Very few organized sports around the world have a history as unique as the game of basketball. Sure, soccer (or association football) can claim to be the most popular sport in the world, and baseball has the claim of “America’s Pastime”. American football, rugby, and Australian rules football attract multitudes of fans with intense physical contact, but basketball is a sport that reaches across all types of athletic abilities and attracts fans and players from every corner of the world.

Basketball is arguably one of the most diverse sports in the world and the reasons for that can be found in its storied history. Let’s take a look at how the game of basketball was invented and how it became the great worldwide sport that it is today.

How Did the Game of Basketball Get Its Start?

The game of basketball has been around for 129 years. When we look at the history of most other sports it can be very hard to pin down the exact date of when they were invented because they are usually adapted or created from a combination of other existing games. Some sports are so old that there are no real records to prove when they began.

This is not true for the game of basketball. Fortunately, we have records and there were many witnesses to the original creation of the game. In fact, the original 13 rules, created and written by James Naismith, are preserved and on display at the DeBruce Center on the campus of the University of Kansas.

It was the late fall of 1891 in Springfield, Massachusetts where the idea first came about. Springfield College, which back then was known as The International YMCA Training College, had a new program called “Physical Education”. The program’s founding superintendent, Luther Halsey Gulick, was looking for a game that could be played in the off-season after football and lacrosse seasons were over. The game needed to be played indoors due to the cold snowy New England Winters.

Gulick called on his new young instructor James Naismith to come up with something to keep his students active and engaged. Naismith set out to create a game that was athletically challenging but not quite as rough and physical as football, lacrosse or rugby. Since it had to be played in the smaller confined space of an indoor gym, he didn’t want his students to break bones or have other serious injuries.

James Naismith: The Inventor of Basketball

James Naismith (November 6, 1861 – November 28, 1939) was a Canadian-American who invented the game of basketball at the age of 30. He was a physical educator, and also a basketball coach, a physician and a chaplain. He was a true innovator because of the way he was tasked to come up with a new athletic activity and quickly created the game of basketball.

Naismith was born on November 6, 1861. The son of Scottish immigrants, he was raised on a farm near Almonte, Ontario in Canada. As a child, he had difficulties in school but was a competent farm worker and in his free time enjoyed playing games such as catch, hide-and-seek, and duck on a rock with his friends.

He was orphaned early in his life and lived with his aunt and uncle near Almonte, where he attended high school and graduated in 1883. After high school, he attended McGill University in Montreal, where he studied physical education. While at McGill, Naismith was a talented athlete who played football, lacrosse, rugby, soccer and gymnastics.

While playing center for the football team, he used his knowledge and innovation to create a new type of padding or helmet to protect his ears. On the gymnastics team, he won numerous medals for his outstanding performance. He would go on to graduate with a BA in physical education and also received a diploma from the Presbyterian College in Montreal.

The Invention of Basketball

In 1891 Naismith was teaching physical education as a graduate student at the YMCA International Training School in Springfield, Massachusetts. In class discussions, Luther Halsey Gulick had stressed the need for a new indoor game. He called for a game “that would be interesting, easy to learn, and easy to play in the winter and by artificial light.”

Naismith was the only one really listening while Halsey lamented about needing to come up with a new game. Dreading the end of the fall sports season and the mandatory indoor gymnasium work with his class he had the motivation to follow up on Halsey’s request.

The faculty soon met to discuss the problem of the student’s cooped up energy and their disinterest in the required gymnasium work. Naismith had expressed his opinion saying, “the trouble is not with the men, but with the system that we are using.” He wanted to come up with something new and exciting to inspire his young students. He thought the activity “should be of a recreative nature, something that would appeal to their play instincts.”

By the time the meeting was over, Halsey decided to assign this task to the innovative Naismith. “Naismith,” he said. “I want you to take that class and see what you can do with it.” Naismith started working to come up with a game that could be played indoors on any type of surface, by a good number of players all at the same time. He wanted it to provide plenty of exercises, and to require a fair amount of skill, but without the roughness of football, rugby or soccer. He felt that being in a confined space could lead to more injuries.

Naismith began working on a solution and put in a great amount of thought. He used parts of other popular games at the times such as passing and the jump ball from rugby, the use of a goal in lacrosse, and the shape of the ball in soccer. There was one game from his childhood playtime on the farm in Ontario that really influenced his ideas. It was called duck on a rock.

Duck on a rock was a medieval game in which a player would try to guard a large stone from opposing players who would try to knock it down by throwing smaller stones at it. To play it effectively, Naismith found that it was better to lob the stones rather than forcefully throw them directly at the target.

This was a key idea in the creation of basketball. Naismith wanted to create a goal or target in which the ball wasn’t slammed forcefully through but required skill and finesse to hit the target. He, therefore, wanted to have a goal with a horizontal opening high enough so that the ball would need to be tossed into it rather than being thrown.

