major step, as it allowed the proper creation of tournaments and professional management of teams.

Due to the organization’s diligence, basketball then entered the Berlin Olympics in 1936. That mark put it on a global scale never seen before and cemented it as a legitimate sport to people all around the world.

Evolution of the Game

Basketball has come a long way since Naismith first proposed it to his class in a Massachusetts gym, and it even went through major shifts just a few years after its conception. For example, there was no dribbling at first, nor was there any overtime.

In order to get from Naismith’s first iteration to today’s game, basketball went through some major rule changes over and over again. Some stuck, some didn’t, but they all changed the game in a significant way.

After the game became a five-on-five contest with rims and hoops, it rapidly began to change in the 1950’s. The shot clock came about in 1954 to speed up the game, then the lane was widened twice during that decade.

The 3-point line was created in 1979, and the current free throw rules (two on a two-pointer and three on a three-pointer) came about in 1994. The league implemented a no-charge area in 1997 and they implemented/expanded instant replay review starting in 2002.

There were many small changes throughout those years, but the above ones are the largest. Of course, who could play the game changed as well.

African Americans weren’t allowed to play in white leagues until the 1950’s, and their full inclusion didn’t happen until the end of the decade. Women in America didn’t have their own league either until the creation of the WNBA in 1996.


Basketball is one of the biggest sports on Earth, but it didn’t start out that way. It came from the mind of a faculty member looking to help his students pass the time. Naismith created magic in that gym, and it showed in how fast it grew to a national and global phenomenon.

Many other people came together to help the sport grow, especially during the first half of the 20th century, and it’s gone through many different iterations to get to where it is today. Modern basketball is in a great spot and is likely not going to significantly change anytime soon.

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