views updated May 08 2018


Although basketball in the United States is now dominated by African Americans, their role in the sport was relatively unimportant in the early years of the game. Created in 1891 by James Naismith at a Springfield, Massachusetts, YMCA, basketball was originally played primarily at YMCAs. Black YMCAs produced the earliest African-American teams.

By the outbreak of World War I in 1914, a handful of blacks competed on white varsity basketball teams, mostly in small, remote midwestern colleges. Ironically, a man who did not play varsity basketball, Edwin B. Henderson, opened the door for many others to compete at both the interscholastic and intercollegiate levels. In 1905, after a summer at Harvard, Henderson, who was a physical education instructor, returned home to Washington, D.C., to become a founding father of African-American basketball. As physical education director for black schools in Washington, Henderson led in the organization and promotion of high school, club, and YMCA sports programs for African-American youths. In 1909 he became an instructor at Howard University, where he introduced basketball. Two years later he launched a varsity program, recruiting most of his players from the black YMCA in Washington.

A number of black colleges joined Howard in adopting basketball for intramural and intercollegiate purposes. During World War I these colleges began forming conferences "in a common effort for athletic elevation," as a Howard professor put it, and "to train students in self-reliance and stimulate race-pride through athletic attainment." In 1916 Howard, Lincoln, Shaw, and Virginia Union universities joined Hampton Institute in forming the Central Interscholastic Athletic Association. Four years later, educators and coaches from several Deep South colleges convened at Morehouse College in Atlanta to form the Southeastern Athletic Conference. By 1928 four regional conferences covered most of the black institutions below the Mason-Dixon line. By codifying rules and clarifying terms of athletic eligibility, these new conferences benefited the game of basketball.

Historians have made much of the massive black migration northward in the 1920s, but there also was a reverse migration of black athletes from the North to such southern schools as Tuskegee Institute (later Tuskegee University) in Alabama and Tugaloo College in Mississippi. Basketball especially flourished at Morgan State University in Baltimore, which went undefeated in 1927; Xavier University in New Orleans, whose entire starting team in the late 1930s came from a championship high school team in Chicago; and Virginia Union University, whose 422 record in the 19391940 season included two victories over the National Invitation Tournament (NIT) champions Long Island University.

During the period between World War I and World War II, some black students played basketball at integrated colleges. John Howard Johnson, the first black basketball player at Columbia University, graduated from there in 1921. Basketball players who later achieved fame in other endeavors included Ralph Bunche, a Nobel Peace Prize recipient who starred at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) in the mid-1920s, and Jackie Robinson, who, also playing for UCLA (19391941), led his conference in scoring two years in a row before he went on to become the first African American to play baseball in the modern major leagues.

Because basketball is less expensive than football and more centrally positioned in the academic year than baseball, it became popular in black high schools in the 1920s. The black state high school athletic associations of West Virginia were the first of many to begin sponsoring state basketball tournaments in 1924. By 1930 eight tournaments had been established; by 1948 every racially segregated southern and midwestern state had African-American statewide athletic organizations that emphasized basketball. In May 1929 Charles H. Williams, the director of physical education at Hampton Institute, inaugurated the National Interscholastic Basketball Tournament, which was held annually until 1942.

Of the several professional basketball leagues that rose and fell during the interwar period, all excluded blacks, though given the weak and disorganized nature of professional basketball at this time, this ban had less impact than for other professional sports. Independent all-black teams such as the Smart Set in Brooklyn, as well as St. Christopher's, Alphas, and the Spartans in New York City and Loendi in Pittsburgh, were beset with inadequate facilities, small turnouts, and uncertain schedules, and they struggled to survive. The most successful teams hit the road, barnstorming from city to city on a trail blazed by the best all-white team of the interwar era, the Original Celtics. The two best African-American squads, the New Yorkbased Renaissance Big Five ("Harlem Rens") and the Chicago-based Harlem Globetrotters, frequently played against the Original Celtics and other all-white touring teams, thus making basketball the only interwar professional team sport to allow interracial competition.

The Rens were created in 1923 by the St. Kitts native Robert L. Douglas, who immigrated as a child to the United States in 1888. For several years Douglas played with the New York Spartans, then decided to form his own team. He rented the Renaissance Casino ballroom in Harlem. The team took their name from that home site but played most of their games on the road against any teamblack or white, city or small townthat would take them on. Over a twenty-year span, the Rens averaged more than one hundred victories annually. In their greatest season, 1932 to 1933, they won eighty-eight consecutive games and finished with a 1208 record. At Chicago in 1939 they won the first "world tournament" of professional basketball. Little wonder that all seven players who formed the core of the team during the 1930sCharles T. "Tarzan" Cooper, John "Casey" Holt, Clarence "Fats" Jenkins,

James "Pappy" Ricks, Eyre "Bruiser" Satch, William "Wee Willie" Smith, and William J. "Bill" Yanceyare in the Basketball Hall of Fame.

The Rens were already well established when the Harlem Globetrotters played their first game in January 1927. Initially called the Savoy Big Five because they played in the Savoy Ballroom in Chicago, the Globetrotters were the brainchild of a Jewish immigrant, Abraham Saperstein. The somewhat misleading Harlem tag was a public relations ploy, which provided a racial rather than a geographical reference. As a team of barnstorming professionals, they traveled far longer, more widely, and to consistently larger crowds than any sports team in history. In 1951 they appeared before 75,000 spectators in Berlin's Olympic Stadium. They have performed for literally millions of live spectators around the world, as well as to huge television and movie audiences.

Although best known in later years for their basketball comedy, the original Globetrotters were serious, highly skilled athletes. In 1940 they succeeded the Rens as "world champions" in the fiercely fought Chicago tournament. Earlier, during the Great Depression, they averaged nearly two hundred games per year, winning more than 90 percent of them. Constant travel produced fatigue; large margins of victory made for boredom. For rest and relief from tedium, the Globetrotters began clowning, especially on those frequent occasions when they dramatically outmatched their opponents. Comedy proved contractually lucrative, so the Globetrotters developed funny skits and routines. Staged silliness swamped competitive play in the 1940s. Still, Reece "Goose" Tatum, Marques Haynes, Meadow George "Meadowlark" Lemon, Nat "Sweetwater" Clifton, Connie Hawkins, and Wilt Chamberlain are among the most famous of the many superb athletes who wore the colorful Globetrotter uniform.

It was just as well that the Globetrotters shifted from serious basketball to comedy routines, because the racial integration of the National Basketball Association (NBA) in 1950 meant that the Globetrotters could no longer attract the best college athletes. (A forerunner of the NBA, the Basketball Association of America, signed black players as early as 1948.) For the 19501951 season, the Boston Celtics recruited Charles "Chuck" Cooper from Duquesne University, the Washington Capitals tapped Early Lloyd from West Virginia State College, and the New York Knicks bought Sweetwater Clifton from the Globetrotters.

Prior to World War II the abolition of the center jump, the introduction of an innovative one-handed shot, and the use of the fast break served to streamline Naismith's slow and deliberate original game. In the early 1950s the NBA responded to the market's demand for a faster, more attractive game by banning zone defenses, doubling the width of the foul lane (to twelve feet), and introducing a twenty-four-second shot clock. All these changes were completed by 1954 and worked to the great advantage of African-American newcomers who had mastered a more spontaneous, personalized style of play on the asphalt courts of urban playgrounds.

The first African American to become a dominant player in the NBA was William "Bill" Russell. Russell came from an extremely successful undergraduate career at the University of San Francisco, where he and another gifted African American, K. C. Jones, led the San Francisco Dons to fifty-five straight victories and two National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) championships. Rather than go into the NBA immediately, however, both men participated in the 1956 Summer Olympics in Melbourne, Australia, leading the United States basketball team to an easy gold medal. Then, while Jones fulfilled a two-year military obligation, Russell joined the Celtics at midseason. The defensive, shot-blocking, and rebounding skills of Russell complemented those of several high-scoring Celtics. Together they produced their first NBA championship in Russell's first pro season.

Jones joined the Celtics in the 19581959 season, and he and Russell helped the Celtics to an all-time record nine consecutive NBA crowns. In 1964 Boston fielded the first all-black starting lineup in the NBA: Russell, Jones, Sam Jones, Tom "Satch" Sanders, and Willie Naulls; John Thompson, the future coach of Georgetown University, backed up Russell. Russell's NBA nemesis was a high-scoring giant of a man, Wilton Norman "Wilt" Chamberlain. Over seven feet tall and weighing 265 pounds in his prime, Chamberlain earlier led Overbrook High School in Philadelphia to two city championships, once scoring ninety points in a single game. In his varsity debut at the University of Kansas in 1957, his fifty-two points set the Jayhawks on the path to the NCAA finals, where they narrowly lost in triple overtime to top-ranked North Carolina. After two All-American seasons at Kansas, Chamberlain toured for a year with the Harlem Globetrotters, then joined the Philadelphia Warriors in the NBA in 1959. In a fourteen-year NBA career, he played with four different teams and was selected for thirteen All-Star games, seven first-team All-NBA squads, and four Most Valuable Player awards. In a total of 1,045 NBA games, he averaged more than thirty points per game, and in 1962, he scored one hundred points in a single game against the New York Knickerbockers. At his retirement in 1973, he held or shared forty-three NBA records.

In addition to Chamberlain and Russell, black athletes such as Elgin Baylor and Oscar Robertson achieved basketball renown in the late 1950s and 1960s. Though they had their differences in talent and style, it is perhaps possible to see in their play elements of a shared athletic aesthetic that would dominate NBA basketball in the 1970s. Baylor, Chamberlain, Robertson, and Russell exhibited skills developed in playground competition best represented in the Rucker tournament (New York) and the Baker League (Philadelphia), both created in the postwar era. All four of these early NBA stars grew up in urban, not rural, America, and they developed their game in East Coast, industrial Midwest, and West Coast inner-city playgrounds. All four also attended white rather than traditionally black colleges. Another player from the early and mid-1960s who exemplified the playground style was Earl "the Pearl" Monroe, who attended Winston-Salem College in North Carolina before beginning a successful career with the Baltimore Bullets and New York Knicks. Connie Hawkins, a consummate playground basketball player from New York City, had his promising career derailed by his ambiguous involvement in a point-shaving scandal in 1960. After some years in basketball purgatory, he joined the Phoenix Suns in 1969.

In the period after World War II, blacks became prominent in college basketball. Two black players started for the City College of New York (CCNY) squad of 1950, the only team ever to win the NCAA and NIT tournaments in the same year. When the first significant cracks appeared in the armor of racially segregated universities in the 1950s, basketball coaches rushed to recruit bluechip African-American athletes for traditionally all-white teams. Even the smallest of colleges sought to enhance

their status through the basketball prowess of new black talent. With fewer than one thousand students, little St. Francis College of Loretto, Pennsylvania, wooed Maurice Stokes. He carried them from the obscure National Catholic Tournament to the more prestigious and lucrative National Invitational Tournament in 1955.

As integration undercut black college athletics, coach John B. McLendon's program at Tennessee A&I enjoyed a kind of last hurrah of basketball excellence. After successful stints at North Carolina College and Hampton Institute, McLendon in 1954 went to Tennessee A&I in Nashville. Employing a fast-break press-and-run game that he claimed to have learned years earlier from the aged Naismith at the University of Kansas, within five years McLendon won four league championships and three national titles in the newly integrated National Association for Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA). The Most Valuable Player of the 1959 NAIA Tournament was Tennessee A&I's Richard "Dick" Barnett, a future New York Knickerbocker stalwart.

Strong racially integrated teams won NCAA titles for the University of Cincinnati and Loyola University of Chicago in the early 1960s. Building on a tradition of integration that dated back to the 1920s, UCLA attracted a number of African-American athletes during the eleven-year span (19641975) in which they won ten national titles. The person most identified with UCLA's reign was Lew Alcindor, later known was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, a 7'2" dominating center with a deft scoring touch who later went on to a twenty-year career in the NBA with the Milwaukee Bucks and the Los Angeles Lakers.

The passing of the old era of segregated basketball was symbolized in the NCAA finals of 1966, in which an all-black squad from Texas Western University (now the University of Texas at El Paso) defeated a highly favored all-white team from the University of Kentucky. Shortly thereafter, the color bar began crumbling in the segregated schools of the Southwest Conference when James Cash became Texas Christian University's first black basketball player in 1966. In Maryland, Billy Jones became the first African-American basketball recruit in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Finally, Perry Wallace of Vanderbilt University broke the racial barrier in the Southeastern Conference (SEC) in 1967, the same year the University of Alabama's new basketball coach, C. M. Newton, began recruiting African Americans. In 1974 Alabama became the first SEC team to field five black starters.

The growing dominance of African Americans in college basketball has not been without its share of problems, however. Many colleges recruit black players as athletes, with little regard for or interest in providing them with an education. For example, shortly after winning the 1966 NCAA title, members of the Texas Western team began dropping out of college. They had all been recruited from the New York City area, and the overwhelmingly white, southern campus environment provided a combination of academic and social pressure. Dropout rates remained at high levels into the 1990s but showed some improvement. According to NCAA reports, in 1997 to 1998, 42 percent of black male college basketball players graduated (as opposed to 48 percent of white male players). Another problem that has ruined or seriously detoured many promising careers is drug addiction. Len Bias, a number-one NBA draft choice from the University of Maryland, allegedly died of a drug overdose in 1988. Other talented black basketball players, such as the playground legends Earl "the Goat" Manigault and Herman "Helicopter" Knowings of New York City, and William "Chicken Breast" Lee and Terry "Sweets" Matchett of Washington, D.C., did not have the social skills to enable them to move beyond the milieu of their hometown neighborhoods.

The African-American player has simply transformed basketball at all levels, especially bringing extraordinary excitement, media exposure, and financial success to the NBA. The seamless web of connections between high school, college, and professional basketball is best seen in Baltimore's Dunbar High School squad during the 19821983 season. Finishing with a 310 record, Dunbar was top-ranked among all high school teams by USA Today. Virtually the entire team went to college on basketball scholarships. In 1987 three of them were selected in the first round of the NBA draft: Tyrone "Mugsey" Bogues of Wake Forest, by the Washington Bullets; Reggie Lewis of Northeastern, by the Boston Celtics; and Reggie Williams of Georgetown, by the Los Angeles Lakers. As of 2005 nearly 80 percent of all NBA players were black.