Naismith asked the school janitor if he could find two 18 inch boxes to use for the goals. The janitor came back with two peach baskets. Naismith took the baskets and nailed them to the lower rail of the gymnasium balcony, which just happened to be 10 feet from the ground. From there Naismith was ready to start the first game.

The First Basketball Game

Image credit: Wikipedia

After looking at various sources, most are in agreement that the first basketball game was played on December 21, 1891. This is when Naismith posted the original rules and a game was played using them. It is a little unclear if there were any attempts or practices before that.

In Naismith’s own words during an interview in 1939, it sounds as if there was some sort of attempt to play before the rules were created and written. He stated that it ended in a large scrum with the players wrestling, pushing and shoving to get the ball, the opposite of what he was hoping for. Several players ended up with bruises and black eyes. One ended up with a dislocated shoulder and another was even knocked unconscious.

However it happened, Naismith was compelled to write the 13 original rules of basketball and posted them in the gymnasium for the players to see. On December 21, 1891, the first game was played with the 13 original rules. Because he had 18 students in his class, he split the teams into two teams with 9 players each. With the new rules in place, the game went just as Naismith had imagined it.

The gym was only about 50 ft. by 35 ft. Much smaller than the standard courts today. The game was divided into two 15 minute halves and of the 9 players on each team, there were 3 centers, 3 forwards and 3 guards. The game started with a jump ball and the players learned to pass the ball in order to advance it up and down the court since dribbling was not yet part of the game.

They didn’t know it at the time but they were participating in one of the greatest moments in sports history; the first basketball game. At the end of the game, the score was a whopping 1 – 0. Team 1 ended up prevailing in the first game with William R. Chase on record as the first scored basket in basketball history.

The 13 Rules

Image courtesy: The Kansas City Star

The following are the 13 original rules that Naismith used to tame his class of energetic athletes during the first basketball game :

  1. The ball may be thrown in any direction with one or both hands.
  2. The ball may be batted in any direction with one or both hands.
  3. A player cannot run with the ball. The player must throw it from the spot on which he catches it, allowance to be made for a man who catches the ball when running at a good speed if he tries to stop.
  4. The ball must be held in or between the hands; the arms or body must not be used for holding it.
  5. No shouldering, holding, striking, pushing, or tripping in any way of an opponent. The first infringement of this rule by any person shall count as a foul; the second shall disqualify him until the next basket is made or, if there was evident intent to injure the person, for the whole of the game. No substitution shall be allowed.
  6. A foul is striking at the ball with the fist, violation of rules three and four and such described in rule five.
  7. If either side makes three consecutive fouls, it shall count a goal for the opponents (consecutive means without the opponents in the mean time making a foul).
  8. A goal shall be made when the ball is thrown or batted from the grounds into the basket and stays there (without falling), providing those defending the goal do not touch or disturb the goal. If the ball rests on the edges, and the opponent moves the basket, it shall count as a goal.
  9. When the ball goes out of bounds, it shall be thrown into the field of play and played by the first person touching it. In case of dispute the umpire shall throw it straight into the field. The thrower-in is allowed five seconds. If he holds it longer, it shall go to the opponent. If any side persists in delaying the game, the umpire shall call a foul on that side.
  10. The umpire shall be the judge of the men and shall note the fouls and notify the referee when three consecutive fouls have been made. He shall have power to disqualify people according to Rule 5.
  11. The referee shall be judge of the ball and shall decide when the ball is in play, in bounds, to which side it belongs, and shall keep the time. He shall decide when a goal has been made and keep account of the baskets, with any other duties that are usually performed by a scorekeeper.
  12. The time shall be two fifteen-minute halves, with five minutes rest between.
  13. The side making the most points in that time is declared the winner.

As you can see, the original rules were quite different from the rules of today’s game, but this is how it all began. As the game spread across the country, and eventually the world, the rules were modified and new rules were adopted to ultimately improve on the game.

Changes were also made to the equipment. Originally, there needed to be people at each end of the courts with ladders to get the ball out the peach basket anytime someone scored. They eventually cut small holes in the bottom of the peach baskets so they could poke the ball out with a stick. Eventually, metal rims and nets were created.

Originally, Naismith, had his players use a soccer ball because that was the largest and softest ball they had around. He wanted a large ball that was easy to handle but was soft and safer than using a hard baseball or lacrosse ball. The basketball was not made until1894 when Naismith persuaded A.G. Spalding & Bros. to come up with a ball specifically for the game.

Basketball Spreads Around the World

After that first game, Naismith was not completely confident in how the game was received, but the students came back the next day and were itching to play again. It was a success and soon after, small crowds were gathering at the YMCA to watch the daily games. As students returned home for Christmas vacation they began spreading the game organically amongst friends.

