A Brief History of Basketball

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Podcast Transcript

On December 21, 1891, a physical education teacher in Springfield, Massachusetts, looking to keep athletes occupied during the winter, hung some peach baskets on the balcony of the gymnasium. 

With these peach baskets and an old soccer ball, he created something that revolutionized sports and became one of the most popular games in the world. 

Learn more about the history of basketball and how it became a global phenomenon on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

Most of the sports for which I’ve covered on this podcast have some sort of origin that dates back to the 17th or 18th century. 

There was some very early version of the game that was played informally, which eventually became more formalized with rules, organized teams were formed, and the game eventually turned professional.

Basketball doesn’t have such a story. 

It was born at a single point in time and was the creation of a single individual. The game certainly evolved over time, but it wasn’t the creation of centuries of people throwing balls through hoops. 

Many people think that basketball has its origins in a Mayan ball game called Pok-ta-pok

Pok-ta-pok did have a ball, and a hoop, and the object was to get the ball through the hoop. However, any similarities between it and basketball ended there. 

The Pok-ta-pok hoop was vertical, not horizontal. The ball was much smaller. The court had slanted walls, and the losing team would often be executed. 

While there are some superficial similarities between the two games, there is no direct line between Pok-ta-pok and basketball. 

Basketball was created by James Naismith.

Naismith was born in Ontario and went to school and later taught physical education at McGill University in Montreal

In 1890, he left Montreal to study at the YMCA International Training School in Springfield, Massachusetts as a graduate student.  After a year as a grad student, he was asked to join the faculty in 1891.

The last decade of the 19th century was an important time for college sports. Football and baseball were becoming very popular and other sports such as track and field were also becoming competitive. 

The problem was most of these sports were outdoor sports that you couldn’t play in the middle of winter. 

Naismith, now a member of the faculty, was tasked by Dr. Luther Gulick, the head of the physical education department, with creating a game that could keep athletes busy during the winter. 

He was given a deadline of 14 days to come up with the game. 

What he created involved two peach baskets that were attached to either end of the gymnasium balcony and a soccer ball. He originally asked the janitor for wooden boxes, but peach baskets were all he had.

He told his class of 18 students that the only objective was get the ball into the basket. They were divided into two groups of nine, and played the first game on December 21, 1891. 

As he later described it, “I showed them two peach baskets I’d nailed up at each end of the gym, and I told them the idea was to throw the ball into the opposing team’s peach basket. I blew the whistle, and the first game of basketball began.”

The result of the first game was 1-0. 

The game was a far cry from the modern game of basketball. For starters, at first, the peach basket didn’t have a hole in the bottom. Every time a point was scored, the game had to stop so a janitor could remove the ball with a ladder. 

Furthermore, there were no rules in the first game, which was problematic. He said, “The boys began tackling, kicking and punching in the clinches. Before I could pull them apart, one boy was knocked out, several of them had black eyes and one had a dislocated shoulder. It certainly was murder…After that first match, I was afraid they’d kill each other, but they kept nagging me to let them play again, so I made up some new rules…”

So, he created thirteen rules for the game to avoid the game turning into murderball. The original copy of Naismith’s 13 rules sold in 2010 for $4.3 million dollars.

One of the big difference between the original game to today is that you couldn’t walk, run, or dribble the ball. You had to pass it without moving, sort of like ultimate frisbee. 

There were no free throws. If a team committed three fouls in a row, the opponents were awarded a point. 

When Naismith got feedback from his class which played the first game, the reviews were mixed. One said “Harrumph. Another new game”. 

When it came to giving the new game a name, the first suggestion was The Naismith Game. 

Naismith, however, said, “We have a ball and a basket: why don’t we call it basketball?

…and so it was. 

The game made incremental changes. 

In 1894, Naismith asked the Spalding Corporation to create a special basketball so that they wouldn’t have to use soccer balls anymore. The first basketball looked more like a round version of an American football with laces. 