African Americans also play a prominent role in women's basketball. The 1984 Olympic women's basketball team, the first to win a gold medal, included Cheryl Miller, who led her University of Southern California team to two NCAA championships; Pam McGee; Lynette Woodard, who later became the first female player for the Harlem Globetrotters; and C. Vivian Stringer, who became coach of the women's basketball team at Cheyney State College in 1972, leading them to a second-place victory in the NCAA Women's National Basketball Championship ten years later. When Stringer became coach of the University of Iowa's women's team in 1983, she became the first black female coach to lead a women's basketball team of national rank. Under her leadership, the Iowa team qualified to play in the NCAA national tournament for seven straight years, from 1986 to 1992. In 1992 Stringer became the NCAA delegate for the committee organizing the Barcelona Olympic Games. Black women, notably Nikki McCray, also dominated the women's basketball competition at the 1996 Olympics, at which the American women's team won the gold medal. McCray went on to star in both the American Basketball League and the Women's National Basketball League (WNBA), the two women's leagues that were created in the mid-1990s. The American women's basketball team won gold medals again at the 2000 and 2004 Olympics. The 2004 team at Athens was led by Dawn Staley, who was chosen as the flag bearer for the U.S. Olympic team, as well as Lisa Leslie and Sheryl Swoopes.

Although African Americans are vastly underrepresented in the management and coaching ranks of the NBA, they are considerably more visible there than in major league baseball or in the National Football League. In 2005 the NBA had ten black head coaches out of a total of thirty (as opposed to only two a decade earlier), and fully one-third of the NBA's assistant coaches were black. However, the number of African-American general managers, owners, and others in positions with decision-making powers remains in the single digits.

In the collegiate ranks, in 2005 there were fifty-four African-American head coaches out of 318 Division I schools. Some of the most successful Division I coaches were John Thompson of Georgetown, John Chaney of Temple, George Raveling of the University of Southern California, and Nolan Richardson of the University of Arkansas. Division II coach Clarence "Big House" Gaines, who retired from Winston-Salem State University in 1993, was by far the most successful of all African-American coaches, having won the most victories in Division II history.

Georgetown's John Thompson became probably the most visible, and certainly the most controversial, African-American coach. After a brief, successful stint at St. Anthony's Catholic High School in Washington, D.C., Thompson moved to Georgetown in 1972. Emphasizing the tenacious defense and team play he had learned during his brief time as a Celtic, he steered the Georgetown Hoyas to three consecutive NCAA finals, from 1983 to 1985, and to the national championship in 1984. Four years later he coached the United States Olympic team to a bronze medal in Seoul. Always emphasizing the primacy of academics, he ably recruited African-American athletes for Georgetown. Patrick Ewing and Alonzo Mourning are two of the most famous among many players to whom Thompson directed his homilies of racial pride and achievement.

In the 1980s basketball soared to new heights of international popularity, as did African-American basketball players. Two players who stood out in particular were Earvin "Magic" Johnson and Michael Jordan. Johnson, an unusually tall guard at 6'8", led Michigan State University to an NCAA championship in his sophomore year in 1979 before turning pro and joining the Los Angeles Lakers. He helped the Lakers to an NBA championship in his rookie season and subsequently led his team to five championships during his career. In addition to his basketball skills, his effervescent and winning personality propelled him to media celebrity. His many admirers were shocked to learn of his early retirement in the fall of 1991 after he announced that he had contracted HIV. In the second half of the 1980s and the 1990s, the dominant basketball player was Michael Jordan. Jordan played for the University of North Carolina before joining the Chicago Bulls in 1984, where, as a shot maker of astounding versatility, he quickly became one of the most powerful players in league history. Jordan also became a media spokesman for a number of products and advertising campaigns. His widespread acceptance and popularity was as remarkable as his outstanding on-court skills. Michael Jordan retired from professional basketball in October 1993 but returned in the spring of 1995. He helped lead the Bulls to a total of six NBA titles during his years in Chicago, before and after his first retirement. Jordan retired a second time in 1999, before returning for a final two-year stint with the Washington Wizards (20012003).

The role of African Americans in basketball was further underlined by the success of the so-called Dream Team, an NBA All-Star team that romped against the best of the rest of the world in the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona and (to a lesser extent) the 1996 games in Atlanta. Eight of the twelve players on the team were black, including Magic Johnson in his final competitive appearance before his retirement. The 2000 U.S. men's basketball team, with eleven black players, won the gold medal at the Sydney Olympics.

Other gifted African-American players entered the basketball spotlight in the 1990s and early 2000s, including Shaquille O'Neal, Hakeem Olajuwon, Scottie Pippen, Charles Barkley, David Robinson, Karl Malone, Kobe Bryant, and Allen Iverson. Seven-foot-tall O'Neal, who in February 1993 became the first rookie since 1985 to lead the NBA All-Star Game starting lineup, went on to become one of the most celebrated stars of professional basketball. Winner of numerous Most Valuable Player awards, O'Neal's scoring average ranks third all-time among NBA players (behind Jordan and Chamberlain). More than any NBA star, O'Neal has achieved celebrity status in the larger culture. Kobe Bryant went from high school directly into the NBA, becoming the youngest player in NBA history. He helped lead the Los Angeles Lakers to league titles in 2000, 2001, and 2002. In women's basketball, star players included Cynthia Cooper, who won four WNBA championships with the Houston Comets and went on to become a coach; Olympian Sheryl Swoopes, voted the 2003 WNBA defensive player of the year; and Teresa Edwards, the most decorated Olympic basketball player of all time, male or female.

Yet, despite the increasing successes of individual black basketball players, the nature of collegiate basketball itself continues to be an issue of controversy in the African-American community. In the 1990s the NCAA established rules for prospective players, setting minimum academic standards for team admittance (graduation from high school, completion of a specified number of core courses, and specified grade point averages) and limiting the number of college scholarships offered for basketball. Many decried these rules as unfair to young African-American athletes from disadvantaged backgrounds. Balancing a number of interests has been tricky for the NCAA. Challenges include the need to attract more promising minority athletes, the need to maintain a quality team in order to attract alumni donations, the need for schools to maintain consistent academic standards, and the decrease in available scholarship funds. For prospective African-American student athletes, the new NCAA rules meant the intensification of an already keen competition for a chance at professional status. The controversy highlighted the debate within the black community on the role of basketball as a means of upward mobility for inner-city youth and whether basketball unduly dominated the activities of black teenagers.

See also Abdul-Jabbar, Kareem; Chamberlain, Wilt; Harlem Globetrotters; Howard University; Johnson, Earvin "Magic"; Jordon, Michael; Lincoln University; Olympians; Sports; Related Maps, Graphs, or Tables in Appendix: African-American Members of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, Springfield, Mass.


Ashe, Arthur R., Jr. A Hard Road to Glory: A History of the African-American Athlete. New York: Amistad, 1993.

George, Nelson. Elevating the Game: Black Men and Basketball. New York: Harper, 1992. Reprint, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1999.

Peterson, Robert W. Cages to Jump Shots: Pro Basketball's Early Years. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990. Reprint, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2002.

Sailes, Gary A., ed. African Americans in Sport: Contemporary Themes. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction, 1998.

Shropshire, Kenneth L. In Black and White: Race and Sports in America. New York: New York University Press, 1996.

Wideman, John Edgar. Hoop Roots. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2001.

william j. baker (1996)
Updated by publisher 2005


views updated May 17 2018








The perceived dominance of African Americans in basketball has been taken as proof of the natural athleticism of blacks (defined as any people of African origin). However, the history of sport quickly dismisses this notion.

Basketball was invented by the Canadian-born James Naismith in December 1891. Naismith, a physical education teacher at the School for Christian Workers (now Springfield College) in Springfield, Massachusetts, was charged with inventing a game to entertain the school’s athletes during the winter. The original game used a soccer ball, two peach baskets attached to the railing of gym balcony, two nine-player teams, and thirteen rules. Between 1906 and 1916 a series of rules changes were implemented, including opening the net to allow the ball to fall through after a goal. Players fouled out after committing five fouls, and foul shots were awarded depending on the severity of the infraction. In 1916 dribbling followed by a shot was allowed. (Prior to this players could not move after the ball was passed to them.)

Many of the early basketball games were played in gymnasiums with floor to ceiling netting separating the crowd from the players. This is where the term “cager” originated, though the practice was discontinued in 1929.

In 1892, Senda Berenson Abbot, a Lithuanian-born physical education teacher at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, twenty miles north of Springfield, developed a modified game for women because it was believed that the men’s game was too physically demanding for the “fairer” sex. The court was divided into three equal sections, with players required to stay in an assigned area; players were prohibited from snatching or batting the ball from the hands of another player; and they were prohibited from holding the ball for longer than three seconds and from dribbling the ball more than three times.

The spread of basketball in the United States and abroad was facilitated by the Young Men’s Christian Associations (YMCAs), the armed forces, and colleges. Factors that helped it grow in popularity were the simple equipment requirements, indoor play, competitiveness, and easily understood rules. These were also the same attributes that would make it well-suited for the urban African-American neighborhoods that would spring up across America after World War II.

The first intercollegiate league, the New England Inter-collegiate Basketball League, was formed in May 1901. It included teams from Yale and Harvard Universities and Trinity, Holy Cross, Amherst, and Williams Colleges. It is highly unlikely that any African Americans played in this first league. Indeed only eight African Americans are recorded as having played for European American collegiate teams from 1904 to 1919 (see Table 1).

African-American athletes were not allowed to play basketball for predominantly European American institutions in the Jim Crow South until after the 1950s. Colored YMCAs and YWCAs throughout the nation formed the first African-American teams. This effort

Table 1.
African Americans Who Starred for European American Colleges Prior to 1920
PlayerYearsUniversity or CollegeState
SOURCE : Adapted from Ashe, Arthur. (1988). A Hard Road to Glory: A History of the African-American Athlete 1619–1918. Warner Books: New York, p. 175.
Samuel Ransom1904–08Beloit CollegeWisconsin
Wilbur Wood1907–10University of NebraskaNebraska
Fenwich Watkins1909University of VermontVermont
Cumberland1909, 1916Pennsylvania StatePennsylvania
Posey University, Duquesne University 
Sol Butler1910Dubuque CollegeIowa
William Kindle1911Springfield CollegeMassachusetts
Cleve Abbot1913South Dakota StateSouth Dakota
Paul Robeson1915–18Rutgers UniversityNew Jersey

was hampered in the South however, due to poor gymnasiums, a lack of equipment, few coaches, and year-round warm weather. YMCA college student associations played a major role in introducing African-Americans’ colleges to basketball.


Professional basketball began in 1896 at a YMCA in Trenton, New Jersey, and in 1898 the National Basketball League (NBL) was founded. The NBL consisted of six franchises from Pennsylvania and New Jersey. At the same time, club teams were being formed. The Smart Set Athletic Club, from Brooklyn, New York, was the first African-American club team, and it was soon joined by the St. Christopher Athletic Club and the Marathone Athletic Club. These clubs formed the Olympic Athletic League. Similar clubs were formed in Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Wilmington, Delaware, and northern New Jersey. The Buffalo Germans, a team with players of German descent that won 111 straight games between 1908 and 1911, and the Original Celtics (who were started by Irish players from New York’s Hell’s Kitchen), were extraordinarily successful professional teams in the early twentieth century. The Original Celtics pioneered many of the tactics still used in modern basketball, including zone defense and post play. The first successful national professional league was the American Basketball League (ABL), which lasted from 1925 to 1931 and resumed play again from 1933 to 1934. The ABL was formed without any African-American players; teams and league rules disallowed games against African-American teams. For this reason, the Original Celtics refused to join.

The racially segregated character of American society meant that most sports clubs were composed of a single ethnic group, or of groups that were considered socially equivalent (such as poor Irish and Jews). The 1920s through 1930s saw three prominent ethnically based professional teams dominate basketball: the Original Celtics, the South Philadelphia Hebrew Association team (the SPHAs), and the New York Renaissance (the Rens), an all-African American team. The Original Celtics compiled an amazing record as a barnstorming team, with more than 700 victories and only 60 losses in the 1920s. (Barnstorming refers to the practice of touring a region playing local club teams). They were eventually forced into the ABL when the league disallowed its members to play nonmembers, thus reducing the number of competitors. In 1926 and 1927 the Original Celtics won the first two league championships. The league owners responded by breaking up the team and dispersing their players throughout the league. In 1928 the New York Rens won the championship, defeating the Original Celtics, who featured the future Hall of Famers Joe Lapchick and Nat Holman. A year later, the Original Celtics again won the title. The contests between the Celtics and the Rens were some of the hottest tickets in town, and at least five race riots were sparked by their games.

The SPHAs won seven ABL titles between 1933 and 1945, and they lost in the championship series twice. The team’s uniform tops featured the Hebrew letters spelling SPHAs and a Jewish star. The back of the team’s road uniforms said “Hebrews”! In 1926 during a break in ABL play, the SPHAs defeated both the Original Celtics and the New York Renaissance in best-of-three game series, showing that, though a minor league team, they were able to compete against the best professional teams of the period.

The early success of Jewish athletes in basketball spawned biologically based racial theories to explain this phenomenon. Paul Gallico, a sports editor for the New York Daily News wrote in his 1938 Farewell to Sports: “The reason, I suspect, that basketball appeals to the Hebrew with his Oriental background is that the game places a premium on an alert, scheming mind, flashy trickiness, artful dodging and general smart aleckness.” Other writers suggested that Jews had an advantage in basketball because short men have better balance and more foot speed. They also suggested that they had sharper eyes, which was in contradiction to the stereotype that Jewish men were nearsighted.

