The History of Basketball

When was basketball invented? Well, it’s a reasonably recent game, and its origins are nowhere near as distant as many other sports, such as cricket, soccer or rugby.

But such has been the pace in the growth of the sport that there’s lots of curiosity surrounding its beginnings, and how it subsequently developed and came to be the biggest participatory sport in America (and many other countries besides).

The first instance of what we now call basketball occurred in the 19th century, but its roots extend far further.

The most distant origins of the game are believed to lie with the Mayan and Aztec peoples, who are both believed to have taken part in a very similar game, involving using the decapitated skulls of their beaten enemies – eeewww!

When Was Basketball First Played?

Apart from these primitive diversions, basketball as we know it today was invented as a game among boys attending the YMCA in Springfield, Massachusetts, by a Canadian doctor, James Naismith.

Naismith was at the time working as a physical education teacher, and was a keen advocate of encouraging boys to be physically active. He also wanted to devise a sport that could be played with minimal equipment, as well as be played both indoors and outdoors, and all year round.

So he got hold of two peach baskets, which his players could use to score points into, and drew up further rules on the size of the teams – originally Naismith envisaged it as a nine-a-side game – how points could be scored, and what constituted foul play. Most of the last consisted of various forms of physical contact, or of ways in which players were not allowed to touch the ball (principally by punching it with a fist).

Curiously, one major element of the game as we know it today – running with the ball while bouncing it – was expressly forbidden under Naismith’s original rules.

The first recorded occurrence of a basketball game took place on 20 January 1892. With no money to design a unique kind of ball, the participants on that day used a football/soccer ball. At this prototype stage, the game didn’t have a name, and it was only after one player became the first one to throw the ball directly into one of the peach baskets being used as targets – the only player recorded to have achieved it in this original game – that the name ‘basketball’ was suggested.

The rest, as we now know, is history.

When Were The First Basketball Leagues Established?

As a relatively simple game, requiring only basic equipment, basketball’s popularity took off very quickly. So it wasn’t long before just about every YMCA in the United States, and many in southern Canada, joined in playing the game.

It didn’t take long, though, for basketball to become unpopular among many YMCA regions, as it grew to be considered a rough game, far from the ideal of the almost non-contact sport envisaged by Naismith.

That didn’t stop the sport from gaining a growing following, especially in cities along America’s north-east coast, such as New York, Philadelphia and Boston. It was in this area where the sport was first played professionally, with spectators being charged to watch the match, and players each being given a match fee of $15 (just under £11 sterling).

As the game continued to grow, a group of six teams from the New Jersey and Philadelphia regions came together to form the National Basketball League (NBL). It was soon joined by several rival leagues – although many of these had a very short lifespan.

What Was The Most Important Development In The Growth Of Basketball?

That was probably the start of involvement by a number of colleges across America.

Collegiate sport was starting to really take off all over the country, and the colleges adopted various sports as another means of demonstrating their superiority over their rival establishments.

While this was one important source of the growth in interest in basketball, it was far from the only one. A number of other teams set themselves up independently of any league, and toured the country offering to play local teams for cash prizes. The best-known of all these is still in existence today, and is probably one of the most famous teams in any sport the world over – The Harlem Globetrotters.

Basketball players would often switch between teams, taking the best money offer they could get. But the first team to introduce contracts that tied players to playing exclusively for them was the Boston Celtics. Formed after the end of World War I out of a team based in New York which was forced to disband because of the war, the Celtics joined a couple of leagues on and around the East Coast. But they dominated these leagues to such a degree that they soon withdrew. They were also the victim of the precarious state of several regional leagues, several times having to find a new competition in which to compete. But the Celtics had become such a draw with fans that people were happy to pay the then-substantial amount of $2 to watch a single game.

What Changed To Put Basketball On A Stronger Footing?

Of course, the 1920s were a time of great economic and societal change. Large companies were starting to emerge, and they wanted to have their names associated with pursuits that were seen as healthy and beneficial to their workers.

The American Basketball League (ABL) was formed in 1925, and consisted of teams mostly owned by these new corporations, such as the Original Celtics and the Boston Whirlwinds.

But this was to prove another false start as, with the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and ensuing economic depression, most teams couldn’t afford to continue, especially as going to watch a basketball game came to be seen as a luxury.

Throughout the early 1930s, the game was beset with difficulties, mostly stemming from the economic troubles of the time, but others the result of prejudice. For example, one of the most prominent teams around this time was the SPHAs. Their name stood for the South Philadelphia Hebrew Association, and with a sizeable proportion of Americans blaming Jewish bankers for the country’s economic difficulties, players and officials from the team endured growing hostility, and even threats from other teams to refuse to play against them.

The key development in putting basketball back on the map came in 1937, when the first truly national league since 1904 was established, with teams this time having major backing from corporations such as General Electric, Goodyear and Firestone. It was the support of these giants of industry which brought basketball unprecedented nationwide exposure, and saw it build the foundations of the modern game.

At college level the game also enjoyed a renaissance around this time, with the National College Athletic Association (NCAA) staging its first national basketball championship in 1939, with eight teams competing.

Throughout this period and up to 1950, teams and leagues were racially segregated, but this didn’t stop the sport from flourishing in major cities such as New York, Philadelphia, Chicago and Pittsburgh where there were substantial African-American populations.

The pinnacle of college basketball is the annual March Madness tournament, in which 68 teams compete to be crowned NCAA national champions.

How Did TV Change Basketball?

The first recorded televised basketball game, a college game between Fordham University and Pittsburgh University, took place in 1940. This wasn’t considered a big success at the time, largely because so few families yet owned a TV.

As sports coverage on TV greatly expanded through the 1960s and 1970s, basketball was seen as an ideal sport to broadcast, particularly because games were played at times when a large audience could watch – in particular on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday nights, and on Sunday afternoons.

The reasonably short format of a basketball game – four periods of 12 minutes each in the NBA, and of 10 minutes each at collegiate level – was considered to lend itself to TV, the intervals providing great opportunities for advertisers to jump on board and promote their products or services.

As a result, games began to attract bigger viewing figures. However, it was the arrival on the scene of a number of superstar players, such as Julius Erving, Ervin ‘Magic’ Johnson and Michael Jordan that finally meant, by the mid-1980s, that basketball became a fixture in the TV schedules.

Today, coverage is available worldwide, with ABC the prime broadcaster in America, and games also available via satellite and online through TNT and ESPN, as well as the NBA’s own streaming service.

Like football (soccer), entire industry sectors have been born and blossomed thanks to their links with basketball. The sport drives huge amounts of kit, footwear and other merchandising sales, and many of the game’s franchise-holders in the US have been involved in discussions around establishing leagues in China and Russia.

Meanwhile, in the past decade, the NBA itself has taken its first steps to expand the global presence of live basketball, with member teams playing regular season games in Brazil, the Philippines, England and Spain. And while the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic has – at least temporarily – halted further such plans, the sport has continued to grow steadily. 

A number of countries now stage their own national leagues, prime among them Spain, Turkey, Germany, Italy and France. The UK also has its own national competition. With many countries looking to climb on board the basketball bandwagon, its continued growth as both a participation and spectator sport seems assured for the foreseeable future.