The Beginning

The rapid urbanization of America during the last decade of the nineteenth century brought sweeping social and economic changes.  Cities were acquiring a modern twentieth century look.  Metal frameworks allowed buildings to soar to an amazing ten stories above street level. Steel-girded bridges spanned rivers, while tunnels burrowed under cities to create subway lines.  Cobblestones were replaced by millions of square yards of asphalt pavement.  Electricity illuminated city streets and by the middle of the decade powered over 10,000 miles of urban trolley lines.  The improvement in public transportation provided millions of city dwellers with additional freedom to explore recreational outlets.  The love affair of Americans with sports firmly took root in this decade; this was the setting for the birth of a sport that was destined to become synonymous with big cities.

The history of basketball is unique.  The story of the early development of most sports is a blend of conjecture and myth.  Sports traditionally evolve through a period of sporadic growth, with early interest confined to limited areas.  Basketball was different. The game’s invention can be traced directly to one man, a young, Canadian-born, physical education instructor.  Within a few years of his invention, he saw his game being played coast to coast.

In the winter of 1891, James Naismith, a thirty-year-old instructor at the International YMCA Training School in Springfield, Massachusetts was assigned the task of creating a winter indoor activity for the school’s gymnasium classes.  He drew up thirteen rules for his new creation and posted them for the students.  The first game was played in mid-December in the basement of the Springfield YMCA. Wooden peach baskets were used as goals because the boxes Naismith had envisioned were not available.  The two baskets at either end of the gym were placed at a height of ten feet because that happened to be the height of a balcony that surrounded the court. The class of eighteen students that divided into two nine-man teams used a soccer ball.

Naismith probably would be hard-pressed to recognize his invention in its modern form with its spectacular above-the-rim play and triple-digit scoring.  Although altered and refined many times, the majority of his thirteen rules remain in place to this day.  The ball may be thrown or batted in any direction with one or both hands (1 & 2). A player may not run with the ball (3), and may be removed   from the game for excessive fouling (5). A goal is scored when the ball is thrown in the basket (8). An official determines fouls and violations (10 & 11) The contest is divided into timed segments of play (12), with the side scoring the most points at the end of the game declared the winner(13). Missing altogether from Naismith’s original rules were any provisions for dribbling the ball, or the awarding of free throws for fouls.  It was not until 1895 that the number of players per team was set at five.

Success was instantaneous.  “Basketball fever” quickly spread as Naismith’s pupils moved on to assignments throughout the country, where they staged exhibitions of the new sport and soon organized teams and leagues.  The distribution of Naismith’s rules through YMCA’s stimulated an almost simultaneous eruption of interest in the game from coast to coast.  Within a few years, the game’s popularity was such that regional leagues were springing up everywhere, and soon sectional championships were being contested.

Because many of the YMCA branches were scattered throughout New York City and Brooklyn, the metropolitan area was an early breeding ground for the game.  Brooklyn Central YMCA won the New York City championship for three consecutive years beginning in 1893, losing the crown in 1896 to the 23rd Street YMCA.  That same year, the first “national championship” was staged in Brooklyn, but only one of the teams was from outside the metropolitan area. The powerful 23rd Street team declined to participate.  East District (New York) defeated Brooklyn Central 4-0 in the final.

YMCA leaders soon came to view the huge success of basketball with growing alarm.  The game itself was proving to be a rough, at times brutal, sport that was distracting from normal YMCA physical training programs.  Heated contests that generated animosity between branches quickly became a major concern to directors.  The Philadelphia YMCA League, one of the strongest in the country, was disbanded after members complained that basketball monopolized gym time to the detriment of regular gymnasium work and that it attracted a rowdy, decidedly un-Christian element into the organization.  Basketball’s burgeoning popularity had become too big for the YMCA’s to handle, and in the summer of 1896 they turned over control of the game to the Amateur Athletic Union.  The YMCA teams still continued to dominate the sport.

The first two National AAU championships, in 1897 and 1898, were won by the 23rd Street YMCA, featuring Sandy Shields, John Wendelken, and Kid Abadie.  The 23rd Street Wanderers became the first team to draw national attention as they won 48 of 49 games over two seasons.

The AAU soon began to experience the same problems controlling the sport that the YMCAs had faced. Of particular concern was the creeping shadow of professionalism. The AAU attempted to register basketball teams in its effort to establish whether a player was amateur or professional.  For a long time, however, there remained a thin line between amateur and professional teams.  College, YMCA, amateur, and professional teams all regularly played against one another in the early years.

The play-for-pay game had been forced upon the players when they lost the sponsorship of the Ys. The primary motive of the first professionals who charged admission to their games was simply to ensure the survival of their teams.  When the YMCAs abandoned basketball as a competitive sport, the teams continued to play by simply changing their names.  But suddenly they were faced with the need to rent halls and meet other financial obligations previously borne by the associations.

By the close of the ninetieth century, amateur basketball was already a major sport that reached every section of the United States, but the birth of professional basketball went unnoticed even within the confined world of sports.  On the professional level, the game that had spread across the country like wildfire in a matter of a few years would remain confined to a small cluster of eastern states for the next two decades.