In 1923, the New York Rens became the first full-salaried African-American professional basketball team. Like the Original Celtics and the SPHAs, the Rens were a barnstorming squad that had to take on all levels of competition to earn a living. The Rens were not allowed to join the ABL or the National Basketball League (NBL), which was formed in 1937. Yet in their nearly three-decade existence, starting in 1922, the Rens compiled a 2,588–529 record. They took their name from Harlem’s

Table 2.
World Basketball Champions, Chicago Herald Tournaments, 1939–1948
Winning Team/Runner UpRace/EthnicityYear
Note: The Washington Bears featured many of the New York Rens in this year.
SOURCE : Adapted from statistics compiled by William F. Himmelman in Peterson, Robert W. (1990). Cages to Jump Shots: Pro Basketball’s Early Years. New York: Oxford University Press.
New York Rens/Oshkosh All-StarsAfrican Am./European Am.1939
Harlem Globetrotters/African Am./European Am.1940
Chicago Bruins  
Detroit Eagles/Oshkosh All-StarsEuropean Am./European Am.1941
Oshkosh All-Stars/Detroit EaglesEuropean Am./European Am.1942
Washington Bears*/African Am./European Am.1943
Oshkosh All-Stars  
Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons/European Am./European Am.1944
Brooklyn Eagles  
Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons/European Am./European Am.1945
Dayton Acmes  
Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons/European Am./European Am.1946
Oshkosh All-Stars  
Indianapolis Kautskys/European Am./European Am.1947
Toledo Jeeps  
Minneapolis Lakers/European Am./African Am.1948
New York Rens  

Renaissance Casino, which opened in 1922. Bob Douglas, called the “father of black basketball” organized the team, which practiced and played home games at the casino’s dance hall. The Rens games were part of combined social-athletic events, with dances usually beginning right after the games.

During the Depression era, professional basketball leagues were not financially lucrative enough to allow players to make a living or team owners to make sufficient profits. Thus many teams survived by barnstorming. These teams were often ethnically based, such as the Terrible Swedes, the Harlem Globetrotters (African Americans out of Chicago, not New York), the House of David (Jewish), an even the Hong Wah Q’ues (a Chinese-American team.) During the 1940s many cities hosted basketball tournaments for professional teams, including the World Professional Basketball Tournament, played in Chicago Stadium each year from 1939 to 1948. At this time, professional teams were either owned by individuals or by corporations. On the corporate teams, the players had year-round jobs with the company, though they owed these jobs to the fact that they could play basketball. The records of the World Professional Basketball Tournament show no evidence of “African-American superiority” in basketball (see Table 2).


The history of early basketball does not support any theory of biologically based racial participation in the sport. Beginning in the 1960s, however, there was an increased participation of African Americans in the sport at all levels, including some of the greatest superstars of American sport. This pattern has spawned biologically based racial theories of African-American participation, including ideas of biologically superior athletic ability— particularly leaping ability—as explanations for the predominance of African-American stars. One CBS sports commentator, Jimmy “the Greek” Snyder, pronounced that the superior athletic ability of blacks was due to the fact that “blacks had been bred like race horses” during slavery. Another prominent racially based athletic theory is the supposedly greater innate jumping ability of African Americans. (Conversely, European Americans are supposed to suffer from the “white man’s disease,” or the inability to jump.) The supporters of this theory cite the results of slam-dunk competitions, which have been overwhelmingly dominated by athletes of African descent.

As convenient as these theories are, they all suffer from lack of genetic or physiological evidence to support their claims. In fact, the dominance of African Americans in American basketball is more easily explained by social and cultural changes that occurred in the United States between the 1940s and 1970s. In this period, governmental policies allowed persons of European descent to escape the inner cities while African Americans were denied access to the means to live elsewhere. Between 1934 and 1962, Federal Housing Authority (FHA) programs provided $120 billion in loans, but less than 2 percent of these went to nonwhites. The loans made cheap housing available to European Americans outside the cities and created the American suburbs. This occurred just as new waves of African Americans migrated to the northern cities in search of greater economic opportunity and freedom from racial discrimination. New Deal projects, such as government-owned buildings designed to save the poor from the dilapidated tenements, began to concentrate poor African Americans. These buildings were appropriately called “the projects.” The youths living within their confines were encouraged to pursue athletic activities that could be played on the blacktop surfaces of this urban landscape, and basketball was a natural candidate for this environment.

Sports culture, like music and the arts, was influenced by this new form of segregation. In the 1950s, many African-American educators and community leaders were still touting sports as a way to get ahead in a racist society. Holcomb Rucker was an example of someone who held these notions. Rucker was a New York City Department of Public Works employee who developed teen-oriented summer basketball leagues in Harlem. By 1955 his summer tournaments were heavily attended by scouts from major universities. The Rucker tournaments included such future basketball greats as Wilt Chamberlain, Walt Hazzard, Willis Reed, and Julius Erving, who played against equally talented individuals, many of whom later died of drug overdoses or went to prison. The emphasis on sports as a way to overcome racism meant that some of the brightest and most talented African Americans in this era pursued careers in sports.

While a student at Oakland’s McClymonds High, the future Boston Celtic great Bill Russell imagined new ways of playing defense in basketball. He devised the idea that defensive players could leave their feet to block a shot and keep the ball in play so that it could be recovered by a teammate. At playgrounds all over the inner cities of America, basketball skills that had been pioneered by earlier professionals of European descent, such as the jump shot and behind-the-back dribbling, were being improved on by African-American youth. In 1962, John McLendon, a former student of James Naismith and a successful college coach, published Fast Break Basketball: Fine Points and Fundamentals. Thus, during the 1950s and 1960s a distinctive African-American style of basketball developed and became as integral a part of African-American culture as “the blues” and “rhythm and blues” music.

Concomitant with the demographic shifts in the cities, a series of rules changes made basketball a faster and more athletic sport. Prior to these rule changes, basketball had essentially become football played on hardwood floors. On the inner-city playgrounds of America, African-American athletes had already begun to redefine how the game was played. Soon, college basketball could not ignore the lure of these talented individuals. The 1949-1950 NCAA champions, City College of New York (CCNY), were integrated and coached by basketball legend Nat Holman (of the Original Celtics). Conversely, the 1951 NCAA champions, the University of Kentucky, were all European Americans and coached by segregationist Adolph Rupp (a college basketball coaching legend). Despite their athletic greatness, both schools were shown to be involved with point-shaving gambling scandals, but at the time more was made of the CCNY problem due to the participation of African-American athletes.

The late 1950s would see four stellar African Americans open the doors to integrating basketball at the college level. These were Bill Russell at the University of San Francisco, Wilt Chamberlain at the University of Kansas, Elgin Baylor at Seattle University, and Oscar Robertson at the University of Cincinnati. In 1966, Texas Western would be the first team to win a NCAA basketball title

with an all-black starting five. They defeated a heavily favored—and segregated—Kentucky squad.


In 1950, Chuck Cooper became the first African-American player drafted by the fledgling National Basketball Association (NBA). By the 1960s, African-American participation at both the college and professional level had drastically increased, so much so that the Boston Celtics had an all–African-American starting line-up in 1964. The percentage of African Americans playing in the collegiate and professional ranks continued to increase in the 1970s.

The increase in African-American dominance of professional basketball during the latter decades of the twentieth century was such that a survey of NBA all-franchise players in 1994, covering the league from its beginnings, showed that out of 124 players, 86 were African Americans, 35 were European Americans, 1 was African, 1 was European, and 1 was an Iranian American. The NBA named its fifty greatest players from its first fifty years in 1996. Of these, thirty-one were African Americans and eighteen were European American. In 2001, the Basketball Hall of Fame included 34 African Americans and 77 European Americans. James Naismith and the Nigerian-born Hakeem Olajuwon were the only non–American-born inductees.

However, this increase in African-American participation coincided with a decline in the popularity of the professional game. By the end of the 1970s, the NBA (which had merged with the American Basketball Association, or ABA, in 1977) was the only one of the three major spectator sports without a national television contract. In 1981, sixteen of the twenty-three teams were losing money, and there was serious talk of folding the small-city franchises and downsizing to a twelve-team league. Earvin Magic Johnson (an African American from East Lansing, Michigan) and Larry Bird (a European American from French Lick, Indiana) helped to change all of that. Their rivalry began in the 1979 NCAA tournament and continued on into the NBA. Magic Johnson was one of the most versatile players the game had ever known, while Larry Bird was one of the game’s greatest pure shooters and competitors. Johnson’s Lakers and Bird’s Celtics faced each other in the NBA finals three times in the 1980s, and one of their teams captured the title eight out of ten years in that decade. This stimulated the rebirth of the NBA and set the stage for the emergence of the one of the greatest athletes the world has ever known, Michael Jordan of the Chicago Bulls.

Jordan is of African-American descent, and he played his college basketball under NCAA legend Dean Smith at North Carolina. Smith’s coaching style did not allow Jordan to showcase his formidable talents, and few expected him to be the superstar he became in the NBA. Jordan’s Bulls won six titles in the 1990s and he became the center of one of the greatest sports merchandising franchises of all time. Before signing Michael Jordan in 1987, annual sales of the athletic-shoe company Nike were only $900 million. Ten years later, based on the impact of their “Air Jordan” line, Nike annual sales were $9.19 billion, an increase of more than 1,000 percent. The popularity of basketball had changed so much in fifty years that Michael Jordan was still earning $33 million per year in endorsements two years after his retirement.


In a period of fifty years, professional basketball in America went from 100 percent to 16 percent European American. In the 2000-2001 season, African Americans dominated NBA rosters. European Americans, or “whites,” are persons whose genetic ancestry can be traced to some area in Europe and who have no detectable African ancestry. African Americans, or “blacks,” have genes that originated among Western Africans, Europeans, and American Indians. The average percentage of non-African genes in African Americans has been estimated to vary from as low as 6 percent to as high as 40 percent. Many of the early twenty-first century’s successful black athletes are the children of men who were athletically or socially successful in the last generation and who married European-American wives. Racial theories of basketball performance rely on the idea that there is something genetically “African” that predisposes an individual to be a better basketball player.

To test this assertion, however, it would be best to compare the number of Africans versus the number of Europeans in the NBA. African Americans are, in fact, not appropriate in this regard because a substantial fraction of their genes originated in Europeans and American Indians. In 2000, there were three Western Africans, nine Europeans, and one Australian in the NBA. An examination of the NBA 2002 rosters showed twenty-one Europeans, one East Asian, and nine Africans in the league. In that same season, Yao Ming, formerly of the Shanghai Sharks, made a particularly dramatic entry into the NBA, finishing second in Rookie of the Year voting. Thus, in a direct comparison of individuals who have “purely” African or European genes, there are more of those with European genes than African. This is directly opposite to the racial theory of basketball participation.


Basketball was introduced to the Summer Olympic Games in 1936. Since then, the United States has pretty much dominated the competition. The 1972 victory of the Soviet Union has always been attributed to dubious officiating. In 1988, however, the Soviet Union won the gold, Yugoslavia the silver, and the United States settled for the bronze medal. Americans criticized this defeat as due to the essentially “professional” character of the European basketball programs. This criticism led to a changing of International Olympic Committee rules, and by 1992 professional athletes could compete in the Olympic Games. The 1992 Barcelona Olympics featured the U.S. “Dream Team,” consisting of eight players of African-American ancestry and four players of European-American descent. The Dream Team easily won the gold medal, but their victory also helped to spread the popularity of basketball to such an extent that the dominance of the United States, and of African Americans, in basketball may soon be a thing of the past.

Indeed, the 2002 U.S. men’s international basketball team, which was predominantly African American, was eliminated by Yugoslavia in the quarterfinals and lost to Spain in the consolation game of the World Championships. The USA finished seventh, while the only African nation in the competition finished in an abysmal eleventh place. At the men’s competition in the 2004 Olympic Games, Argentina won the gold, Italy the Silver, and the United States the bronze. In the women’s competition, the United States won the Gold, Australia the Silver, and Russia the Bronze. No African nations qualified for the medal rounds at these Olympics. Of the 177 players drafted by the NBA from 2003 to 2005, 28 were

Europeans, 2 were East Asians, 1 was from East Africa, 22 from West Africa, and 4 were from Latin America. Finally, the 2005 NBA championship was won by the San Antonio Spurs, who featured five international players on their twelve-man roster. Two of their three most important players, Tim Duncan and Tony Parker, have some detectable African ancestry. These results indicate that the “black” dominance of professional and international basketball is fading.

Basketball ability, just like any other human behavior, is determined by a complex interplay between individual genetic ability, personality, culture, and society. African Americans, who currently dominate the game, represent a genetically and culturally unique population, one that is not equivalent to any particular Western African population, either in genes or in culture. Success at the modern game of basketball is facilitated by speed, endurance, agility, strength, height, hand-eye coordination, and leaping ability, among other athletic traits. There is no reason to suppose that these traits are found disproportionately among people of African descent in the United States, nor is there any scientific way of separating the genetic, environmental, or cultural effects that determine athletic predisposition. Thus, any claims of African genes providing superior athletic performance are at best speculation, and at worse racist ideology. The difference between the ethnic composition of the participants of American basketball and volleyball illustrates the social construction of sports performance. Both games require similar athletic skills, yet basketball is currently dominated by African-American athletes, while volleyball is dominated by European-American athletes.

When Michael Jordan retired from professional basketball, he was asked once again by reporters why he thought black players dominated the sport. “Okay, I’ll tell you,” he said. As reporters leaned forward, pencils poised, he whispered into the microphone, “We practice.”

SEE ALSO Baseball; Football (U.S.); Genetics and Athletic Performance; Track and Field.


Ashe, Arthur. 1993. A Hard Road to Glory—Basketball: The African American Athlete in Basketball. New York: Amistad Press.

Basketball Hall of Fame. “The Original Celtics.” Available from

Bjarkman, Peter. 1992. The History of the NBA. New York: Crescent Books.

———. 1994. The Encyclopedia of Pro Basketball Team Histories. New York: Caroll and Graf.

Deutsch, Robin Jonathan, and Wayne Patterson. 2001. “Basketball.” In Microsoft®Encarta®Online Encyclopedia. Available from

Entine, Jon. 2001. Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We Are Afraid to Talk about It. New York: Public Affairs.

George, Nelson. 1992. Elevating the Game: Black Men and Basketball. New York: Harper-Collins.

