The other day, I saw a trailer for the new Space Jam movie and asked myself: “Why?“ And the answer is: Who knows? Hollywood! And then I thought of that person who had invented the game and how proud of himself he must feel—ironically, of course. But who is that person?
Who created basketball?
Usually, when I try to know who invented what, I end up in a history lesson with multiple answers. Who, what, when, how… It’s not the case with basketball, because it’s the only major American sport with an indisputable known inventor.
The inventor of basketball is a Canadian man named James Naismith.
If the man is identifiable as the inventor of the sport, it must have a well-known story. So here it is…
Why basketball was invented?
Our journey began in December 1891. In Springfield, Massachusetts, winter was cold and the students at Young Men’s Christian Association International Training School had to stay indoors. Those young men needed to do some real sport and a 31-year-old graduate student teaching physical education – James Naismith as you may have guessed – was tasked with inventing a sport that would fit their needs and the limitations of the gymnasium – meaning on wooden floors.
Naismith originally got two weeks to find an “athletic distraction,” but the blizzard forced him to invent something quickly because the students were so bored, the situation was unsustainable. The teacher tried to get inspiration from the popular sports of that time like lacrosse, football or soccer, but it’s a game he used to play when he was young named “Duck on the Rock” that gave him a direction to follow.
To win in a game of “Duck on the Rock,” you had to knock a “duck” off a large boulder by throwing rocks at it. It certainly was not basketball, but he kept the idea to throw something and ended up with a soccer ball in a peach basket.
The Original Basket Ball
The first game of basket ball (not yet basketball) was played on December 21, 1891. And it was brutal. Each team was composed of nine players (it officially became a 5-player-game in 1897) who had to throw the ball into the opposing team’s peach basket. And there were virtually no rules. It was a brawl. Two students suffered black eyes, others had to be pulled apart. Clearly, James Naismith had work to do to perfect his idea.
That first game led him to create the 13 original rules of the game, and the players were not happy about that. But they had to comply.
The Original 13 Rules of Basketball
The first rules of basket ball were published for the first time in The Triangle, the Springfield College school newspaper, on January 15, 1892. Here they are :
- 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 if he tries to stop.
- 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 player shall count 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
- 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).
- A goal shall be made when the ball is thrown or batted from the 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 edges, 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 of play 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 that side.
- The umpire shall be 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 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 15-minute halves, with five minutes’ rest between.
- The side making the most goals in that time shall be declared the winner. In case of a draw, the game may, by agreement of the captains, be continued until another goal is made.
What happened to James Naismith?
As the game became more popular, the rules were changed, the peach basket was replaced with a net, and a new kind of ball was created to help with the dribble. Basket ball became basketball (some people wanted to call it “Naismith ball”), and an Olympic sport in 1936. Naismith was present for the first Olympic basketball game, he even tossed the ball for the tipoff and presented the medals to the players.
At that point, he was a doctor. He obtained his medical degree in 1898 in Denver and then founded a basketball program at the University of Kansas where he worked for four decades. After the Olympic games, he helped form the National Association of Intercollegiate Basketball. Sadly, two years later, in 1939, he died from the consequences of a severe brain hemorrhage. His book « Basketball — its Origins and Development, » was published two years after his death.