Berkshire Encyclopedia of World Sport. Editor: Karen Christensen & David Levinson. Volume 1, Berkshire Publishing, 2005.

The sport of “basket ball” was first played in December 1891 in a Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) gymnasium located in Springfield, Massachusetts; eighteen players were involved in the initial game. Basketball has since evolved into a sport played worldwide, with an estimated 300 million people participating, either at an amateur or professional level, in over 170 countries.


Unlike other sports—such as football or baseball—that developed from already-established games, basketball was deliberately created at a specific point in time to address a particular situation. In the autumn of 1891, Dr. Luther H. Gulick asked his employee, James Naismith, to provide quality physical education for eighteen adult males who were attending the School for Christian Workers in Springfield, Massachusetts (renamed International YMCA Training School and then Springfield College). This was to further the YMCA’s goal of “muscular Christianity,” whereby a sound mind was housed in a healthy body. Although the games of football and baseball would work well for much of the year, options were more limited for winter recreation in New England, and gymnastic activities did not interest these men.

Naismith tried indoor versions of rugby, soccer, and lacrosse, but the modifications weren’t successful. In his frustration he described the students as “incorrigible.” Naismith also realized, though, that these men would benefit from a simple and interesting game that would be easy to play in wintertime’s artificial light. He had been given two weeks to solve this dilemma. During that time he analyzed popular sports and determined that most used a ball; furthermore, sports featuring a larger ball didn’t need equipment such as a bat or racket. He decided that passing would be a key element of his game. Remembering his Canadian childhood, he incorporated a component from “duck on the rock,” which involved tossing a stone in the air in an arc.

As he was developing his game strategy, he asked the school’s janitor for two boxes, intending to nail one up at each end of the gymnasium. The janitor did not have boxes, but he did provide peach baskets to Naismith, who attached them to the bottom of a balcony located in the gymnasium. The ledge was located 10 feet from the ground.

Naismith then tacked thirteen simple rules on the wall. Players would use a soccer ball, and the goal of the offense was to pass the ball (the person possessing the ball could not run) to teammates until it was successfully thrown into the appropriate peach basket. Meanwhile, the goal of the defense was to prevent that from happening and to regain possession of the ball for its team. Whenever a basket was made, one point was awarded. If the ball went out of bounds, either the last person touching the ball—or the umpire, in case of disputed possession—would throw it back and the person who touched the ball first was now in possession. Fouls would be called for rough play, striking at the ball with a fist, running with the ball, or holding it against the body. Players with two fouls could be temporarily banned from the game, and if a team garnered three consecutive fouls, then their opponents were awarded one point. Games consisted of two fifteen-minute halves, with a five-minute break in between, and the team with the highest score won.

Years later, Naismith recalled that several points—or goals—were scored that first game, but others remember a game with a score of only 1-0. In either case the game was an immediate success and basketball spread rapidly from the YMCA in Springfield to other YMCAs, and then to other venues around the country. Naismith did not receive—nor did he seek—any compensation for creating this sport. Naismith, who would later become a Presbyterian minister and who wanted basketball to improve the mental, physical, and spiritual well-being of those who played the sport, was pleased by the rapid expansion of the game that he’d invented. That was reward enough.

There have been intermittent claims that Naismith was not the person who invented the game of basketball. Proponents of this alternate theory suggest that a friend of Naismith, Dr. George Gabler, actually created the sport in the Holyoke (Massachusetts) YMCA in either 1885 or 1890. Gabler presumably then showed Naismith the game, and Naismith taught the game at the YMCA in Springfield. Gabler, however, never challenged claims that Naismith invented the sport, and it seems unlikely that this alternate scenario occurred. Nevertheless, details appeared in the Holyoke Daily Transcript in the 1940s.

Throughout the early days, rules fluctuated. Naismith, who was respected for his innovation, influenced the evolution of these rules for several years; for example, he stipulated that an equal number of men, anywhere from three to forty, could play on the court for each team, with nine per side being the optimum. In 1893 the YMCA rules offered more specific guidelines, stating that venues that were less than 1,800 square feet were suitable for teams of five men each; if the gym was up to 3,000 square feet, teams could have seven players. Larger facilities could handle teams of nine. In 1897 five players per team became standard.