Gutman, Bill. 1993. The History of NCAA Basketball. New York: Crescent Publishers.

International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame. “Philadelphia SPHAs.” Available from

McCallum, John Dennis. 1978. College Basketball, U.S.A., since 1892: The History of the Game since Its Beginnings, Storied Players, Teams, and Coaches. New York: Stein and Day.

National Basketball Association. “The Original Dream Team.” Available from

———. “Remembering the Rens.” Available from

Peterson, Robert W. 1990. Cages to Jump Shots: Pro Basketball’s Early Years. New York: Oxford University Press.

Sands, Robert R., ed. 1999. Anthropology, Sport, and Culture. Westport, CT: Bergin & Garvey.

Wetzel, Dan, and Don Yaeger. 2000. Sole Influence: Basketball, Corporate Greed, and the Corruption of America’s Youth. New York: Warner Books.

Wolff, Alexander. 1991. 100 Years of Hoops: A Fond Look Back at the Sport of Basketball. New York: Crescent Publishers.

Joseph L. Graves Jr.


views updated Jun 11 2018



Basketball can make a true claim to being the only major sport that is an American invention. From high school to the professional level, basketball attracts a large following for live games as well as television coverage of events like the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) annual tournament and the National Basketball Association (NBA) and Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA) playoffs. And it has also made American heroes out of its player and coach legends like Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Earvin "Magic" Johnson, Sheryl Swoopes, and other great players.

At the heart of the game is the playing space and the equipment. The space is a rectangular, indoor court. The principal pieces of equipment are the two elevated baskets, one at each end (in the long direction) of the court, and the basketball itself. The ball is spherical in shape and is inflated. Basket-balls range in size from 28.5-30 in (72-76 cm) in circumference, and in weight from 18-22 oz (510-624 g). For players below the high school level, a smaller ball is used, but the ball in men's games measures 29.5-30 in (75-76 cm) in circumference, and a women's ball is 28.5-29 in (72-74 cm) in circumference. The covering of the ball is leather, rubber, composition, or synthetic, although leather covers only are dictated by rules for college play, unless the teams agree otherwise. Orange is the regulation color. At all levels of play, the home team provides the ball.

Inflation of the ball is based on the height of the ball's bounce. Inside the covering or casing, a rubber bladder holds air. The ball must be inflated to a pressure sufficient to make it rebound to a height (measured to the top of the ball) of 49-54 in (1.2-1.4 m) when it is dropped on a solid wooden floor from a starting height of 6 ft (1.80 m) measured from the bottom of the ball. The factory must test the balls, and the air pressure that makes the ball legal in keeping with the bounce test is stamped on the ball. During the intensity of high school and college tourneys and the professional playoffs, this inflated sphere commands considerable attention.


Basketball is one of few sports with a known date of birth. On December 1, 1891, in Springfield, Massachusetts, James Naismith hung two half-bushel peach baskets at the opposite ends of a gymnasium and out-lined 13 rules based on five principles to his students at the International Training School of the Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA), which later became Springfield College. Naismith (1861-1939) was a physical education teacher who was seeking a team sport with limited physical contact but a lot of running, jumping, shooting, and the hand-eye coordination required in handling a ball. The peach baskets he hung as goals gave the sport the name of basketball. His students were excited about the game, and Christmas vacation gave them the chance to tell their friends and people at their local YMCAs about the game. The association leaders wrote to Naismith asking for copies of the rules, and they were published in the Triangle, the school newspaper, on January 15,1892.

Naismith's five basic principles center on the ball, which was described as "large, light, and handled with the hands." Players could not move the ball by running alone, and none of the players was restricted against handling the ball. The playing area was also open to all players, but there was to be no physical contact between players; the ball was the objective. To score, the ball had to be shot through a horizontal, elevated goal. The team with the most points at the end of an allotted time period wins.

Early in the history of basketball, the local YMCAs provided the gymnasiums, and membership in the organization grew rapidly. The size of the local gym dictated the number of players; smaller gyms used five players on a side, and the larger gyms allowed seven to nine. The team size became generally established as five in 1895, and, in 1897, this was made formal in the rules. The YMCA lost interest in supporting the game because 10-20 basketball players monopolized a gymnasium previously used by many more in a variety of activities. YMCA membership dropped, and basketball enthusiasts played in local halls. This led to the building of basketball gymnasiums at schools and colleges and also to the formation of professional leagues.

Although basketball was born in the United States, five of Naismith's original players were Canadians, and the game spread to Canada immediately. It was played in France by 1893; England in 1894; Australia, China, and India between 1895 and 1900; and Japan in 1900.

From 1891 through 1893, a soccer ball was used to play basketball. The first basketball was manufactured in 1894. It was 32 in (81 cm) in circumference, or about 4 in (10 cm) larger than a soccer ball. The dedicated basketball was made of laced leather and weighed less than 20 oz (567 g). The first molded ball that eliminated the need for laces was introduced in 1948; its construction and size of 30 in (76 cm) were ruled official in 1949.

The rule-setters came from several groups early in the 1900s. Colleges and universities established their rules committees in 1905, the YMCA and the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) created a set of rules jointly, state militia groups abided by a shared set of rules, and there were two professional sets of rules. A Joint Rules Committee for colleges, the AAU, and the YMCA was created in 1915, and, under the name the National Basketball Committee (NBC) made rules for amateur play until 1979. In that year, the National Federation of State High School Associations began governing the sport at the high school level, and the NCAA Rules Committee assumed rule-making responsibilities for junior colleges, colleges, and the Armed Forces, with a similar committee holding jurisdiction over women's basketball.

Until World War II, basketball became increasingly popular in the United States especially at the high school and college levels. After World War II, its popularity grew around the world. In the 1980s, interest in the game truly exploded because of television exposure. Broadcast of the NCAA Championship Games began in 1963, and, by the 1980s, cable television was carrying regular season college games and even high school championships in some states. Players like Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, and Lew Alcindor (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) became nationally famous at the college level and carried their fans along in their professional basketball careers. The women's game changed radically in 1971 when separate rules for women were modified to more closely resemble the men's game. Television interest followed the women as well with broadcast of NCAA championship tourneys beginning in the early 1980s and the formation of the WNBA in 1997.

Internationally, Italy has probably become the leading basketball nation outside of the United States, with national, corporate, and professional teams. The Olympics boosts basketball internationally and has also spurred the women's game by recognizing it as an Olympic event in 1976. Again, television coverage of the Olympics has been exceptionally important in drawing attention to international teams.

The first professional men's basketball league in the United States was the National Basketball League (NBL), which debuted in 1898. Players were paid on a per-game basis, and this league and others were hurt by the poor quality of games and the ever-changing players on a team. After the Great Depression, a new NBL was organized in 1937, and the Basketball Association of America was organized in 1946. The two leagues came to agree that players had to be assigned to teams on a contract basis and that high standards had to govern the game; under these premises, the two joined to form the National Basketball Association (NBA) in 1949. A rival American Basketball Association (ABA) was inaugurated in 1967 and challenged the NBA for college talent and market share for almost ten years. In 1976, this league disbanded, but four of its teams remained as NBA teams. Unification came just in time for major television support. Several women's professional leagues were attempted and failed, including the Women's Professional Basketball League (WBL) and the Women's World Basketball Association, before the WNBA debuted in 1997 with the support of the NBA.

Raw Materials

The outside covering of a basketball is made of synthetic rubber, rubber, composition, or leather. The inside consists of a bladder (the balloon-like structure that holds air) and the carcass. The bladder is made of butyl rubber, and the carcass consists of treads of nylon or polyester. Preprinted decals are used to label the ball, or foil is used to imprint label information. Zinc and copper plates are used in a press to either affix the decals or imprint the foil.


The actual configuration of most basket-balls is dictated by the rules or standards of the type of game in which the ball will be used. NBA, WNBA, and other professional leagues have specified dimensions for regulation balls, as described above, and even the imprinted information is specified. Amateur sports bodies have also developed rules and specifications, and there are specialized basketballs made for junior players (younger than high-school age), intermediate players (high-school age), and for indoor, outdoor, or combination play. Promotional basketballs that are much smaller in diameter are also made as souvenirs of many events such as the NCAA Championships.

Basketball designers are always trying to improve the product and build a better basketball. Inventor Marvin Palmquist created the "Hole-in-One" basketball to improve a player's grip; the ball has dimples, much like a golf ball, and can be easily palmed Michael Jordan-style by players with smaller-than-Jordan hands. Even the most skilled NBA star copes with sweaty palms, and this obstacle is addressed in another modification consisting of microscopic holes in the surface, which is made of absorbent polyurethane. This is the same material that forms the grip on a tennis racket, but it has been strengthened to withstand the abrasion of bouncing on a wooden basketball court. It absorbs moisture to keep the ball's hide less slippery.

Michael Jordan was born February 17, 1963. Accepting a basketball scholarship to the University of North Carolina, he became the second Tarheel freshman to start every game. Jordan was named Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) Rookie of the Year and won the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) championship in 1982. He led the ACC in scoring and was named college player of the year in 1983 and 1984. Jordan left North Carolina after his junior year and was drafted by the Chicago Bulls as the third overall pick of the 1984 draft.

A broken foot sidelined Jordan for 64 games during the 1985-1986 season. He returned, scoring 49 points against the Boston Celtics in the first game of the playoffs and 63 in the second—an NBA record. During the 1986-1987 season Jordan became the first player since Wilt Chamberlain to score 3,000 points in a season. The Bulls won the 1991-1993 NBA titles. In 1994 Jordan joined the Chicago White Sox minor league baseball team, returning to the Bulls for the remaining 1994-1995 season. In the 1995-1996 season, the team finished 72-10, another NBA record. The Bulls went on to win their fourth NBA title in 1996, fifth in 1997, and sixth in 1998 where Jordan claimed his sixth NBA finals MVP award,

Jordan participated in the 1984 and 1982 Summer Olympics, earning gold medals for the United States. He was named 1985s Rookie of the Year, 1988s Defensive Player of the Year, NBA MVP five times, has a career record for the highest scoring average of 28.5 ppg, played in 11 All-Star games (starting in 10, missing one due to injury), and named All-Star MVP three times. Jordan retired January 13, 1999.

Still other inventors feel the size of the ball is a disadvantage to proper handling and have suggested increasing the circumference from 30 to 36 in (76 to 91.4 cm), resulting in an increase in diameter from 9.6 to 11.5 in (24.4 to 29.2 cm). The so-called Bigball still fits through a regulation hoop and has been used in training sessions by both college and NBA teams. The Bigball must be shot with a higher arc to fall through the hoop, and, after practicing with the larger basketball, the regulation ball seems easier to handle.

The Manufacturing Process

Forming the bladder

  • 1 The making of a basketball begins with the interior bladder. Black butyl rubber in bulk form (and including recycled rubber) is melted in the hopper of a press that feeds it out in a continuous sheet that is 12 in (30.5 cm) wide and 0.5 in (1.3 cm) thick. A guillotine-like cutter cuts the long strip into sheets that are 18 in (45.7 cm) long, and they are stacked up. A hand-controlled machine selects the sheets one at a time and, using a punch press, punches a 1-in-diameter (2.54-cm-diameter) hole that will hold the air tube for inflating the bladder.
  • 2 The sheets are carried on a sheet elevator or conveyor to an assembly line where the air tube is inserted by hand. A heated melding device bonds it to the sheet, which is folded into quarters. Another punch press stamps out a rounded edge and, at the same time, binds the edges to make the seams of the bladder. This bladder is not perfectly shaped.
  • 3 The odd-shaped bladder is taken to a vulcanizing machine. Vulcanization is a process for heating rubber under pressure that improves its properties by making it more flexible, more durable, and stronger. In the vulcanizer, the bladder is inflated. Heating by vulcanization uniformly seals the rubber so it will hold air. Completed bladders are stored in a holding chamber for 24 hours. This quality control measure tests their ability to hold air; those that deflate are recycled.

Shaping the carcass

  • 4 The bladders that withstand the 24-hour inflation test are conveyed from the holding chamber to the twining or winding department. They make this joumey suspended from a conveyor system by their air tubes. Machines loaded with spools of either polyester or nylon thread or string wrap multiple strands at a time around each bladder; this is the same process used to make the inside of a golf ball. The irregularly shaped bladders now begin to take on a better, more rounded shape as the precisely controlled threads build and shape the balls. The quality of the thread and the number of strands determine the cost and quality of the ball. The typical street-quality basketball has a carcass made of multiple wraps of three strands of polyester thread. The balls used by professional teams have carcasses constructed of nylon thread that is wrapped using four strands of thread. The same over-head conveyors continue carrying the carcass-encased bladders by their air tubes to the next step in the process where the carcasses and covers will meet.

Crafting the covers of the balls

  • 5 Meanwhile, the exteriors or covers of the balls have been in production as the bladders and carcasses have taken shape. On 60-inch-long (152-cm-long) tables, colored rubber is unrolled from a continuous roll. The smooth rubber does not have pebbling (small bumps) that characterizes the surface of a finished basketball so that the outlines for the panels can be clearly marked on the rubber. A silk screen is moved along a series of metal markers that are guides marking the length of the rubber sheet needed for each ball. The silk screen operator moves the screen by hand and imprints the outlines of the six panels making up the ball. Only one color is used at a time, and, depending on the design, multiple silk screenings may be needed to color the six panels with all the colors on the ball.
  • 6 A hand-operated punch press—equipped with specially designed and tooled dies—punches the rubber outlines to create six separate panels per ball. The same die has a hole that is punched in one of the six panels to make an opening for the air tube. The excess rubber surrounding the panels is lifted off the line and deposited in a bin for recycling.
  • 7 The assembly worker picks up the six panels for a single ball in a specific order and carries them to the vulcanizer. The interior of the vulcanizer for this process is different from the one for the bladders. It is form-fitted to hold the six panels, to create the channels between the panels, and to add any embossed information. The assembler fits the panels individually into specified sections in the vulcanizer. A bladder/carcass is taken off the overhead conveyor, covered with a coating of glue, and placed inside the chamber of the vulcanizer that is lined with the cover panels. When the ball emerges from the vulcanizer, most of its surface is still smooth (there are no bumps, called pebbling), but the channels and any embossing are formed into the surface.
  • 8 Decals and foil decoration and information (if any) are applied by hand with small heat presses after the smooth ball is retrieved from the vulcanizer. Each ball is carefully inspected for gaps between the panels. These can occur, but each gap is filled during this inspection with a small piece of rubber that is hand-cut to fit the gap. The ball then is fitted into another vulcanizer that unifies the finished surface, blending in any gap fillers, and is specially molded to form the surface pebbling. The vulcanized balls are stored again for 24 hours in a second test to make sure they hold air.