The game began to spread rapidly in January of 1892 when Naismith wrote an article introducing the game. This article was published in the YMCA’s national newsletter called the “Triangle”, which was distributed to almost every YMCA in the United States. Naismith credited this article and its correspondence with the rapid spread of the game across the country. By September of 1892, the YMCA had a “descriptive pamphlet” on the “new and popular game” which was available for 10 cents by mail.

The game began spreading to large and small towns alike across the U.S and Canada. It spread so rapidly that many states have had disputes over which small town started playing the game first. With the recent digitization of newspaper articles, we can now search and find many articles showing YMCAs in small towns introducing the game as early as 1892.

In some states such as Indiana, these articles have created quite the controversy and even with the digitized newspaper articles from 1893, it is hard to determine who played basketball first. One of the problems is how do we know what is considered “playing basketball first”. Is it a practice, a scrimmage game, a pickup game, or a game between two organized teams? In any case, there is no doubt that the game was a huge success.

International students who learned of the game also took the game home with them and the game began to slowly spread around the world. Some YMCA physical educators also began taking the game to other parts of the world, but the popularity of the game around the world would take off even quicker, once the United States Military learned of the game.

World War I started in 1914 and U.S. Troops entered the war in 1917. By this time there were many physical educators in the military and basketball had become a very popular game with the U.S. Troops. As they were deployed to Europe and other locations around the world, they took basketball with them and played it during their recreational time. As people in other countries witnessed the game, it became increasingly popular around the world.

Although basketball is a game that is already known to most of the world today, it continues to increase in popularity through the NBA, college and other leagues around the world.

Organized Basketball

Image courtesy: SportspressNW

As the game of basketball spread throughout the country and the world, teams began forming at places like the YMCA. Outside of the YMCA clubs, several basketball leagues also began to form. The first professional league was formed in 1898. It consisted of 6 teams and was called the National Basketball League. The league was eventually abandoned in 1904.

There were also organized teams that played exhibition games, traveling from town to town and often playing the same team or local organized teams. It was similar to how a circus often traveled from town to town performing for the local spectators. The Original Celtics were one such team.

The Original Celtics were considered the “fathers of basketball”. They traveled from town to town playing games and were considered world champions of basketball. They were not related to the NBA’s Boston Celtics. They were popular from 1922 – 1928 well before the Boston Celtics were founded in 1946.

The Rens (also known as the New York Renaissance of Harlem or the Big Five) were the first all African American basketball team. The team was formed in 1923 and they were often the opponents of the Original Celtics. They were one of the best teams of the era and won the first national basketball championship, the World Professional Basketball Tournament in Chicago.

There were a number of professional basketball leagues through the years, but in 1946 the Basketball Association of America (BAA) was founded and in 1949 it merged with the National Basketball League (NBL) and became the National Basketball Association or NBA. The NBA continued to grow and is the most popular professional basketball league in the world today.

Colleges began to field teams as early as 1893. They typically played against YMCA and other community teams. The first game between two colleges was played in 1895 between Hamline University and Minnesota A&M. In 1905 the Basketball Rules Committee was created for college basketball. This was later absorbed into the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) which formed in 1909. The popularity of college basketball grew exponentially after the first NCAA Basketball tournament was played in 1939.

While the game of basketball was gaining steam in the United States, Europe was taking note, fielding teams and playing games against American clubs. By 1932 FIBA, or the International Basketball Federation, was created to coordinate and organize international tournaments. FIBA was instrumental in the inclusion of basketball in the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games. The U.S. National team took the gold medal in basketball’s Olympic debut.

Basketball Timeline

It is clear that basketball has rapidly become a popular sport, especially in the United States, Canada, and Europe. The history of basketball is filled with milestones and critical moments. There are probably enough to fill a whole book and definitely too many to list here, but let’s take a look at a timeline of how Basketball has evolved over the years.

