The Game Catches On

If you want a new game to catch on, teach it to a room full of future P.E. teachers who are getting ready to head home for Christmas break. Naismith’s students took basketball back to their hometown gyms. That original class included students from Canada and Japan as well as the United States and the game quickly spread. Just two months after the game was invented, teams from different YMCA’s met for the first competitive game. The Central YMCA and the Armory Hill YMCA played to 2-2 tie. Tuck that in your sports trivia file.

Women also got in on the action. Senda Bereson Abbott read about basketball in the newspaper and introduced it to women at Smith College. By 1894, Smith’s annual spring game between the freshman and the sophomores was attended by more than 1,000 women waving violet and yellow banners. The Sunday Boston Globe covered the game and reported that when the sophomores won 13-7, fans hoisted the captain on their shoulders and celebrated in the streets of Northampton.

Five is Enough and Other Early Changes

Initially, there was no limit on the number of people who could play in a basketball game. Some historians report that more than 50 people at a time played in some early games. This made for some very rough basketball that looked a lot like a Rugby scrum. By 1900, it was agreed that five members per side was enough on the court at one time.

Jump balls were the most common play in the early years of basketball. The jump was used after every basket and often after the ball went out of bounds. Between all of the center jumps and having to retrieve the ball from the basket, the game was much slower than the modern version. In the 1930s, rule changes eliminated the jump ball after each basket. Fans everywhere cheered.

Early baskets had no backboards so forget about rebounding. Wooden backboards were added in 1896 to prevent fans in the balcony from interfering with the ball. And about the basket—it soon become clear that climbing a ladder after every goal was a huge hassle. Open rims eventually replaced baskets. Nets were added to slow the ball down and help officials determine if the ball had actually gone through the rim. Thus, the swish was born.

Because basketball was often played on dance floors and in social halls, wire cages were placed around the court to protect spectators who sat in chairs surrounding the court. (Think of how hockey boards surround a rink.) These wire cages caused numerous cuts and scrapes. Players rejoiced with the wire was replaced with rope netting. To this day, basketball players are still referred to as “cagers.”