How did basketball develop

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Ancient Rome and Trade
Figure 1. Statue of Naismith in Kansas, which is dedicated to his invention of basketball.

Unlike other major sports, the origins of basketball are not very ancient and most historians agree that the sport was founded in 1891 by James Naismith. However, its development was at times complex and was able to thrive as other major sports enthralled audiences in the United States and later the world.

Early History

With the invention of basketball in 1891, a new game that was very different than its contemporaries formed. The specific founding of basketball are precisely known because James Naismith (Figure 1), who worked as a instructor at a YMCA, was given the task of creating an indoor game. This was seen as a way to keep children out of trouble and entertained during the winter months. Initially, Naismith tried to create versions of American football or soccer as indoor sports. However, all of these proved too violent, as they also caused damage to property in confined spaces. Within two weeks of Naismith's task, the first basketball rules were created. Although done in haste, six of the original thirteen rules Naismith created are still with us. This includes not using your fist, shoulder, and not being allowed to run with the ball. The first "nets" were, in fact, two peach baskets attached at either end of the court.

The first ball was a soccer ball, with the first court being in Springfield College's YMCA in Springfield Massachusetts. The first baskets were 10 feet high, something that has been retained, but the ball could not go through the basket and after each score the ball had to be retrieved. The name "basket ball" developed when one of the children playing the new game referred to the game as such after seeing it.[1]

Very quickly, in January 20, 1892, the first official game, with 18 players, using Naismith's rules was played, with the final score 1-0. The first games were simply about keeping the ball away from the opposing team and it took some time for the concept of offense to develop. By 1898, a professional league was already being founded, called the National Basketball League, although it did not prove to have long-term success, as it was abandoned within 6 years. In the next decade during the 1900s, the basketball net developed to be more like the modern one, with a net and backboard developed. The ball was replaced with a new type that is of more similar dimensions to those used today. [2]

Why Did Basketball Thrive?

Figure 2. The North Carolina Tar Heels were an early basketball team with this team photo from 1911.

As basketball was founded by the YMCA, which is a Christian institution, the spread of the game coincided also with missionary and medical activities undertaken. Soon, the YMCA used basketball as part of its work abroad and within North America. This helped to popularize not only the YMCA but also the game itself. [3]

Similar to American football, colleges became key places for spreading basketball (Figure 2). With long winter months in many parts of the United States, people increasingly sought recreation during this time. Colleges developed indoor gymnasiums that soon became taken over with basketball courts, spreading the popularity of the game. This soon led to the organization of college basketball teams. New rules, including dribbling and concept of fouling out of games, developed. By the end of the 1910s, most of the rules that are with us today had developed in the college game. However, what did not develop were professional teams, as the early professional teams had to fold.[4]

Similar to baseball, however, it was war and the rapidly changing economy that developed that helped to shape how basketball spread. In the 1910s and going into World War I, the spread of soldiers to different parts of the country and world brought basketball to new places. In fact, the first official international games occurred as a result of World War I, as the allies created teams that competed in the so-called Inter-Allied Games. Domestically, basketball continued to spread in colleges in the 1920s and 1930s, even as the professional leagues had still not developed. Disorganization and the Great Depression likely prevented basketball from becoming professional during this time. By 1938 and 1939, the development of the National Invitational Tournament (NIT) and National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) tournament developed, which are still present. The University of Oregon was the NCAA's first winner with a score of 46-33 against Ohio State. [5]

In 1937 and 1946, the National Basketball League (NBL) and Basketball Association of America (BAA) were created respectively. While the NBL eventually had to fold, some of its teams and the BAA merged into what became the National Basketball Association (NBA) in 1949. [6]

The Modern Era

Like many other sports, the combination of superstars, radio, and then television helped to spread the popularity of the game and make the game modern with new stadiums purposely build for basketball. The first true superstar was George Mikan, who was six feet and ten inches tall. His height forced changes to the game, mainly the 3-second lane being widened as his large height made the sport less competitive for opposing teams as he simply dominated underneath the basket with his height. By 1950, the basketball color barrier, which was far less formidable than that in baseball, was broken by Chuck Cooper who played for the Boston Celtics. By the late 1940s, slam dunks were becoming part of the game.[7]