Year Basketball Milestone
1891 December 21st James Naismith writes the 13 original rules of basketball and organizes the first game with two peach baskets on each end of a small gym at the YMCA International Training School in Springfield, Massachusetts.
1892 In January Naismith introduces the game in the YMCA newsletter where it is received by almost every YMCA in the United States.
1892 In the fall, the first women start playing basketball at Smith College.
1893 Cast iron rims replaced peach baskets and woven wire rims.
1894 The first balls were made specifically for basketball.
1896 The first intercollegiate match using the modern rule of five players per side between the University of Chicago and the University of Iowa, in Iowa City, Iowa.
1897 Dribbling became part of the game.
1897 The Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) takes oversight of YMCA basketball.
1898 The first professional league is founded.
1898 James Naismith is hired as a chaplain and physical education instructor and eventually, basketball coach at the University of Kansas as it starts its basketball program.
1904 The legendary Forrest “Phog” Allen (The Father of Basketball Coaching) joins the University of Kansas team and plays basketball for coach Naismith.
1904 Basketball is a demonstration sport at the St. Louis Summer Olympics.
1907 Amateur all African American Olympian Athletic League was formed in New York.
1907 Phog Allen begins coaching at the University of Kansas where he goes on to coach other legends like Adolf Rupp, Dean Smith, and Wilt Chamberlain.
1909 First International Match
1910 The personal foul was added to the game.
1913 Open-ended nets were first used, replacing closed woven wire nets.
1919 Inter-allied games were held.
1936 U.S. Team wins the first Gold Medal as Basketball is introduced to the Olympic games.
1936 John Fortenberry was the first documented player to dunk in a game.
1939 The first NCAA Championship is played. The University of Oregon defeats The Ohio State University 46–33
1939 James Naismith passes away at age 78.
1947 The first non-white player played in the NBA. Japanese player Wataru Misaka.
1947 The Philadelphia Warriors win the first NBA Championship, beating the Chicago Stags 4 games to 1.
1948 Purdue graduate and player John Wooden begins coaching at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) where they would go on to win 10 NCAA championships.
1949 BAA and NBL merged to form the NBA
1950 Harold Hunter, first African American player to join an NBA team and Earl Lloyd is the first to play in an NBA game.
1950 Lowest scoring NBA game in history as the Fort Wayne Pistons beat the Minneapolis Lakers 19-18.
1954 The 24-second shot clock is created in the NBA to keep teams from stalling and playing keep away.
1957 Bill Russel joins the Boston Celtics.
1959 Wilt Chamberlain enters the league and scores 100 points and 55 rebounds in a game.
1959 Boston Celtics begin a streak of 8 straight titles in a row
1962 Oscar Robertson averages a triple-double for the season.
1964 John Wooden and UCLA start their run of 10 NCAA Championships in 12 years including 7 in a row from 1967 to 1973
1967 NCAA bans dunking until 1976.
1967 ABA is formed to bring a creative new style of pro basketball including the 3-point line.
1969 Allan Siegel created the modern NBA logo with a silhouette of Jerry West.
1971 Julius Erving chooses to go to the Virginia Squires in the ABA.
1972 U.S Olympic team suffers the first-ever loss in Olympic play in a controversial ending and the Soviet Union takes the Gold Medal.
1976 ABA folds and 4 teams (including the Pacers, Spurs, Nuggets, and Nets), as well as some rules and style of play, are absorbed into the NBA.
1979 NBA began using the 3-point line from the ABA.
1979 Larry Bird and Magic Johnson enter the league and begin a historic rivalry.
1983 Highest scoring game in NBA history as the Pistons defeat the Nuggets 186 – 184.
1984 Georgeann Wells is the first woman to dunk in an NCAA game.
1984 Michael Jordan enters the league.
1995 NBA expands to Canada, adding the Raptors and Grizzlies.
1996 NBA creates the WNBA.with women stars such as Sheryl Swoopes, Lisa Leslie, and Diana Turasi.
1998 First NBA Lockout.
1999 The San Antonio Spurs are first former ABA team to win NBA Championship
2003 Lebron James enter the NBA.
2004 Malice in the Palace – A brutal fight between the Pacers, Pistons and the Detroit crowd breaks out at the end of the game.
2006 NBA plays exhibition games against Euro League.
2011 First NBA League games are played in Europe.
2014 San Antonio Spurs hire Becky Hammon as an assistant coach and head coach of the summer league as the first full-time female coach.
2019 Toronto Raptors become the first team based outside of the United States to win an NBA Championship

It is evident that the game has had quite an evolution since its’ start in 1891. From a low scoring game that was meant to have minimal contact and gently toss the ball into the goal, to today’s fast-paced, up-tempo game, with physical contact and forcefull slam dunks that occur in every game.

The Future of Basketball

The future of Basketball is as bright as any sport and continues to increase in popularity around the world. Basketball attracts players of all ages, genders, races, ethnic and socioeconomic groups and this is one of the reasons that it is popular and continues to grow worldwide.

With the advent of the modern basketball rules that began to be settled in the early to mid 20th century, the game has not really changed much. There have been minor tweaks to rules periodically but the play is mostly determined by how the game is refereed. Due to this stability, it has always kept a steady and increasing fan base due to evolving players who become more and more talented as time goes on.

Who knows exactly what the future of basketball holds, but it appears to be a good one. Starting with a game of 13 rules that were meant to tame a rowdy class of students, it surely has become a worldwide phenomenon.

How would Dr. Naismith view today’s game of basketball? Feel free to let us know what you think?

This page was originally published on Jan. 14, 2020.