Games were played in gymnasiums, social halls, and National Guard armories. By 1895 better gymnasiums had 18-inch iron-hooped basketball rims with closed nets hanging from them, while less elaborate setups included wire cylinders or other suitable—and available—materials. After a point was scored, referees either climbed a ladder to retrieve the ball or used a pole to knock it out. The Narragansett Machine Company created a net with a drawstring; when pulled, the net lifted up and the ball was forced out. By 1912 open-bottomed nets were used, increasing the pace of the game.

Early basketballs were imperfect spheres, larger in diameter (between 30 and 32 inches) than modern-day (29.5-inch) counterparts, with a rubber core and a sewn leather covering. Backboards were first used in 1895 to discourage spectators from deflecting balls tossed by the opposing team. At first the backboards were wire mesh; as they dented, though, home teams gained a significant advantage because they knew how to “play” the dents. Therefore, wooden backboards became standard.

Naismith had considered and then discarded the notion of a free throw as a penalty for rough play; there is, however, no question that rough play existed. In a record of an 1890s game, the reporter spoke of several simultaneous wrestling matches on the court, fingernail scratches, and the fact that, if someone did get possession of the ball, it might take several minutes to dislodge him from the mob that charged him.

In these early games, there was a sideline jump ball after every basket made, as well as one at the beginning of each half. The referee handled these jump balls and ruled when a ball was out of bounds. He also kept time and scores. The umpire called the “violations” or fouls. For a short time the court was divided into three sections, with forwards, centers, and guards required to remain in designated areas. Innovative players began to roll or bounce the ball to get it away from opponents. They also tapped the ball over their heads. Shots were generally underhanded throws or two-handed presses from the chest. Although the YMCA banned two-handed dribbles as early as 1898, professional leagues permitted them into the 1930s. The first professional game most likely occurred five years after the sport’s inception. Although one promoter insisted that select players had received a small amount of money in 1893 in Herkimer, New York, most basketball experts believe that an 1896 game in Trenton, New Jersey, was the first professional competition.

The Trenton team had traveled throughout New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania, playing and beating teams, and then self-proclaiming themselves as national champions. On 7 November 1896, the team challenged the Brooklyn YMCA in their Masonic Temple. Home-team players were paid for this game. Seven hundred fans attended, paying a quarter for a seat or garnering standing room only space for fifteen cents. The Masonic Temple had newly built risers, with portable baskets on each end of their social hall. There was also a wire mesh cage that separated playing space from the spectators, a practice that was initially derided but soon incorporated in other venues. (Although this mesh helped prevent fans from becoming injured, players used the netting to trap their opponents who were in possession of the ball.) The Trenton-Brooklyn game was scoreless for the first seven minutes, and the final score was Trenton 16, Brooklyn 1.

The Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) held its first national basketball championship tournament in New York in 1887. The National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA) was formed in 1906, and by 1910 nearly two hundred colleges fielded teams. The sport was becoming increasingly popular in high schools, as well.

Professional Leagues

The first professional league, the National Basketball League (NBL), was founded in 1898; ironically for a league self-described as “national,” all teams were located in either Philadelphia or New Jersey. Court sizes were standardized at 65 feet by 35 feet, with a wire cage at least 10 feet high required. Illumination, either electric or gas, was mandatory, and backboards were 4 feet by 4 feet. The basket’s rim jutted out 12 inches. This particular league lasted for six seasons and was challenged, briefly, by the Interstate League (1899-1900) and the American League (1901-1903). From this period until World War I, there was always at least one professional league in existence in the eastern states, and sometimes more than one. Semiprofessional teams flourished. The Eastern League, which existed from 1909-1923, with a break during World War I, was a relatively stable organization.

Teams switched locations frequently, game commitments were not always fulfilled, and players jumped teams. In 1909, for example, some players were playing on five different teams. Although an attempt to form a National Commission—a body that would oversee leagues—occurred in 1920, this particular commission never came to fruition.