The college game continued to thrive and it was the college game that continued to be ahead of the pros, with TV rights signed in the 1950s that helped to increase the games popularity. Meanwhile, the professional leagues popularity stalled, as rules regulating time wasting and fouling were not developed in the NBA. This led to the game becoming much slower and less interesting for viewers. In 1954, Danny Biasone introduced the 24 second shot clock and foul limits that then revitalized the professional game. It now became a much faster sport, with higher scoring, where by 1958 average scoring topped the 100 mark, gaining more popularity. Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russel joining the professional game by the late 1950s helped to make the professional game popular. While Bill Russel helped found the Celtic dynasty of 1957-1969, Chamberlain is best remembered for his high scoring and being the first player to score 100 points in a game. Chamberlain's dominance led to the center lane being widened. The 1950s and 1960s were the first decades when television broadcasted games.

In 1967, the American Basketball Association (ABA) emerged as a threat to the NBA. It did have some major stars to its name because it began to actively recruit in college campuses. The NBA, meanwhile, developed its iconic logo that debuted in 1971. The ABA and NBA competed throughout the early 1970s. This was a period where the NBA grew from 9 to 18 teams, mostly because of the competition with the ABA forced the NBA to aggressively expand. By 1976, however, the ABA and NBA merged. Another period of declining interest started in the late 1970s. This time the introduction of the three-point shot (in 1979) and arrival of major stars that became international phenomena revitalized the game. The first two were Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, who famously battled in the 1984 finals. With the arrival of Michael Jordan in 1984, the game's popularity surged to new heights and helped develop what many think of basketball today, as his style of play and commercialization of many aspects of the game became major draws for investors and fans alike.[8]

Global Phenomenon

Although early in its history basketball had already spread globally, with the Olympics adopting basketball by 1936, the modern era's popularity is attributed to both TV and players. Stars such as Michael Jordan were at times more popular than national heroes in foreign countries. Slow motion replay, no doubt, helped those worldwide watch how Michael Jordan would effortlessly glide or slam dunk in a seemingly impossible move. The popularity of Michael Jordan awakened many firms in marketing basketball and the NBA promoting itself. The realization of how marketable Jordan was and the introduction of professional athletes to the Olympics in 1992 (so-called Dream Team) was part of the NBA strategy to expand its brand. This spread basketball's popularity, where it rivals football (or soccer) in many places. By 2014, the NBA itself had become international, with more than 100 players being foreign born. In 1992, only 23 players were foreign born.[9] This shows that the history of basketball will be one shaped by many nationalities despite the sports distinct American heritage.


  1. For information on the invention of the game by Naismith, see: Rains, R. (2011) OCLC: 829926672. James naismith: the man who invented basketball. Place of publication not identified, Temple University Press.
  2. For more on the early games of basketball, see: Bjarkman, P.C. (2000) The biographical history of basketball: more than 500 portraits of the most significant on-and off-court personalities of the game’s past and present. Lincolnwood, Ill, Masters Press.
  3. For more on the early spread of basketball, see: Naismith, J. (1996) Basketball: its origin and development. Bison Books ed. Lincoln, University of Nebraska Press.
  4. For an early history on college basketball, see: Anon (2009) OCLC: 472605763. Summitt: a pictorial retrospective of college basketball’s greatest coach. Battle Ground, WA, Pediment Pub.
  5. For a post-war history of basketball, see: Mark Dyreson & J. A. Mangan (eds.) (2007) OCLC: ocm63397310. Sport and American society: exceptionalism, insularity, and ‘imperialism’. Sport in the global society. London ; New York, Routledge, pg. 46.
  6. For an early history of professional basketball, see: Nelson, M.R. (2009) OCLC: 431502825. The National Basketball League: a history, 1935-1949. [Online]. Jefferson, N.C., McFarland & Co. Available from: [Accessed: 10 August 2016].
  7. For a history of the NBA and its rules, see: Surdam, D.G. (2012) The rise of the National Basketball Association. Urbana, University of Illinois Press.
  8. For history on the ABA and NBA, see: Pluto, T. (2007) OCLC: 153578380. Loose balls: the short, wild life of the American Basketball Association. New York, Simon & Schuster Paperbacks.
  9. For more on the internationalization of basketball, see: Markovits, A.S. & Rensmann, L. (2010) OCLC: 650308562. Gaming the world: how sports are reshaping global politics and culture. [Online]. Princeton, Princeton University Press, pg. 89.