Synthetic laminated covers and leather covers

  • 9 The covers for basketballs that are made of synthetic laminated rubber or leather are also made in panels that are die-cut like the rubber panels. The synthetic laminated panels are shaved or trimmed along the edges, fitted and glued together by hand, and laminated to the carcass to create channels. They are also embossed by a heating process and decals are added. Any glue traces around the edges are removed, and any imperfect panels are replaced in the final inspection of synthetic laminated covers. Leather covers are made of full-grain, genuine leather and are stitched with heavy-duty machines; instead of indented, formed channels, the stitching forms the channels in leather balls. They are printed by silk screening and foil stamping, and their inspection includes a review of the uniformity and color of the leather.

Final testing, inspecting, and packing

  • 10 Balls that pass the second 24-hour air pressure test are "bounce tested" to meet the regulation for inflation pressure that results in each ball bouncing a prescribed height. Balls that pass the bounce test are numbered to show the production run, and the decals and other artwork are inspected and touched up by hand as needed. Each completed ball is inspected again. The inspector removes the production run tag, and the ball is deflated so it can be easily packed and shipped. Each flattened ball is packed in a polyethylene bag, and the bagged balls are boxed for bulk shipment to the distributor. The distributor also inspects the balls when they are received and is responsible for reinflating them to the correct pressure and packaging them in display boxes for sale. The display boxes may also be packed in bulk for distribution to retailers.


No byproducts result from the manufacture of basketballs, but most makers have a variety of lines and may also make balls for other sports. Waste is limited. Dies for cutting panels of rubber, synthetic laminate, and leather are carefully designed to space the panels closely and limit the material used. This is especially critical for leather because of the cost; some leather waste is inevitable, though, because leather is a natural material and has irregularities in color, thickness, and surface. All rubber materials can be recycled, and they represent the bulk of material used in making a basketball.

Quality Control

Throughout the manufacturing process, inspections occur regularly to make sure the finished basketball will hold air and to correct any surface variations. Machines like punch presses, dies, vulcanizers, and printing tools are carefully designed initially to maximize use of materials and to create perfect pieces. The assembly process includes many steps that are performed by hand, and the assemblers are trained to watch for imperfections and reject unsuitable products. Inspections and tests also include weight-control testing of the completed carcasses and the panels, regardless of material. Whenever the completed products are stored for any length of time, they are randomly inspected for appearance, size, inflation, and any wobble.

Some distributors have special tests for products bearing their name. For example, Rawlings Sporting Goods Company tests the basketballs they produce for the NCAA Tournament with a unique "Slam Machine" that simulates the workout a ball will get in four games in just five minutes. The machine works by propelling the ball down a chute between two wooden wheels that launch it at about 30 mph (48 kph) toward a backboard that is angled to direct the ball back to the chute. Rawlings also uses this machine to test new designs, materials, glues, and other changes.

The Future

Basketball sales have escalated dramatically with the sport's popularity. Figures from 1998 show that 3.6 million balls were sold in the United States alone for a total of about $60 million. Given the record number of television viewers for the 1999-2000 NBA Championships, many parents and children are likely to purchase basketballs to test their own slam-dunking skills. Participation in the sport and sale of basketballs shows no sign of slowing down.

Another aspect of the worldwide popularity of basketball is that it has sharpened collectors' enthusiasm for souvenir balls, autographed balls, and those from key moments of the great players' games. An example with a high price tag is the basketball Wilt Chamberlain used to score 100 points in a game; it was sold in the 1990s for $551,844.

Where to Learn More


The Diagram Group. The Rule Book: The Authoritative, Up-to-Date, Illustrated Guide to the Regulations, History, and Object of All Major Sports. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1983.

Jacobs, A. G., ed. Basketball Rules in Pictures. New York: Perigee Books, 1966.


Feldman, Jay. "A Hole New Ball Game." Sports Illustrated 18, no. 26 (December 26, 1994): 102.

Jaffe, Michael. "For Better Shooting, Think Big: A Team of Ohio Entrepreneurs Insists that Their Oversized Basketball Will Improve Your Touch." Sports Illustrated 74, no. 15 (April 22, 1991): 5.

Mooney, Loren. "Get a Grip." Sports Illustrated (November 30, 1998): 16.

Tooley, Jo Ann. "On a Roll." U.S. News & World Report 107, no. 8 (August 21, 1989): 66.


Rawlings Sporting Goods Co., Inc. (December 14, 2000).



views updated Jun 11 2018


BASKETBALL. James Naismith, originally from Al-monte, Ontario, invented basketball at the International YMCA Training School in Springfield, Massachusetts, in 1891. The game was first played with peach baskets (hence the name) and a soccer ball and was intended to provide indoor exercise for football players. As a result, it was originally a rough sport. Although ten of Naismith's original thirteen rules remain, the game soon changed considerably, and the founder had little to do with its evolution.

The first intercollegiate game was played in Minnesota in 1895, with nine players to a side and a final score of nine to three. A year later, the first five-man teams played at the University of Chicago. Baskets were now constructed of twine nets but it was not until 1906 that the bottom of the nets were open. In 1897, the dribble was first used, field goals became two points, foul shots one point, and the first professional game was played. A year later, the first professional league was started, in the East, while in 1900, the first intercollegiate league began. In 1910, in order to limit rough play, it was agreed that four fouls would disqualify players, and glass backboards were used for the first time. Nonetheless, many rules still differed, depending upon where the games were played and whether professionals, collegians, or YMCA players were involved.

College basketball was played from Texas to Wisconsin and throughout the East through the 1920s, but most teams played only in their own regions, which prevented a national game or audience from developing. Professional basketball was played almost exclusively in the East before the 1920s, except when a team would "barnstorm" into the Midwest to play local teams, often after a league had folded. Before the 1930s very few games, either professional or amateur, were played in facilities suitable for basketball or with a perfectly round ball. Some were played in arenas with chicken wire separating the players from fans, thus the word "cagers," others with posts in the middle of the floor and often with balconies overhanging the corners, limiting the areas from which shots could be taken. Until the late 1930s, all players used the two-hand set shot, and scores remained low.

Basketball in the 1920s and 1930s became both more organized and more popular, although it still lagged far behind both baseball and college football. In the pros, five urban, ethnic teams excelled and played with almost no college graduates. They were the New York Original Celtics; the Cleveland Rosenblums, owned by Max Rosenblum; Eddie Gottlieb's Philadelphia SPHAs (South Philadelphia Hebrew Association); and two great black teams, the New York Renaissance Five and Abe Saperstein's Harlem Globetrotters, which was actually from Chicago. While these teams had some notable players, no superstars, such as Babe Ruth, Jack Dempsey, or Red Grange, emerged to capture the public's attention as they did in other sports of the period. The same was true in college basketball up until the late 1930s, with coaches dominating the game and its development. Walter "Doc" Meanwell at Wisconsin, Forrest "Phog" Allen at Kansas, Ward "Piggy" Lambert at Purdue, and Henry "Doc" Carlson at Pittsburgh all made significant contributions to the game's development: zone defenses, the weave, the passing game, and the fast break.

In the decade preceding World War II, five events changed college basketball and allowed it to become a major spectator sport. In 1929, the rules committee reversed a decision that would have outlawed dribbling and slowed the game considerably. Five years later, promoter Edward "Ned" Irish staged the first intersectional twin bill in Madison Square Garden in New York City and attracted more than 16,000 fans. He demonstrated the appeal of major college ball and made New York its center. In December 1936, Hank Luisetti of Stanford revealed the virtues of the one-handed shot to an amazed Garden audience and became the first major collegiate star. Soon thereafter, Luisetti scored an incredible fifty points against Duquesne, thus ending the East's devotion to the set shot and encouraging a more open game. In consecutive years the center jump was eliminated after free throws and then after field goals, thus speeding up the game and allowing for more scoring. In 1938, Irish created the National Invitation Tournament (NIT) in the Garden to determine a national champion. Although postseason tournaments had occurred before, the NIT was the first with major colleges from different regions and proved to be a great financial success. The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) created its own postseason tournament in 1939 but did not rival the NIT in prestige for some time.

The 1940s saw significant changes for college basketball. Players began using the jump shot after Kenny Sailors of Wyoming wowed the East with it in 1943. The behind-the-back dribble and pass also appeared, as did exceptional big men. Bob Kurland at Oklahoma A&M was almost seven feet tall and George Mikan at DePaul was six feet ten inches. While Kurland had perhaps the better college career and played in two Olympics, he chose not to play professional ball, whereas Mikan became the first dominant star in the pros. Their defensive play inspired the rule against goal tending (blocking a shot on its downward flight). Adolph Rupp, who played under Phog Allen, also coached the first of his many talented teams at Kentucky in that decade. However, in 1951, Rupp and six other coaches suffered through a point-shaving scandal that involved thirty-two players at seven colleges and seriously injured college basketball, particularly in New York, where four of the seven schools were located. While the game survived, the NCAA moved its tournament away from Madison Square Garden to different cities each year and the NIT's prestige began to decline.

Professional basketball remained a disorganized and stodgy sport up until the late 1940s, with barnstorming still central to the game and most players still using the set shot. In 1946, however, hockey owners, led by Maurice Podoloff, created the Basketball Association of America (BAA) in the East to fill their arenas, but few fans came, even after Joe Fulks of Philadelphia introduced the jump shot. The BAA's rival, the National Basketball League, had existed since the 1930s, had better players, like Mikan of the Minneapolis Lakers, Bob Davies of the Rochester Royals, and Dolph Shayes of the Syracuse Nationals, but operated in much worse facilities and did not do much better at attracting audiences. In 1948, Podoloff lured the Lakers, Royals, and two other teams to the BAA and proposed a merger of the two leagues for the 1949–1950 season. The result was the National Basketball Association (NBA), with Podoloff its first commissioner. The seventeen-team league struggled at first but soon reduced its size and gained stability, in large part because of Mikan's appeal and Podoloff's skills.

Despite the point-shaving scandal, college ball thrived in the 1950s, largely because it had prolific scorers and more great players than in any previous decade. Frank Selvy of Furman and Paul Arizin of Villanova both averaged over forty points early in the decade, while Clarence "Bevo" Francis of tiny Rio Grande College in Ohio amazed fans by scoring 116 points in one game while averaging 50 per game for a season. The decade also witnessed some of the most talented and complete players ever. Tom Gola at LaSalle, Bill Russell at San Francisco, Wilt Chamberlain at Kansas, Elgin Baylor at Seattle, Jerry West at West Virginia, and Oscar Robertson at Cincinnati, all had phenomenal skills that have since been the measure of other players. And in 1960 one of the best teams ever, Ohio State, won the NCAA title led by Jerry Lucas and John Havlicek.

Professional basketball underwent major changes in the 1950s that helped increase its popularity. In 1950, Earl Lloyd, from West Virginia, played for the Washington Capitols and became the first African American to play in the NBA. In 1954, Danny Biasone, owner of the Syracuse Nationals, persuaded the NBA to institute the twenty-four-second shot clock, requiring a team to shoot within that time. This eliminated the slow pace that had long prevailed in the pros and made the NBA more exciting. Teams now scored one hundred points a game regularly. The league also now awarded foul shots when the other team received more than five personal fouls a period, greatly reducing the rough play that had hurt the pro game. In 1956, Red Auerbach of the Boston Celtics made the best deal in NBA history when he acquired the draft rights to Bill Russell, the defensive player and rebounder he needed to complement Bob Cousy and Bill Sharman in the backcourt.

With the addition of Russell, the Celtics became the best pro team ever, winning eleven of the next thirteen championship titles before expansion diluted the talent in the NBA. The St. Louis Hawks, with Bob Pettit, beat the Celtics in 1958, and the Philadelphia 76ers, with Chamberlain, beat them in 1967. But Russell, a player-coach for two titles, and his teammates formed the greatest dynasty in pro ball. Even the Los Angeles Lakers, who had moved from Minneapolis in 1960, with West and Baylor, were no match for the Celtics over these years. While West, Baylor, Chamberlain—who averaged over fifty points a game in 1962—and Oscar Robertson—who in the same year averaged a triple double per game in points, assists, and rebounds—were superior to any individual Celtic, no other team could consistently play defense, re-bound, and run with the Celtics.

College basketball also experienced tremendous growth and increasing racial diversity during the 1960s. While Russell, Chamberlain, Baylor, and Robertson were

proof of the integration of college ball in most of the country, many teams from the South would still not play against black players. That changed in the 1960s. In 1963, Loyola College of Chicago, on its way to the NCAA title with four black starters, beat Mississippi State, which had refused to play against a team with a black player the year before. Three years later, Texas Western, with five black starters, beat Adolph Rupp's heavily favored all-white Kentucky team for the NCAA title. Thereafter, black players began to dominate basketball, a trend that has since become steadily more pronounced. While pro and college basketball have hired more black coaches and executives than any other sport, their numbers do not begin to match black players' contribution to the game.

The 1960s and 1970s also witnessed the amazing success of John Wooden's UCLA Bruins. In twelve years from 1964 on, the Bruins won ten NCAA titles. While five titles resulted from the dominance of Lew Alcindor (later Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) and then Bill Walton at center, Wooden won the other five with speed, a full court zone defense, and talented guards and forwards. Other coaches have also compiled excellent NCAA tournament records: Rupp at Kentucky; Dean Smith, another Phog Allen protégé, at North Carolina; Bobby Knight at Indiana; Denny Crum at Louisville; and Mike Krzyzewski at Duke. But Wooden and his Bruins remain unique. They also helped create the excitement that now surrounds the NCAA finals.