In 1906, customized basketball hoops with a metal ring, backboards, and a cloth net were introduced. 

One big question that you might have is why did this particular made-up game ended up becoming such a hit? 

Perhaps the biggest thing it had going for it is that it was invented at the YMCA International Training School. The game was spread through the extensive network of YMCA facilities throughout the world. 

Less than a month after the first game, Naismith wrote an article for the national YMCA newsletter, The Triangle, which outlined the 13 rules for basketball.

On March 12, 1892, the first public game took place in Springfield, and there were 200 people in attendance to watch, which was amazing considering that absolutely no one in attendance knew anything about the game.

In 1893, the first basketball game was played in Europe. The game was then taken by YMCA representatives to places as far away as China, Japan, and Persia. 

The game continued to spread as it moved beyond YMCAs to college campuses, and club teams began to spring up. 

As early as 1892, women were playing baseketball. It was introduced at Smith College by physical education instructor named Senda Berenson. In fact the Boston Globe noted 1893 that it was a “very fair feminine substitute for football.”

On February 9, 1895, the first intercollegiate basketball game took place between Hamline University and Minnesota State. The game isn’t actually recgonized by the NCAA because it use the original Naismith 9 vs 9 format.

The first five-on-five game took place on January 18, 1896, between the University of Iowa and the University of Chicago. 

The first women’s intercollegiate game took place between Stanford University and University of California at Berkeley in 1896.

I should note that despite women playing basketball almost from the very beginning, another sport was created around the same time just for women. 

In 1892, a women’s physical education instructor by the name of Clara Baer from New Orleans, asked Naismith for a copy of the rules. She misread the rules and created a set of rules for women’s basketball. 

These rules were sent the next year to Martina Bergman-Österberg, a Sweedish phy ed coach in Britian who codified a new set of rules, and changed the hoop to a single metal ring.

She dubbed the game “netball”, which was explicitly designed for women. Netball is still very popular in commonwealth countries today and in some countries is more popular than basketball with women.

I remember having heard of netball for the first time when I was in New Zealand, not even knowing that it existed. 

In 1898, the first professional basketball association was founded, the National Basketball League. It consisted of six teams from the Northeastern United States: the New York Wanderers, Trenton Nationals, Millville Glass Blowers, Bristol Pile Drivers, Camden Skeeters, and Pennsylvania Bicycle Club. 

In 1904, the game was a demonstration sport at the Saint Louis Olympics.

The other thing which was responsible for the grow of the game was the first world war. 

American soldiers broght the game with them to Europe during the war. 

In 1919,  the Inter-Allied Games took place with the United States, France, and Italy.

One of the biggest decades for basketball was the 1930s. 

In 1932, the International Basketball Federation or the FIBA was established as the international governing body for the sport. 

In 1936, for the first time men’s basketball became a medal event at the Berlin Olympics. The United States won the first of what would be seven consecutive gold medals. 

In 1939, the NCAA hosted its first national championship in basketball. The winner of the first tournament was the University of Oregon who defeated THE Ohio State. The first tournament only had eight teams.

Professional basketball didn’t have much luck in the first half of the 20th century. The original National Basketball League folded after five years. It was revived in 1937 with Goodyear, Firestone, and General Electric as the league owners. 

A rival professional league, the Basketball Association of America, was formed in 1946.  This league was actually established by the owners of major ice hockey arenas in the northeast and midwestern United States.

Reall success didn’t come until 1949, when the BAA absorbed the failing NBL to form the newly named National Basketball Association, or NBA.

While there were black players in the original NBL as far back as 1902, in particular Harry Lew, the first black professional basketball player who played for the Pawtucketville Athletic Club, there were none when the NBA formed in 1949.

The NBA didn’t integrate until after professional football and baseball, with the first black player, Earl Lloyd being drafted by the Boston Celtics in 1950.