Barnstorming, even across state lines, was common. This meant that instead of playing for an organized league, teams would travel in search of competition. One of the most successful examples was the Original Celtics, a team formed for teenagers living in a settlement house in Manhattan, New York. The 1920s were their glory years, and they earned such a national reputation that team members were even featured in newspapers, a rare feat for basketball players at that time.

Breaking the Racial Barriers

Basketball teams were almost entirely segregated by color, and the Renaissance Big Five—an all-black team formed in 1922 in Harlem, New York—served as the premiere African-American team in this era, barnstorming throughout the 1920s and reaching its full potential in the 1930s. They played against teams comprised of white players, as well, providing opportunities for quality, racially integrated play. In 1926 another all-black team formed, playing their first game on 7 January 1927 in Hinckley, Illinois. Because they were constantly on the road, traveling in among other vehicles a Model T Ford owned by their promoter, Abe Saperstein, the team eventually became known as the Harlem Globetrotters. By 1934 the Globetrotters had played 1,000 games. In 1939 they competed in their first professional tournament. That same year, players began “clowning around” during a game, making the crowd laugh; Saperstein approved of this side entertainment as long as the team had already established a safe lead.

Although this team continued to have a highly talented roster, the Harlem Globetrotters became as well known for their ability to entertain the crowd with skillfully orchestrated slapstick routines. In 1937, while the Globetrotters were dazzling audiences, the National Basketball League (NBL) was formed. That year, the center tip-off after each basket was officially eliminated, significantly increasing the pace of the games. Although the NBL was more organized than earlier leagues, as could be expected, World War II disrupted this league’s play appreciably.

In 1946 owners of sports arenas—particularly Walter Brown of Boston—chartered a new organization, the Basketball Association of America (BAA), with teams located in Boston, Toronto, Providence, New York, Philadelphia, Washington, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago and St. Louis. On 6 June 1946, the BAA chose attorney Maurice Podoloff, the president of the American Hockey League, as commissioner. On 3 August 1949, Podoloff negotiated a merger between the BAA and NBL and the result was the National Basketball Association (NBA).

Podoloff served as commissioner until 1963. By the time that he retired, the NBA had seventeen teams in three different divisions; collectively they played 557 games a season. Podoloff had also negotiated the sport’s first television contract, and today’s most valuable player award is named after him.

Meanwhile, basketball was slowly being desegregated. In 1950 the New York Knicks purchased Nathaniel “Sweetwater” Clifton from the Harlem Globetrotters, the Boston Celtics signed Chuck Cooper, and the Washington Capitols signed Earl Lloyd. These three men were the first black players in the NBA. Desegregation, however, did not signal the end of the Harlem Globetrotters. That same year, Abe Saperstein organized an international basketball tour, visiting Portugal, Switzerland, England, Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Morocco, and Algeria. In 1954 Meadowlark Lemon became one of the Globetrotters star attractions and remained a member of the team for twenty-four years. In 1958 the team signed Wilt “The Stilt” Chamberlain for one season. Chamberlain then signed with the NBA, playing for fourteen years and setting many records (including scoring 100 points against the New York Knicks on 2 March 1962).

New Rules, New Era

Although the Globetrotters continued to provide excitement for fans, the game of basketball during the 1950s was stagnating. Play was rough, and one team could maintain possession of the ball as long as the players were able. If offensive players handled the ball well, there could be long periods with no scoring, and the opposing team’s only viable action was to force a foul. The offensive team would then toss a free throw. This scenario would be played out over and over again in the course of a game. The year 1954, then, proved to be a benchmark for basketball: The twenty-four second rule was instituted, which meant that if a team did not shoot the basketball in that time span, ball possession went to the opponent. This greatly increased the pace of the games, and the average number of points scored skyrocketed from 79.5 per game to 93.1.That same season, the NBA limited the number of team fouls permitted each quarter: For the seventh—and all subsequent —personal fouls, the opposing team would be given an extra free throw, greatly reducing the strategic value of deliberate fouls. These changes favored players who were quick and athletic and who used innovative methods to obtain possession of the ball.