With the end of the Celtic dynasty, the NBA fell on relatively hard times in the 1970s. There were great play-ers, of course, like Alcindor with the Milwaukee Bucks, Walton with the Portland Trailblazers, Elvin Hayes with the Washington Bullets, Dave Cowens with the Celtics, Rick Barry with the Golden State Warriors, Willis Reed with the New York Knicks, and West and Chamberlain with the Lakers. But no new transcendent stars emerged. In addition, a number of players with drug problems hurt the league's image. Many felt that the rival American Basketball Association—which started in 1968 and had stars like Connie Hawkins, George Gervin, and the amazing Julius Irving—played a more exciting game. The ABA used a red, white, and blue-colored ball, allowed the three-point shot, and had a helter-skelter style. However, it folded in 1976, after which four of its teams joined the NBA.

College basketball, as usual, provided exciting players to revitalize the pros. In the late 1970s, Larry Bird, a marvelous shooter, passer, and rebounder, starred for Indiana State. In 1979, he played and lost in the NCAA finals to another superb player, Earvin "Magic" Johnson, a six foot nine inch guard for Michigan State. The next year, Johnson went to the Lakers and Bird to the Celtics, where they, with talented teammates, created a rivalry that reinvigorated pro basketball. Of equal importance was David Stern, who became commissioner in 1984. He facilitated a compromise between labor and management and helped the NBA become a global success.

Women's basketball also attracted a larger audience beginning in the 1970s with Anne Meyers of UCLA and Nancy Lieberman of Old Dominion as the first big stars. In the early 1980s, Cheryl Miller at USC and Lynette Woodard at Kansas, the first black stars, along with Carol Blazejowski at Montclair State, demonstrated the scoring and athleticism previously associated with men's ball. In 1982, the first NCAA women's tournament was held as the sport grew in popularity. In 1996, the American Basketball League began and the next year the WNBA, sponsored by the NBA, started. In late 1998, the ABL folded with some teams becoming part of the WNBA. The Houston Comets, with its superstar Cynthia Cooper, dominated the league.

College basketball has been very competitive and hugely successful since the Wooden era. Eighteen different teams won the NCAA tournament from 1976 to 2002, although most have been from the major conferences. Since then, the dunk, banned in 1968 to limit Alcindor, has been restored; the shot clock was introduced along with the three-point field goal; first-year students became eligible to play; and recruiting became more competitive among the big conferences. As with the pros, television has made college basketball available on many channels, all season long, with more money involved every year. Many fine teams have arisen: North Carolina, Kansas, Indiana, Georgetown, Duke, Louisville, Michigan, Kentucky, and the University of Nevada at Las Vegas. Increasingly, however, stars have turned pro after one or two years of eligibility and many high school standouts have begun forgoing college altogether. While this has precluded dynasties from developing, it has hurt continuity, hurt the quality of play, and may discourage enthusiasm for the college game.

The pro game enjoyed tremendous success up through the 1990s, thanks to players like Jabbar, Bird, Johnson, Isiah Thomas, Reggie Miller, Charles Barkley, Karl Malone, Patrick Ewing, and Hakeem Olajuwon—and, of course, the magnificent Michael Jordan. Jordan turned pro in 1984, leaving North Carolina early, and became an incredible scorer and a superlative defender for the Chicago Bulls, though it was not until 1991, with Scottie Pippen and Coach Phil Jackson, that the Bulls won a title. They then won five more titles in seven years to rank them near the Celtics. In the process, Jordan became the planet's most famous athlete and the NBA became a marketing phenomenon. Jordan retired in 1998, then returned in 2001, saying he had an "itch that needed to be scratched." Nonetheless, his playing seemed to have lost much of its luster, and despite the emergence of new stars, like Kobe Bryant, Vince Carter, Grant Hill, Allen Iverson, and Shaquille O'Neal, it remained unclear how popular the NBA will be in the years to come.


Axthelm, Pete. The City Game: Basketball from the Garden to the Play grounds. New York: Harpers Magazine Press, 1970.

Bjarkman, Peter C. The History of the NBA. New York: Crescent Books, 1992.

———. Hoopla: A Century of College Basketball, 1896–1996. Indianapolis: Masters Press, 1996.

———. The Biographical History of Basketball. Lincolnwood, Ill.: Masters Press, 2000.

George, Nelson. Elevating the Game: The History and Aesthetics of Black Men in Basketball. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992.

Gutman, Bill. The History of NCAA Basketball. New York: Crescent Books, 1993.

Ham, Eldon L. The Playmasters: From Sellouts to Lockouts—An Unauthorized History of the NBA. Chicago: Contemporary Books, 2000.

Isaacs, Neil D. Vintage NBA—The Pioneer Era, 1946–1956. Indianapolis: Masters Press, 1996.

Peterson, Robert W. Cages to Jump Shots: Pro Basketball's Early Years. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.

Sachare, Alex. One Hundred Greatest Basketball Players of All Time. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997.


See alsoCollege Athletics ; Sports .


views updated May 21 2018


The sport of basketball was invented at the close of the nineteenth century. By the end of the twentieth century, only soccer surpassed it as the world's most popular sport, as top basketball players from the United States were among the most recognized people on Earth.

Basketball was invented in late 1891 by Dr. James A. Naismith, physical education director at the Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA) in Springfield, Massachusetts. The YMCA students were tiring of standard calisthenics and demanded a new, team sport to be played indoors between the end of football season in autumn and the start of baseball season in the spring. Naismith hit upon the idea of two teams of players maneuvering a ball across a gymnasium towards a set target. He obtained a pair of peach baskets—he originally wanted to use boxes—and nailed them on beams on either end of the gym. The first game ever played resulted in a 1-0 score, with one William R. Chase scoring the lone point with a soccer ball; Naismith and his players quickly realized that the new sport had potential.

Naismith resisted efforts to name his invention "Naismith-ball," preferring "basket ball" instead. He wrote an article describing the sport in his YMCA's magazine in early 1892, and YMCAs across the country and around the world picked up on the sport during the 1890s. By 1895 Naismith had set up standard rules: five players on each team, with successful shots counting two points each. Eventually, players who were fouled by opponents would be able to make "free throws," counting one point each, shooting a short distance from the basket.

Within weeks of Naismith's first game, women athletes in Springfield were also playing basketball, and the first intercollegiate college basketball game, in fact, was between the Stanford women's team and the University of California women's squad in April 1895. Within a year the University of Chicago beat the University of Iowa, 15-12, in the first men's college basketball game. By the first decade of the twentieth century, many colleges were fielding men's and women's basketball teams. Men's college basketball exploded in popularity during the 1930s, with heavily promoted doubleheaders at New York's Madison Square Garden featuring the top teams in the country before packed audiences.

The first successful professional basketball team was the Original Celtics, which were formed in New York before World War I. The team of New Yorkers generally won 90 percent of their games against amateur and town teams, and had a record of 204 wins against only 11 defeats in the 1922-1923 season. In 1927, white promoter Abe Saperstein started the Harlem Globetrotters, a barnstorming basketball team made up of blacks (when most college and pro teams had no African American players). They became best known for their irreverent on-court antics and their theme song, the jazz standard "Sweet Georgia Brown."

The scores of basketball games prior to the 1940s seem shockingly low today, as teams rarely scored more than 40 points a game. It was customary in early basketball for players to shoot the ball with both hands. Once the one-hand jump shot, popularized by Stanford star Hank Lusietti, gained acceptance in 1940, players were more confident in taking shots, and scoring began to increase.

Professional basketball leagues began and folded many times in basketball's infancy. By the end of World War II, there were two leagues competing for top college prospects, the National Basketball League and the Basketball Association of America. The two leagues merged in 1949, forming the National Basketball Association (NBA). The NBA's first star was the first great basketball tall-man, George Mikan. Improbable as it seems now, players over six feet in height were once considered to make bad basketball players, seen as ungainly and uncoordinated. The 6' 10" Mikan, who had starred as a collegian for DePaul University, erased this stereotype single-handedly, winning five NBA scoring titles as his Minneapolis (later Los Angeles) Lakers won four NBA championships. In a poll of sportswriters in 1950, Mikan was named "Mr. Basketball" for the first 50 years of the twentieth century.

As Mikan starred in the professional ranks, college basketball was shaken to the core by revelations of corruption. In 1951 the New York district attorney's office found that players at many of the top schools had agreed to play less than their best—to "shave points"—in exchange for gambler's money. The accused players frequently met gamblers during summers while working and playing basketball in New York's glamorous Catskills resort areas. Players from the City College of New York, which had won both the National Invitational Tournament and the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) basketball finals in 1951, were implicated, as were stars from Long Island University, coached by popular author Clair Bee. The image of top players testifying to grand juries would stain college basketball for the rest of the decade.

Basketball had been marked by stalling tactics, where one team would possess the ball for minutes at a time without shooting or scoring. In 1954, the NBA adopted a shot clock, requiring that a team shoot the ball within 24 seconds of gaining possession (College basketball would wait until 1985 before mandating a similar shot clock). This one rule resulted in an outburst of scoring, which helped push professional basketball attendance up in the 1950s. Fans of the era flocked to see the Boston Celtics. Led first by guard Bob Cousy, and later by center Bill Russell, the Celtics won eight straight NBA titles from 1959 through 1966. Their arch-nemesis was center Wilt Chamberlain of the Philadelphia Warriors and 76ers. The most dominant scorer in NBA history, Chamberlain averaged 50 points for the 1961-1962 season, including his memorable performance on March 2, 1962, where he scored 100 points. Chamberlain outperformed Bill Russell during Boston-Philadelphia matchups, but the Celtics almost inevitably won the titles.

As the Celtics were the NBA's dynasty in the 1960s, so were the UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles) Bruins college basket-ball's team to beat in the 1960s and 1970s. Coached by the soft-spoken, understated John Wooden, the UCLA Bruins won nine NCAA tournament titles in one ten-year span, including seven straight from 1967 to 1973. Wooden's talent during this time included guards Walt Hazzard and Gail Goodrich, and centers Lew Alcindor (who would change his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) and Bill Walton. During one stretch encompassing three seasons, UCLA won an improbable 88 consecutive games, an NCAA record.

The NBA found a new rival in 1967, with the creation of the American Basketball Association (ABA). The new league adopted a red, white, and blue basketball and established a line some 20 feet from the basket, beyond which a field goal counted for three points. The three-point line and the colored ball made the ABA something of a laughingstock to basketball traditionalists, and ABA attendance and media coverage indeed lagged behind the NBA's. But by the early 1970s, the ABA had successfully signed several top college picks from under the NBA's nose, and its top attraction was Julius Erving of the Virginia Squires and New York Nets. Erving, nicknamed "Dr. J," turned the slam-dunk into an art form, hanging in the air indefinitely, virtually at will. Erving was definitely the hottest young basketball talent in either league. In 1976 the NBA agreed to a merger, and four ABA teams joined the NBA. Erving signed a $6 million contract with Philadelphia. In the first All-Star game after the merger, five of the 10 NBA All-Star players had ABA roots.

The merger, however, was not enough to stem the NBA's declining attendance and fan interest. People were not only not following professional basketball in the 1970s, they seemed actively hostile to it. The perception of pro basketball as being dominated by black athletes, some felt, prevented the sport from commanding television revenue and advertising endorsements. According to one disputed report in the late 1970s, fully three-quarters of NBA players were addicted to drugs. Once again, the NBA found its salvation in the college ranks. In 1979 Michigan State, with star guard Earvin "Magic" Johnson, defeated Indiana State, and star forward Larry Bird, for the NCAA basketball title. The game drew a record television audience, and helped popularize the NCAA basketball tournament, later known as "March Madness." The tournament eventually included 64 teams each season, with underdog, "Cinderella" teams such as North Carolina State in 1983 and Villanova in 1985 emerging to win the championship. By the 1990s, the tournament spawned hundreds of millions of dollars in office pools and Vegas gambling, as cities vied to host the "Final Four," where the four remaining teams would compete in the semifinals and championship game. Even the official start of college basketball practice in the fall became a commercialized ritual, as schools hosted "Midnight Madness" events, inviting fans to count the minutes until midnight of the first sanctioned day college teams could practice.

In the fall of 1979 Bird had joined the Boston Celtics and Johnson the Los Angeles Lakers. Johnson led the Lakers to the 1980 NBA title, playing every position in the deciding championship game and scoring 42 points. Bird and Johnson would usher in a new era in the NBA—Bird, with his tactical defense and Johnson with his exuberant offense (the Lakers' offensive strategy would be called "Showtime"). The Celtics and Lakers won eight NBA titles in the 1980s, as Bird and Johnson reprised their 1979 NCAA performance by going head-to-head in three NBA finals.

The success of the NBA created by Bird and Johnson during the 1980s rose to an even greater level during the 1990s, due in no small measure to Michael Jordan. The guard joined the Chicago Bulls in 1984, having played three seasons at the University of North Carolina; as a collegian, Jordan had been on an NCAA championship team and the 1984 gold medal United States Olympic squad. Jordan immediately established himself as a marquee NBA player in his first seasons, scoring a playoff record 63 points in one 1986 post-season game. His dunks surpassed even Erving's in their artistry, and Jordan developed a remarkable inside game to complement that. Slowly, a great Bulls team formed around him, and Jordan led the Bulls to three straight NBA titles in 1991-1993. Jordan then abruptly left basketball for 16 months to pursue a major league baseball career. A chagrined Jordan returned to the Bulls in February 1995, and in his final three complete seasons the Bulls won three more consecutive championships. The 1996 Bulls team went 72-10 in the regular season, and many experts consider this team, led by Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman, and Toni Kukoc, to be the finest in NBA history. Jordan retired for good after the 1997-1998 season; his last shot in the NBA, in the closing seconds of the deciding championship game against Utah in June 1998, was the winning basket. Jordan's announcement of his retirement in January 1999 received media coverage usually reserved for presidential impeachments and state funerals.