Basketball at this time was, how shall I say, rather slow. Scoring was low and the game was dominated by centers. 

The NBA was at the forefront of rules changes to increase offense and the pace of the game. 

In 1951, the free throw lane, also called the paint, was expanded to reduce the impact of centers, and it was further expanded in 1954.

In 1954, a 24-second shot clock was established to quicken the pace of the game and increase scoring.

In the late 50s and 1960s, the NBA was dominated by the Boston Celtics who won 11 championships from 1957 to 1969. 

The American Basketball Association, a competitor to the NBA, was established in 1967. They had a short run until they merged with the NBA in 1976. Four teams, the New York Nets, Denver Nuggets, Indiana Pacers, and San Antonio Spurs, became part of the NBA.

1976 also saw the introduction of women’s basketball to the Olympics with the first two gold medals being won by the Soviet Union. 

The first year of the women’s NCAA basketball tournament was in 1982. 

Perhaps the biggest change in the game took place in the 1979-1980 season of the NBA. The introduction of the three-point shot.

The three-point line had been experimented with before on a very limited basis, and it was also used during the short run of the ABA. 

However, the adoption by the NBA made it a legitimate part of the game. It was adopted by the FIBA in 1984, the NCAA in 1986, and the Olympics in 1988. 

One of the biggest changes to basketball in the last several decades has been the internationalization of the game. For over a century, the United States dominated the game in international competition.

When they didn’t win international tournaments like the world cup or the Olympics, it was usually because the top American players simply didn’t want to play. 

At the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, the United States won the bronze medal which was their worst performance ever. 

In response, in 1992 they assembled the greatest basketball team in history, dubbed the Dream Team. The first time that professional basketball players were allowed to play, the team consisted of eleven hall of famers….and Christian Laettner. Laettner was added to the team so there would be at least one amaetur player. 

Since then, other countries have been getting better and better and the talent gap between the United States and the rest of the world has closed considerably. 

Spain, Australia, Argentina, France, Serbia, Slovenia, Lithuania, and other countries have been able to field very good teams. 

The top league in Europe is the EuroLeague which has 18 teams and plays a double round robin schedule. Many of the top European teams are owned by elite football clubs including FC Barcelona, Real Madrid, and Bayern Munich.

The last four Most Valuable Player awards in the NBA were born outside of the United States, and there is a very good chance it will be five in a row at the conclusion of the 2023 season. 

Basketball has become very popular in many countries where you wouldn’t expect it, including the Philippines and Mongolia. 

Today, baseketball is big business. The NBA is the third largest professional sports league in the world in terms of gross revenue. It is also the third most popular sport word wide, just behind cricket, in terms of fan base with 2.2 Billion people.

In the course of my travels, I found that the NBA was often the only American professional sport that was reported on. 

It is actually a remarkable story that such a popular game all came about became one physical education teacher hung peach baskets in a gymnasium to keep athletes busy in the winter. 

The Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is Charles Daniel.

The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.

Today’s review comes from listener Nolan4lyfe over at Apple Podcasts in the United States. They write


My favorite daily listen. I’m nowhere near part of the completion club, but I’ll get there. I listen while delivering food on my bicycle. I’m a pro wrestling fan like you, Gary. So if I get my 5 star review on you show my question is who’s your favorite wrestler of all time, and what’s your favorite match?

Thanks, Nolan4lyfe! I’m happy to keep you company on your bike deliveries. 

As for my favorite wrestler, I think you have to go with the sixteen-time champion, the Nature Boy Ric Flair. 

As for the greatest match, I don’t know if it is actually a great match, but certainly, the most memorable and one that I rewatch at least once a year, is the 1998 Hell in a Cell match at King of the Ring between Mick Foley and the Undertaker.

There was never a match like it before, and for good reason, there will never be one like it again.  25 years later, it is still astonishing to watch.

Remember, if you leave a review or send me a boostagram, you too can have it read on the show.