A long New England winter, a peach basket, a 10-foot piece of elevated track, and a soccer ball. To most people, this collection of items sounds like things to be put in the rubbish bin during the clearing out of a supply room, or maybe they could be parts used in a quirky, creative game you might play to kill a few days of boredom when the snow is knee-high. Though it may be hard to believe, these goods were used together in such a way that they have developed into a multi-billion-dollar sport that currently boasts over 450 million players and fans.
Credited with first being played on December 21, 1891, the sport of basketball was developed by a physical education professor and instructor at the International Young Men’s Christian Association Training School (YMCA) in Springfield, Massachusetts as a way for students to maintain proper physical fitness indoors during the brutal Northeastern US winters.
The first known use of the word comes, logically, from the training school newspaper. Dated January 15, 1892, James Naismith, the sport’s inventor who incorporated rules from the medieval children’s game duck on a rock, himself first mentions: “Basket Ball. We present to our readers a new game of ball.”, before going on to explain the premise and some basic rules.
Immediately before this publication, however, Naismith initially didn’t have a name for the sport. It was only after the Christmas break that one of the players from the original first game, Frank Mahan, approached Naismith regarding the name. Replying that he was more concerned about developing the game than naming it, Mahan suggested it be called “Naismith Ball”. Met with Naismith’s laughter, Mahan then suggested “Basket Ball”, which made sense Naismith, who replied that: “We have a basket and a ball, and it seems to me that would be a good name for it.”
Still, as could be imagined, the initial game presents a stark difference from the game of power, finesse, and agility that we’ve come to witness from the likes of LeBron James, Dirk Nowitzki, and Stephen Curry. The first balls used in the game were brown, with orange basketballs introduced in the late 1950’s to increase visibility for players and fans following the game. Dribbling was not part of the original game – the only initially accepted form to dribble the ball was a “bounce pass” to other teammates. Also, while basketball has always been a 5-on-5 game, before this was codified, it was due to the fact that football was played with 10 members on a team: when it became too cold to play football outside, the 10 players could make two 5-person basketball teams.
Writing in 1926, Encyclopedia Britannica stated that: “Basketball has become the national indoor game of the United States.”, but the continued growth of the sport would surely leave many from basketball’s early days astonished. Basketball was one of the first large-scale sports to think beyond gender, with the New York Daily News reporting on June 8, 1898 that: “Vassar, Syracuse, Cornell, Wellesley, and Rosemary Hall have each their teams of girl basket-ball players.” Far from the US, basketball has also proven itself immensely popular in China, where last year’s NBA Finals recorded a live-streaming viewership of over 190 million people on mobile devices alone, compared to a total average US viewership of about 21 million. It’s amazing what a soccer ball and peach basket can do during the winter!