Though the United States had been the birthplace of basketball, by the end of the twentieth century America had to recognize the emergence of international talent. The Summer Olympics introduced basketball as a medal sport in 1936, and the United States won gold medals in its first seven Olympics, winning 63 consecutive games before losing the 1972 Munich gold medal game, 50-49, to the Soviet Union on a controversial referee's call. After the United States lost in the 1988 Olympics, the International Olympic Committee changed its rules to allow the United States to assemble a team made up not of amateurs, but of NBA stars. The "Dream Team" for the 1992 Barcelona Games was, some insisted, the greatest all-star team ever, in any sport. The squad featured Larry Bird, Magic Johnson (who had retired from the NBA in 1991 after testing positive for the HIV virus), Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing, Karl Malone, and David Robinson. The United States team crushed its opponents, frequently by margins of 50 points a game. Many of the Dream Team opponents eagerly waited, after being defeated, to get the American stars' autographs and pictures. The 1992 squad easily won a gold medal, as did a professional United States team in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics (whose stars included Grant Hill, Scottie Pippen, and Shaquille O'Neal).

The 1990s also saw an explosion of interest of women's basketball, on professional as well as collegiate levels. Many credit this popularity with the enforcement of Title IX, a 1971 federal statute requiring high schools and colleges to fund women's sports programs on an equal basis with men's. The top college team of the time was Tennessee, which won three straight women's NCAA titles in 1996-1998, narrowly missing a fourth in 1999. In 1996, a women's professional league, the American Basketball League (ABL) was inaugurated, followed a year later by the Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA), an offshoot of the NBA. The ABL folded in 1999, but the WNBA, which held its season during the summertime, showed genuine promise; its stars included Rebecca Lobo of the New York Liberty (she had starred at the University of Connecticut) and Cynthia Cooper of the Houston Comets, which won the first two WNBA championships. Women's basketball was characterized less by dunks and flamboyant moves, and more by fundamental offense and defense. John Wooden, for one, said he generally preferred watching women's basketball to men's. College and pro women's games were known, in fact, for having a strong male fan base, as well as entire families in attendance.

As the twentieth century closed, the NBA proved it was no longer immune to the pressures of American professional sports. As major league baseball and the National Football League had suffered through lengthy and devastating strikes during the 1980s and 1990s, the NBA had its first-ever work stoppage in the fall of 1998. NBA team owners locked players out in October, declaring the collective bargaining agreement with the player's union null and void. At issue was the league salary cap; each team had been previously allowed to exceed the cap for one player (in Chicago's case, for Michael Jordan), but the owners wanted to abolish this exception. The players steadfastly refused, and the first half of the 1998-1999 season was lost. Both sides reached an agreement in early 1999, and the regular season began three months late, on February 6. To the surprise of players and owners alike, the NBA lockout garnered little attention from the fans.

Basketball slowly entered other elements of American popular culture during the latter part of the twentieth century. "Rabbit" Angstrom, the middle-aged hero of four John Updike novels, had been a star basketball player in high school. Jason Miller's Pulitzer-Prize winning play That Championship Season (1972) reunited disillusioned, bitter ex-jocks on the anniversary of their state high school title victory. One of the most acclaimed documentaries of the 1990s, Hoop Dreams (1994), tracked two talented Chicago ghetto basketball players through their four years of high school, each with an eye towards a college scholarship and an NBA career. Novelist John Edgar Wideman, who had played basketball at the University of Pennsylvania during the 1960s, often used the game metaphorically in his award-winning fiction (his daughter Jamila was a star player at Stanford, and later the WNBA). Wideman's teammate at Oxford University while on a Rhodes Scholarship was Bill Bradley, who played for Princeton, and later had a Hall of Fame professional career with the Knicks. Bradley served three terms in the United States Senate, and wrote a bestselling book defining basketball's qualities (Values of the Game) as he prepared a presidential campaign for the year 2000.

—Andrew Milner

Further Reading:

Decourcy, Mike. Inside Basketball: From the Playgrounds to the NBA. New York, Metro Books, 1996.

Dickey, Glenn. The History of Professional Basketball since 1896. New York, Stein and Day, 1982.

Douchant, Mike, editor. Encyclopedia of College Basketball. Detroit, Gale Research, 1995.

Fox, Stephen R. Big Leagues: Professional Baseball, Football, and Basketball in National Memory. New York, Morrow, 1994.

George, Nelson. Elevating the Game: Black Men and Basketball. New York, Harper Collins, 1992.

Koppett, Leonard. The Essence of the Game Is Deception. Boston, Little Brown & Company, 1973.

McCallum, John D. College Basketball, U.S.A., since 1892. New York, Stein and Day, 1978.

Peterson, Robert. Cages to Jump Shots: Pro Basketball's Early Years. New York, Oxford University Press, 1990.

Pluto, Terry. Loose Balls. New York, Fireside, 1991.

——. Tall Tales. New York, Fireside, 1994.

Sachare, Alex, editor. The Official NBA Basketball Encyclopedia. New York, Villard, 1994.


views updated May 17 2018


Basketball can be clearly identified with a date and place of origin—December 1891, in Springfield, Massachusetts. James Naismith, a physical education instructor at the International YMCA Training School was asked to help solve a problem that had arisen: finding an indoor activity—other than calisthenics or marching—that the young men could do during cold New England winters. Naismith, after trying to modify outdoor games unsuccessfully, developed a new game that utilized a large ball being thrown into elevated boxes. He worked out a series of rules, and then proposed trying the new game out with one of his classes. Unfortunately the custodian charged with finding and mounting the boxes could only come up with peach baskets and he mounted these from the base of the running track that surrounded the gymnasium. Rather than "box ball" came "basketball". The basket height, of approximately ten feet, was coincidental with the height of the overhead track, but that height seemed appropriate and has been maintained in the more than 100 years since the game was invented.

Naismith proposed a set of thirteen rules, which were written and published in the school paper in January 1892. Because the students were training to be instructors at YMCAs throughout the country and Canada, the game of basketball spread rapidly as these students traveled about the country. The first rules designated things that have continued to endure in the playing of the game. These included a prohibition from carrying the ball, but rather batting or throwing it (a rule that later was interpreted to include dribbling); use of the hands only for controlling the ball; a foul call for pushing, tripping, or striking an opponent; a goal being scored for throwing the ball in the basket; the ball being awarded to the opposite team from the one touching it before it went out of bounds; the use of two officials (since changed to three plus scorers and timekeepers).

In 1892, Naismith took his players on an exhibition tour of upstate New York and Rhode Island, which helped spread knowledge of the new game. In that same year a game was played between two teams of girls, and the game spread slowly among that gender, fostered mostly by the efforts of Senda Berenson, who befriended Naismith shortly after reading about the game in 1892. Berenson divided the court into three sections that girls could not leave, believing that girls did not have the stamina to run up and down the entire court for a full game. This division later evolved into the six-person game with the three defenders not allowed to cross half court and play offense and the three offensive players facing a similar restriction at their end of the court. This stayed in effect until the women's game was totally "converted" to the more popular "male" rules of basketball in the 1970s.

Basketball's invention and development coincided with the great influx of immigrants to the United State in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It was quickly adopted by the youth of many of these groups because of the wide exposure the game received in urban settlement houses throughout the northeastern United States. Teams comprised of particular ethnic groups or representing particular crafts formed at this time, and spectators of the same groups, often were the main spectators. Thus teams such as the Celtics (Irish), South Philadelphia Hebrew Association/SPHAs (Jewish), Pulaskis (Polish), Original Italian Club, Chinese Athletic Club, Reading (PA) Transit and Light Shop, and the Bell Telephone Equipment team were typical of the squads that were popular in this era. During the early 1900s, Irish and Jews were viewed as ethnic groups with "natural" talents for the game.

The game itself, during its development, was much different than its more modern form. The floor was not a standard size and could range from sixty to ninety feet in length. Games were played on stages, dance floors, and in armories. Sometimes pillars impeded the flow of the game. There was no rule on length of time that the ball could be held before a shot was taken, so early basketball was more a ball-control game with fewer shots taken, almost soccerlike in style and movement. The baskets protruded farther from the backboard than today, and, in some instances, the basket hung from a metal pole suspended from the ceiling, with no backboard at all. After each basket, a jump ball was held so teams eventually sought good "tappers," even if they could not run or shoot. The game was played on the floor; players did not leave their feet to shoot or rebound. A much rougher game than today was the norm, with players often being knocked unconscious in the course of a contest.

The collegiate game in the 1920s was seen as cleaner and had a set foul limit that led to elimination, while the professional game saw players disqualified only if the referee deemed their play too rough. During this time, three professional teams arose and dominated the sport in the 1920s and 1930s. First was the Original Celtics of New York City, comprised of players who were Irish Catholic, German Catholic, Jewish, and Czech. The South Philadelphia Hebrew Association squad lasted in some form until the 1950s; they were most outstanding in the 1930s and 1940s, winning a number of Eastern and American League titles. The New York Renaissance team, begun and managed by Bob Douglas, was the first and greatest African American squad, playing almost exclusively on the road and winning unofficial and "official" world championship tournaments. Basketball, particularly professional basketball, was often played in a cage until the late 1920s when the cage was abandoned. The cage was metal wire and kept the ball in play almost continuously. Players could play the ball off the cage or use the cage to push off of it for greater elevation. ""

College leagues formed during this same period of time and professional leagues were located throughout areas of the East. In 1925, the first truly national professional league, the American Basketball League, was formed, with teams stretching from Boston to Chicago. This league dropped the use of the cage, standardized to some degree the court specifications, employed regular referees, and led to a more popular game. Meanwhile, in the Midwest, the game became popular as early as the early 1900s; the small team size allowed rural communities to field squads and compete with much larger communities. The game was played both indoors and outdoors and became extremely popular in rural Indiana, Kentucky, and Illinois, where baskets were often hung on trees and various objects were substituted for basketballs.

The basketball was originally a leather ball stitched together, inside of which was a bladder that was pumped up through a prominent valve where a needle was inserted. The ball was hardly ever round, did not bounce well, and was bigger than today's, so it was harder to grip and very "lumpy." This, combined with lack of real practice facilities or standard playing facilities, made shooting success problematic. Nevertheless, the game became exceedingly popular in the middle of the twentieth century because of the small number of players needed to field a team, the relative simplicity of the game, and the flexibility of playing venues needed. A number of states—including Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky, and North Carolina—became "hotbeds" of high school basketball, with large community support and playing facilities often seating more than the population of the community itself. In the latter part of that century, Florida, Georgia, and California also had successful and popular high school programs, a reflection of increasing populations in those states.

A number of colleges took to basketball early in the century, most notably in the Northeast and Midwest. By the late 1930s, there was interest in having some sort of tournament to determine basketball superiority; in 1938, the National Invitation Tournament (NIT) was held in New York City, with six top teams competing for the title won by Temple University. The next year the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) sponsored a postseason tournament, which included eight teams and was won by the University of Oregon. Until the mid or late 1950s, the NIT was seen as a "better" tournament than the NCAA, and, at that time, they were held during different weeks so a team could possibly compete and win both. This happened only in 1950, when the City College of New York, coached by Nat Holman, a former Original Celtic player, led his team to both titles. By the 1960s, the NCAA was viewed as the top tournament, though restricting its participants solely to league champions left a number of outstanding teams for the NIT. The NCAA expanded gradually from eight, to sixteen, then thirty-two teams. In the early 2000s, there were sixty-five teams invited to this tournament, and they participated in March, leading to the sobriquet "March Madness."

Through the 1940s, many of the major college conferences had few, if any, African American players, but the victories of Loyola University of Chicago in 1963 with four African American starters, and Texas Western (now the University of Texas at El Paso) in 1966 with an all–African American starting five changed the segregation policies of many schools. The Texas Western triumph was even more meaningful because it came against the University of Kentucky, with its fabled coach, Adolph Rupp.

The change in the composition of the college game was later reflected in that of the professional game, where more than 75 percent of the players of the National Basketball Association (NBA) are African American. The NBA had been formed in 1949 through a merger of two other professional basketball leagues, the National Basketball League (which operated since 1937, largely in the Midwest) and the Basketball Association of America (which had begun in 1946 and played mostly in large venues in the Northeast). The NBA struggled for many years financially, but the increased television coverage helped the league and the game to "take off" in the 1980s.

At one time basketball was seen as an activity exclusively for children and young adults, almost all male, but over the past forty years, leagues have continued to form and prosper for adult males and females. There are now many adult leagues only for women, mostly run by local Parks and Recreation Departments. Men's leagues have continued to expand even more, and many now are agebracketed, with some being for those over thirty-five or over forty. National and regional tournaments for men now are age grouped in five-year brackets up to the sixty to sixty-five group, and an over-sixty-five category.

Children's leagues are often no longer gender-based until adolescent years, and most of these leagues are also conducted by local parks programs. There are also leagues sponsored by churches or synagogues for both children and adults. Some of these leagues have existed for more than seventy years. Children's leagues now extend downward to as low as first graders; portable and adjustable baskets make the game accessible to these youngsters.

Over the past seventy-five years, a number of significant rule changes have been implemented that have altered and improved basketball. In the 1920s, the three-second rule was initiated. This prevented any offensive player from maintaining a position in the free-throw lane for more than three consecutive seconds without exiting that area. In the 1950s, that lane was widened. In the late 1930s, the alternate possession after a basket or free throw was inaugurated. This replaced a center tap after each score and sped up the game and increased scoring. In 1954, the NBA adopted a twenty-four second rule, whereby teams had twenty-four seconds to shoot after gaining possession of the ball. Later in the 1990s, a shot clock was begun in college basketball. The dunk was outlawed in high school and college from 1967 to 1976. The three-point shot was begun at various levels from the late 1970s. Before being adopted by high schools, colleges, and the NBA, it had been utilized in the American Basketball League as early as 1961 and the Olympics from the late 1960s.

Though basketball has become "big business" with the NBA and the NCAA tournament, it remains a simple game played at playgrounds and schoolyards by young and old alike.

See also: African American Leisure Lifestyles, "Muscular Christianity" and the YM(W)CA Movements, Urbanization of Leisure


Bjarkman, Peter. Hoopla: A Century of College Basketball. Indianapolis, Ind.: Masters Press, 1996.

Hollander, Zander, ed. The Modern Encyclopedia of Basketball. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday and Company, 1979.

Isaacs, Neil. All the Moves: A History of College Basketball. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1975.

