The Birth of The Game

Updated: Apr 20

Basketball was born in December 1891 inside a gymnasium at Springfield College, located in Springfield, Mass.

Dr. James Naismith with his wife in 1928. Photo: The New York Times

The game was invented by James Naismith, a Springfield College instructor, and graduate student, and has grown into the global culture, sports but also a business phenomenon we know today. There were several students present in the gym hall. They needed a challenge, a game more exciting than marching, calisthenics, and apparatus work to lose some energy while their football season is off.

James Naismith, the inventor of basketball, was an instructor at that time. He was just 31 years old. He was at Springfield College to study physical education, which was not such a popular academic field. His superintendent was Luther Halsey Gulick, today known as the father of physical education and recreation in the United States.

Mr. Gulick introduced a new course in the psychology of play at Springfield College. During the classes in this course, the challenge to create a new exciting and easy to learn and play indoor game that would allow students to play in winter and by artificial lights was presented before his students. The only one interested in the challenge was Mr. Naismith. So, there was practical reasoning behind the birth of the game. There was a challenge to create an activity that would "deal" with students' unbridled energy and disinterest in the usual winter activities offered by the College.

Mr. Naismith's philosophy behind the idea of a new game was to create an activity that would motivate and inspire. He was thinking of an activity that would reach for deeper human instincts to play and create.

Mr. Naismith had a difficult task with game rules that would be simple to learn and obey, but the game itself needed to be complex enough not to be boring. He had several other "musts": the game should be played indoors, it should be a team game and played by many students at once, it should be intense but not rough. Mr. Naismith's approach was comprehensive and profound. He started to combine and think about the characteristics of other games that could be used in the new game that was yet to be named. Interestingly, he was considering the game called duck on a rock, a game he used to play with a friend while he was a young boy in Canada. This game helped him create the most essential part of the new game, the game's goal. He stated that what we know today as a hoop should be "a goal with a horizontal opening high enough so that the ball would have to be tossed into it, rather than being thrown."

The First Baskets

Looking for that kind of goal, Mr. Naismith asked the school janitor to find two 18-inch square boxes to use as goals. The janitor provided two peach baskets instead of square boxes. Those two peach baskets nailed at the gymnasium's balcony, one at each end, was the first basketball hoops. By accident, the lower balcony rail was ten feet high, a height that is still the official height of a basketball rim today. Naismith then nailed them to the lower railing of the gymnasium balcony, one at each end. It took a year to cut the bottoms of those peach baskets to let the ball fall loose. In the meantime, two men were needed to bring the ball in play after a basket was scored.

The Name of The Game

Basketball was originally two words and these original rules were published January 15, 1892 in the Springfield College school newspaper, The Triangle. The 13 original rules, which described, among other facets, the method of moving the ball and what constituted a foul. A referee was appointed. The game would be divided into two, 15-minute halves with a five-minute resting period in between. Naismith’s secretary typed up the rules and tacked them on the bulletin board. A short time later, the gym class met, and the teams were chosen with three centers, three forwards, and three guards per side. Two of the centers met at mid-court, Naismith tossed the ball, and the game of “basket ball” was born.

The Triangle Springfield College school newspaper where original rules were published on January 15, 1892

The news about the new game spread quickly. The game was an enormous success. Several weeks after the invention, students introduced the game at their own YMCAs. The original rules of the game distributed through the College magazine, which was mailed to YMCAs around USA. The game of basketball was swiftly presented to many foreign countries in a relatively short period of time, and in 1905, basketball was officially college sport.

The original 13 rules have been changed, but by-and-large, the game of “basket ball” has not changed drastically since Mr. Naismith`s secretary typed up the rules and tacked them on the bulletin board in Springfield College.

Click here to listen is the only known audio recording of basketball inventor and Springfield College alumnus James Naismith describing the first organized game of basketball, played at Springfield College. Michael J. Zogry, an associate professor of religious studies at the University of Kansas discovered this rare piece of history.

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