From 1967 until 1976, the NBA was challenged by the American Basketball Association (ABA). The ABA was known for its “outlaw” style of play, and players such as Julius “Dr. J” Erving added a new level of excitement to the sport. In June of 1976, the financially troubled league dissolved as the four strongest ABA teams—the New York Nets, Denver Nuggets, Indiana Pacers, and San Antonio Spurs—merged with the NBA.

Exceptional NBA play occurred during the 1980s, most notably with the Boston Celtics—a team with Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, and Robert Parrish—and the Los Angeles Lakers, with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Ervin “Magic” Johnson, and James Worthy on their roster. Arguably two of the best teams ever, they are joined in basketball annals by the Chicago Bulls of the 1990s, a team led by Michael Jordan and coached by Phil Jackson. All-time leading NBA scorers include Abdul-Jabbar, Karl Malone, Jordan, Chamberlain and Moses Malone. Coaches with the most wins include Lenny Wilkins, Pat Riley, Don Nelson, Bill Fitch, and Red Auerbach.

The Current Game

The current NBA consists of two conferences, each containing three divisions. The Eastern Conference has the Atlantic Division, the Central Division, and the Southeast Division. The Atlantic Division includes the Boston Celtics, New Jersey Nets, New York Knicks, Philadelphia 76ers, and Toronto Raptors. The Central Division consists of the Chicago Bulls, Cleveland Cavaliers, Detroit Pistons, Indiana Pacers, and Milwaukee Bucks. The Southeast Division has the Atlantic Hawks, Charlotte Bobcats, Miami Heat, Orlando Magic, and Washington Wizards.

The Western Conference is divided into the Southwest, Northwest, and Pacific Divisions. The Southwest Division includes the Dallas Mavericks, Houston Rockets, Memphis Grizzlies, New Orleans Hornets, and San Antonio Spurs. The Northwest Division consists of the Denver Nuggets, Minnesota Timberwolves, Portland Trail Blazers, Seattle SuperSonics, and Utah Jazz. The Pacific Division includes the Golden State Warriors, Los Angeles Clippers, Los Angeles Lakers, Phoenix Suns, and Sacramento Kings.

The United States has, without question, served as the leader in the sport of the basketball, but other counties, especially since the 1930s, have formed strong teams of their own. The World Basketball Championships, sponsored by the Federation Internationale de Basketball Amateur (FIBA) and initially played by amateur players, have existed since 1950. In its initial tournament, Argentina beat the United States for the title. The United States won in 1954, but came in second to Brazil in 1959 and 1963. Other winners include the Soviet Union (1967, 1974, 1982) and Yugoslavia (1970, 1978, 1990). In the 1994 tournament professional players were allowed to participate for the first time, and the United States, with its roster of NBA stars, won that year. Russia took the gold medal in 1998; Yugoslavia in 2002.

In women’s basketball the United States won the World Basketball Championship in 1953 and 1957. The team boycotted the 1959 event that was held in Moscow, and the Soviet Union team won easily. The Soviet team won again in 1964, 1967, 1971, and 1975. In 1979 it was the Soviet team that boycotted the event, and the United States won its first medal since 1957. In 1983 it was a Soviet win; in 1986 and 1990, the United States took the gold. In 1994, for the first time since the inception of the women’s tournament, a team other than the United States or the Soviet Union won the gold: Brazil took first place honors, while China garnered the silver. The United States reclaimed first place in 1998 and then repeated the feat in 2002.

Nature of the Sport

Although outdoor versions of the sport exist—such as three-on-three tournaments and forms of “street” ball—basketball is generally played indoors. NBA games are played on courts that are 94 feet by 50 feet (29 meters by 15 meters). Points are scored whenever a ball is successfully thrown through the appropriate basket, which is suspended 10 feet above the floor with a backboard behind the rim. The team that scores the most points, either by field goals or free throw shots, wins the game. A field goal is a basket that is scored during competitive action of the game; a free throw is tossed from the foul line, which is 15 feet from the backboard and is awarded because of a violation. When a free throw is taken, no defensive action can occur until the shooter releases the ball from his hands. If a game is tied at the end of regulation play, “overtime” is played to break the tie.

