The history of basketball is relatively short, and not much more than a century old. Whereas the histories of most popular sports today begin in the Middle Ages or earlier with fuzzy origins (such as hockey, boxing, or American football), the history of basketball has its clear origins in late 19th century Massachusetts, and even ties in to the development of volleyball shortly afterwards.
The history of basketball began in 1891 with Dr. James Naismith (1861–1939), a physical education professor, and his colleagues at the YMCA Training School in Springfield, Massachusetts. Dr. Naismith found that as the chilly New England weather put a halt to outdoor sports such as football and baseball, his classes became restless and bored with the limited activities available to them in the gymnasium. As gymnastics and calisthenics wore out their welcome, Dr. Naismith and his colleagues sought a solution.
During a faculty meeting, Dr. Naismtih proposed that someone should invent a new indoor sport to remedy the situation. Dr. Luther Gulick (1865–1918), head of physical education at the YMCA, liked the idea and provided a list of requirements for such a game; that it had to be competitive, require skill, work the entire body, and not be very rough. He requested everyone try to invent such a game and present it at the next meeting, but the proposition was forgotten and shelved for some time.
After troubles with a particularly restless and unruly class, Dr. Gulick gave Dr. Naismith one week to invent a new sport for them, as he had suggested earlier. Dr. Naismith was reluctant for some time and sought any other option, first introducing the class to every indoor sport he could find, and then trying to adapt outdoor sports to the gymnasium. The former proved too boring for the class and the latter was too violent.
With his deadline approaching, Dr. Naismith conceded to inventing a new ball game. Starting from the ground up, he chose to use the soccer ball because of its softness. He had learned that having the class kick the ball indoors led to broken windows, so he decided players would handle it with their hands. Noting that much of the violence in football came from running the ball, he decided players were to hold still when holding it – its only means of moving was to be throwing. He also noted that violence in many outdoor sports intensified near the goal, so he decided to place a basket above the players’ heads into which the players would throw the ball. By the very end of his one week deadline, Dr. Naismith had finally come up with a game the class took to, and named it (at the suggestion of a student) “basketball.”
Before presenting the sport to his class, Dr. Naismith swiftly came up with thirteen rules for the game, typed out on two sheets of paper. They are repeated here exactly as they appear in his book, Basketball: Its Origins and Development:
The ball to be an ordinary Association football.
- The ball may be thrown in any direction with one or both hands.
- The ball may be batted in any direction with one or both hands (never with the fist).
- 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.
- The ball must be held in or between the hands; the arms or body must not be used for holding it.
- No shouldering, holding, pushing, tripping, or striking, in any way the person of an opponent shall be allowed; the first infringement of this rule by any person shall counted as a foul, the second shall disqualify him until the next goal is made, or, if there was evident intent to injure the person for the whole of the game, no substitute allowed.
- A foul is striking at the ball with the fist, violation of Rules 3, 4, and such as described in Rule 5.
- If either side makes three consecutive fouls, it shall count a goal for the opponents. (Consecutive means without the opponents in the meantime making a foul.)
- A goal shall be made when the ball is thrown or batted from grounds into the basket and stays there, providing those defending the goal do not touch or disturb the goal. If the ball rests on the edge and the opponent moves the basket, it shall count as a goal.
- When the ball goes out of bounds, it shall be thrown into the field and played by the person first touching it. In case of a 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 them.
- 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 men according to Rule 5.
- The referee shall be the 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 goals, with any other duties that are usually performed by a referee.
- The time shall be two fifteen minute halves, with five minutes rests between.
- The side making the most goals in that time shall be declared the winners. In the case of a draw, the game may, by agreement of the captains, be continued until another goal is made.
Key Differences Between Original and Modern Game
There have been a number of changes to the game throughout the history of basketball. This very early version that Dr. Naismith had invented would have looked notably different compared to the modern game. Initially he had nailed an unmodified peach basket 10 feet high up the wall, which proved to be inconvenient as someone had to retrieve the ball after each score. To remedy this, Dr. Naismith and his class cut the bottoms out of the basket so a stick could be used to poke the ball up and out of the ring.
Dribbling was initially much different, as well. Players realized early on that although they couldn’t move while holding the ball, they could roll it or bounce it away, quickly run to it, and pick it back up. In this way, they could move short distances while maintaining some control over the ball. In addition, as Rule 2 stated the ball could be batted in any direction in the air, some players figure out they could travel with the ball by dribbling it in the air, repeatedly bouncing it a few inches above the hand. Adjustments to the rules in the following years officially allowed for dribbling on the ground and disallowed air dribbling, with other adjustments further along in the history of basketball.
Hundreds of other changes to the rules have been made throughout the history of basketball, some more noticeable than others. These adjustments to pivoting, penalties, ball possession, and many other are too great in number to discuss in a brief overview of the sport’s history.
Naismith, J. (1996). Basketball: Its origin and development. Bison Books.
Rains, R. (2011). James Naismith: The man who invented basketball. Temple University Press.