Teams play with two forwards, two guards, and one center. The forecourt, for a particular team, is where their basket is located. The backcourt is where the team’s opponent’s basket is found. The center, generally the tallest person on the team, participates in a center court jump ball, whereby the referee tosses the ball in the air to start the game. Each center attempts to tap the ball to teammates, who then try to gain possession and score a basket. A field goal may be worth two or three points, depending on which side of the three-point line the ball is on when it left the hands of the shooter. In professional games the three-point line is located 23 feet, 9 inches from the basket. In college games it is located 19 feet, 9 inches from the basket; in international play, 20 feet, 6 inches.

The ball can be moved toward a basket by passing or dribbling. After a basket is scored, the opposing team passes the ball back into play from an out-of-bounds position; the offense continues to attempt to score, while the defense attempts to thwart that action. Professional games consist of four twelve-minute quarters; college games, two twenty-minute halves. The game clock stops when fouls are committed. Fouls are called for inappropriate blocking or stealing, which involves making contact with the player rather than with the ball. In this instance the opposing team gets the opportunity to shoot free throws, and each successful free throw is worth one point. If a player receives six personal fouls, that player is eliminated from play for the rest of the game. The offense loses possession for traveling, which is running with the ball without steady dribbling; double (two-handed, or stop-and-start) dribbling; and other illegal moves. Rule modifications exist for amateur play and for women’s basketball.

The Women’s Game

Early on, some believed that the competitive nature of basketball made it an inappropriate activity for females. Nevertheless, women began playing basketball shortly after their male counterparts. Senda Berenson pioneered the women’s version of the sport at Smith’s College in 1892, modifying the rules so as to reduce the need for endurance. In 1895 Clara Gregory Baer introduced the game to students at Sophie Newcomb College in New Orleans, also publishing “Basquette,” the first set of basketball rules written specifically for women. Furthermore, bloomers first replaced long skirts on the basketball court at this educational institution in 1896.

The International Women’s Sports Federation formed in 1924. In 1926 the AAU sponsored the first national women’s basketball championship, using men’s rules. Nevertheless, women’s rules continued to fluctuate over the upcoming decades, mirroring what was occurring in men’s basketball.

In 1972 the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women held its first basketball championship; two years later, these games had television and radio coverage. In 1978 the eight-team Women’s Professional Basketball League (WBL) debuted, lasting three seasons. In 1992 the Women’s World Basketball Association (WWBA) was founded with six teams, but the league quickly folded. The Women’s National Basketball Association (WBNA) began play in June 1997. The first players signed were Sheryl Swoopes, Rebecca Lobo, and Lisa Leslie. Initially, there were eight teams. Rules differ little from men’s play, although the shot clock is thirty seconds, rather than twenty-four, and the game consists of two twenty-minute halves. The ball is 28.5 inches in circumference, an inch smaller than the ball currently used in the NBA.

Competition at the Top

Men and women across the United States compete in collegiate (NCAA) basketball, and championship tournaments have existed since 1939. Initially, the teams in the United States were divided into eight NCAA districts, and games were arranged accordingly. Through a series of playoffs, teams competed for titles. Even today, the basic structure remains the same, although the criteria for creating divisions have evolved. The semifinal and final games—that narrow teams down to the “Final Four”—are a television extravaganza. This time on the college basketball calendar has come to be known as “March Madness.” The greatest men’s NCAA teams, according to ESPN, have included the 1968 UCLA Bruins, led by Lew Alcindor (later Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) and coached by John Wooden who led UCLA to ten titles. Other teams lauded were the 1996 Kentucky Wildcats; the 1976 Indiana Hoosiers, coached by the controversial Bob Knight; the 1972 UCLA Bruins, with future NBA star Bill Walton on the team; and the 1992 Duke Blue Devils.

According to Total Basketball, the top five collegiate basketball programs in the United States, historically speaking, are the Kentucky Wildcats, North Carolina Tar Heels, Kansas Jayhawks, UCLA Bruins, and the Indiana Hoosiers. The top five coaches are John Wooden, Dean Smith, Adolph Rupp, Clair Bee, and Hank Iba. Top players include Lew Alcindor (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), Oscar Robertson, Jerry Lucas, Larry Bird, and Bill Walton.

For women the National Women’s Invitational Tournament (NWIT) served as the championship sponsor from 1969 through 1996. There was no tournament in 1997. In 1998 the Women’s National Invitation Tournament (WNIT) began and continues to be played today. Women’s NCAA play began in 1982. Between 1982 and 2004, the clear standout teams have been University of Tennessee’s Lady Vols with six championships and the University of Connecticut’s Huskies with five NCAA tournament wins.

Olympic Play

Basketball served as an Olympic demonstration sport in 1904, and was first played as a full medal sport in Berlin in 1936. The National Association of Basketball Coaches (NABC) sponsored Naismith’s trip to Germany so that he could witness his invention become an Olympic sport. He also tossed the opening jump ball. The United States was the powerhouse team from 1936 through 1968, winning all Olympic gold. The streak ended when the United States lost a controversial game against the Soviet Union in 1972 wherein the clock was reset twice with only three seconds left. The United States team voted to reject the silver medal, believing that they had, in fact, won another gold. In 1980 the United States boycotted the Olympics, held in Moscow, because of the Soviet foray into Afghanistan.

In 1984 the Soviet Union returned the favor and boycotted the Olympics that were held in Los Angeles. The United States team subsequently won Olympic gold. In 1988 the Soviet Union won gold, Yugoslavia earned silver, and the United States won the bronze.

In 1992 professional players competed in Olympic basketball for the first time. The United States team, which consisted mostly of NBA stars, won the gold that year, as well as in 1996 and 2000. In 2004, however, the United States finished third, behind Argentina (gold) and Italy (silver.) Throughout Olympic basketball history, the Soviet Union has won a significant number of medals, including the gold in 1972 and 1988; four silver medals, in 1952, 1956, 1960 and 1964; and three bronze medals, in 1968, 1976, and 1980. Yugoslavia won the gold in 1980, along with the silver medal in 1968, 1976, 1988, and 1996. They also won the bronze in 1984. Lithuania is an up-and-coming contender, having won bronze medals in 1992, 1996, and 2000.

Women’s basketball was added to Olympic competitions in Montreal in 1976. The Soviet Union won the gold that year. and in 1980 as well. The United States women’s team has won the gold medal from 1984 until 2004, except in 1992, when the multinational Unified Team won the gold. That year, China won the silver medal; the United States, the bronze.

In the NBA a series of playoff games determines who will play in the championship series. Division winners from the Eastern and Western Conferences play one another until only two teams—one from each conference—remain. These teams then play a seven-game series to establish the overall NBA championship title for that season. During the 1940s and 1950s, the Minnesota Lakers, Philadelphia Warriors, and Boston Celtics won multiple titles. The Celtics dominated the 1960s, while no one particular team stood out during the 1970s. During the 1980s, Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics rivalry was a highlight; the Detroit Pistons also won two titles. The Houston Rockets and Chicago Bulls were the powerhouse teams of the 1990s, and during the past few years, the Los Angeles Lakers have regained their prominence.

Although, in some ways, the game of basketball has evolved beyond the scope of what James Naismith could have imagined, in many others it retains the original essence. A memorial to its founder was proposed as early as 1936, shortly after the Berlin Olympics ended. The idea was revived in 1941, but then put on hiatus because of World War II. In 1948 a hall of fame was proposed to house exhibits and artifacts and to honor players of merit. Fund-raising began for such a structure, but then this project ran into snags that spanned two decades. In 1959, nine years before a hall of fame existed, the first roster of players was honored, and the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame was finally completed and dedicated on the campus of Springfield College in Massachusetts on 17 February 1968. In 1985 this building was closed, and a new state-of-the-art facility was opened in the business district of Springfield.