Neft, David, and Richard Cohen. The Sports Encyclopedia: Pro Basketball. 2d edition. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1989.

Nelson, Murry. The Originals: The New York Celtics Invent Modern Basketball. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1999.

Peterson, Robert. Cages to Jump Shots: Pro Basketball's Early Years. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.

Savage, Jim. The Encyclopedia of the NCAA Basketball Tournament: The Complete Independent Guide to College Basketball's Championship Event. New York: Dell Publishing, 1990.

Telander, Rick. Heaven Is a Playground. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1976.

Murry R. Nelson


views updated May 14 2018


In December of 1891, the administration at the School for Christian Workers in Springfield, Massachusetts, faced a problem. The excess energies of a rambunctious class of 18 men, in training to become administrative secretaries, were causing difficulties in daily school life, as these students were bored with the standard winter exercise fare of gymnastics and other indoor recreation offered at the school. These students were studying to join the work of the Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA).

For safety reasons, the more dangerous games of indoor football and rugby were not permitted at the institution, which would later become Springfield College. The school athletic director asked his physical education instructor, James Naismith (1861–1939), to invent an activity that was safer than the traditional contact sports, yet one that would require the players to expend reasonable amounts of energy. Naismith was given two weeks to create such a sport.

The new game Naismith rendered to his director was a sublime invention: basketball. The game included such diverse components as a modified soccer ball, nine players per side, 13 rules of the game scribbled on a piece of foolscap, an emphasis on finesse and limited physical contact, and peach baskets for goals were hung 10 ft (3 m) above the school gymnasium floor. After the players were explained the rules, the first basketball game was played December 13, 1891. Naismith officiated, and it was evident that the players greatly enjoyed his sports invention. The final score of 1-0 proved to be an ironic birth to the high scoring, supremely athletic contests that are the hallmark of the modern game.

The Naismith invention was an immediate success, as basketball garnered significant interest over the next 20 years across the United States, particularly at the college level. The first women's basketball game, played with the modified rules created by Senda Berenson Abbott (1868–1954), took place at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, in 1893.

The original Naismith basketball rules are proof of the prescience of their creator. The evolution of basketball has lead to a modern game in which agility, strength, hand-eye coordination, lateral quickness, and vertical leaping ability are the most desired physical attributes sought in a player. In 1891, Naismith had seen such characteristics as required for the competitors in his nascent sport, as evidenced by the language of his original rules: "The ball may be thrown in any direction with one or both hands … The ball may be batted in any direction with one or both hands, but never with the fist … A player cannot run with the ball…. The player must throw it from the spot on which he catches it, allowance to be made for a man running at good speed…. The ball must be held by the hands. The arms or body must not be used for holding it … No shouldering, holding, pushing, striking or tripping in any way of an opponent."

The 1891 rules also provided for both a five-second period in which a player was permitted to inbound the ball, as well as establishing the concept of player fouls, two provisions that continue in the rules of modern basketball. It is evident that the spirit of the Naismith creation remains intact today; Naismith could not have contemplated the sheer size and corresponding ability of those who would play his game in the twenty-first century.

The significant rule changes in modern North American basketball have often been in response to the impact of the talents of either an individual player or a particular tactic. There are many notable examples of such rule changes. For instance, George Mikan, the first of the talented big men to play professional basketball, stood 6 ft 10 in (1.85 m) tall, weighing 245 lb (111 k). The lane between the free throw line and the basket was widened from 6 ft (1.82 m) to 9 ft (2.7 m) in the National Basketball Association (NBA) in 1947 to limit the ability of Mikan to obtain a position closer to the basket. The distinctive key shape of this earlier lane gave rise to the term by which this area is often referred in the modern game. In 1944, Mikan's physical talents had prompted the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) to ban the blocking or deflecting of a shot by a defensive player when the ball was above the rim of the basket, a technique known as goaltending.

Another example was brought about because of Lew Alcindor (later known as Kareem Abdul Jabbar). The NCAA banned dunking in competition from 1967 through 1976, in part as a response to the 7 ft 2 in (2.19 m) Alcindor's size and skills.

Concerns regarding slow and uninspired play prompted the invention of the 24-second shot clock by the NBA in 1954, a rule that required a team with possession of the basketball to take a shot at the opposing basket within the 24-second time limit. Both the NCAA and international basketball made similar shot-clock provisions in later years, a factor contributing to the offensive aspects of the sport.

The claim to James Naismith as a native son is made by Canada, where Naismith was born and educated, as well as by the United States, the physical birthplace of the game as well as Naismith's home for the final 50 years of his life. The inventor lived long enough to see the sport develop into a true world game, as Naismith attended the first-ever Olympic basketball game in Berlin in 1936. As the athletic director at the University of Kansas for 39 years, Naismith was a mentor to the legendary American university coach Forrest (Phog) Allen (1885–1974).

The American origins of the sport were reflected by the dominance of American teams in international competition for the first 80 years of the history of basketball. The intense popularity of basketball in both high schools and universities in the 1930s and 1940s were the significant factors in the founding of the National Basketball Association in 1946. The NBA has been the world's premier professional basketball league throughout its entire history.

Television coverage promoted the game to further popularity in the United States through the 1960s, which led to the creation of a rival to the NBA, the American Basketball Association (ABA), in 1967. The two leagues merged in 1976. The Harlem Globetrotters were created in the late 1940s in New York, in part as a response to the latent racism that existed in all North American professional sports at that time. The Globetrotters also contributed to the popularity of basketball with cross-country barnstorming tours, featuring outstanding players who combined athletic talent and a lighthearted showmanship.

Institutions such as Syracuse University and others in northeastern United States began to organize men's basketball teams in the late 1890s. The growth of the American university championships competition has continued virtually unabated since the end of World War II. Known popularly as the NCAA's "March Madness," the annual 64-team single elimination tournament in the top divisions for both men's and women's teams is a major media and cultural event in the United States.

While basketball has been played at a high level throughout the world since the early part of the twentieth century, American dominance of the sport was unquestioned until the latter part of the twentieth century. The United States captured successive Olympic and world titles using university players, without any need to rely on the best American professionals available. The history of the game as a world sport was altered forever at the 1972 Munich Olympics. In a shocking and highly controversial result in the gold medal game, a contest highlighted by uncertainty as to the precise time remaining, the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics beat the United States for the championship.

In 1992, the United States for the first time entered an Olympic team comprised only of the best NBA players, including legendary talents Michael Jordan, Ervin "Magic" Johnson, and Larry Bird. The "Dream Team," as it was dubbed by the media, easily won an Olympic championship. While subsequent American Olympic and world championship competition Dream Teams have been composed of equally talented players, the world basketball talent pool has rapidly expanded. The 2004 Olympics competition, in which the United States men's team was beaten by Argentina in the tournament semifinals, is a prominent example of this growth.

A further indicator of the global nature of the sport is reflected by the extensive efforts made since 1990 by NBA franchises to seek out talented foreign players, both by way of the annual player selection draft, as well as through the process known as free agency, which is the obtaining of the services of a player not under contract or other obligation to another team. As an example, the 2005 NBA draft of the 60 best available players included 14 foreign selections.

There are a number of theories concerning the rise in the standard of play in international basketball. There is no question that the United States remains the preeminent world power in the sport, both in terms of the sheer number of players (there are more than 1,000 NCAA member institutions alone that compete in basketball), as well as the dominance of exceptional individual American players. However, there are two important contributing factors to the leveling of the competitive field in world competition. One is that, in recent years, the American game has focused on individual player development. Athleticism and an ability to make plays by the individual have been stressed, including offensive techniques such as the slam dunk and the three-point shot, at the expense of earlier team-oriented fundamentals such as foul shooting, passing, and defensive play. The vast majority of American-born NBA players are produced by the NCAA system.

Another factor in the leveling of the world competition is that the international game has developed along different lines. Sport clubs are a popular development concept, employed in Europe and elsewhere to identify and nurture exceptional athletes. Basketball sport clubs tend to encourage the development of well-rounded, multidimensional players. For this reason, a 7 ft (2.13 m) athlete such as Dirk Nowitski of Germany, an exceptional NBA player, would have been assumed to possess a lower level of athletic ability in the traditional American basketball culture. Nowitski was encouraged as a youth to build an elite-level range of shooting and passing skills that were formerly associated with the traditional American guard position.

The international rules (known as the FIBA rules) differ in some respects from those used in North American basketball. With a wider lane and a closer three-point line, the international game encourages greater perimeter play, with a corresponding emphasis on ball-handling and passing skills for all players, irrespective of position. Vibrant professional leagues in countries such as Italy, Spain, and Brazil have created higher level playing opportunities for international players.

The game created by James Naismith as a means of providing his active college students with a safe physical outlet for their energies is now one of the most popular team sports in the world.

see also Basketball: Strength and training exercises; FIBA: International basketball; National governing bodies; Title IX and United States female sports participation.


views updated May 29 2018



Origins of the Game. In the fall of 1891 James Naismith, a physical-education instructor at the Young Mens Christian Association Training School in Springfield, Massachusetts, developed basketball to replace gymnastics and calisthenics routinely practiced during the winter months. After studying the attributes of lacrosse, football, rugby, and soccer, he created a game in which players would bounce and pass a soccer ball from one another and score points by tossing the ball into a suspended goal. The fundamental concept for the game came to him from watching rugby players spend the winter months throwing rugby balls into boxes. Instead of boxes for goals, Naismith used bottomless peach baskets hung at opposite ends of the railing surrounding the YMCA gymnasium, ten feet above the floor. On 21 December 1891 he introduced basketball to his students, who had tired of their instructors experimentation with new games that fall. Naismith recalled that I asked the boys to try it once as a favor to me, and after the ball was first thrown up, there was no need for further coaxing. Some students wanted to name the new game Naismith Ball, but when the inventor demurred, they started calling it basket ball.

From the YMCA to the AAU. Basketball quickly spread throughout the YMCAs of the Northeast. The organization used the game as a means to increase membership and promote spiritual growth through athletic competition. Rivalry between the YMCAs became so intense that the organization attempted to regulate the game through the establishment of separate leagues, but the organizations were soon undermined by professionalism, which, according to Luther Halsey Gulick, the director of the YMCA, resulted in men of lower character going into the game, for men of serious purpose in life do not care to go into that kind of thing. In 1896 the YMCA turned to the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) for help in regulating the extramural basketball leagues and curbing the growth of professionalism. The AAU gained control of the sport by exercising editorial control over the official rules of basketball, which had been published by the A. G. Spalding & Brothers Company in 1894. The AAU also established leagues and sanctioned regional and national championships. AAU leagues and championship play first emerged in New York City in 1898, and then spread to other cities across the nation. The first AAU national basketball championship, however, was not held until 1908.

Professional Basketball. Independent professional basketball teams, which resisted the control of the AAU, emerged in the late 1890s, particularly in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. After gaining control of amateur basketball in 1896, the AAU attempted to standardize the game by eliminating rough play and requiring teams to pay registration fees. Philadelphia teams, which played a rough style of basketball, objected to paying registration fees and formed a rival organization, the Eastern Amateur Basketball Association (EABA), in 1898, to accomplish the same goals of the AAU without the registration fees. The EABA, however, promoted professionalism, as team managers and players devised various money-making schemes. In 1899 the EABA became the National League of Professional Basketball (NLPB), with the primary function of making sure that owners and players would honor team contracts. Before the establishment of the NLPB, owners would raid teams for the best players, and players would jump teams for better pay. The NLPB folded in 1903 because it could not force managers and players to honor team contracts.

College Basketball. Colleges and universities throughout the Midwest and Northeast quickly embraced basketball as the Minnesota State School of Agriculture and Mining defeated Hamline College, 93, in the first intercollegiate game on 9 February 1895. This game, however, was played with nine-man teams, and a month later the first game played between five-man teams resulted in the University of Chicago defeating the University of Iowa YMCA, 1512. Northeast colleges and universities took the lead in the development of intercollegiate basketball leagues in the 1900s, with the establishment of the Eastern League, composed of Yale, Harvard, Columbia, Cornell, and Princeton. Basketball

became the chief sport for college women after Senda Berenson, the director of physical training at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, introduced the game to her students in 1892. Berenson and representatives of Radcliffe, Oberlin, and the Boston Normal School of Gymnastics formed the Womens Basketball Rules Committee, which codified womens basketball rules and had them published by the A. G. Spalding & Brothers Company in 1899. In the first intercollegiate womens basketball game, Smith defeated Bryn Mawr, 43, in 1901. Berenson, however, emphasized intramural over intercollegiate games because they facilitated greater student participation in physical training and stressed the social and cooperative rather competitive aspects of sports.


Albert G. Applin II, From Muscular Christianity to the Market Place: The History of Mens and Boys Basketball in the United States, 1891-1957, dissertation, University of Massachusetts, 1982;

Neil D. Isaacs, All the Moves: A History of College Basketball (New York: Harper & Row, 1984).


views updated Jun 11 2018


In December 1891, James Naismith, a Canadian-born instructor at the Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA) training school in Springfield, Massachusetts, introduced the game of basketball. The YMCA soon published rules for the game, which spread rapidly throughout settlement houses, colleges, and high schools. In March 1892 Senda Berenson adapted the game for her Smith College students by restricting the players to zones, thus limiting their running to allay concerns about female debility. By the end of the year girls in West Coast schools eagerly took to the game. The YMCA promoted state and regional competitions and offered a national championship in 1896.

Professional teams appeared by the late 1890s and high school students, both boys and girls, organized their own leagues for competition. High school play became particularly intense in certain regions of the country, such as Indiana and Kentucky, where the game took precedence in the sporting culture as it fostered communal pride and identity. In Iowa the girls' game even superceded the boys' in popularity, despite its adherence to the divided court system until the 1993-1994 season. In the South historically black colleges developed particularly strong female contingents, and their white counterparts, company teams composed of young females, barnstormed the country, often playing and defeating men's teams.

The game retained a strong presence in urban areas, however, where social clubs, churches, schools, and companies sponsored teams. Leagues in northern cities featured integrated games and African-American teams proved among the best by the World War I era. Colleges began sponsoring competitions to attract the best players to campus, such as the national invitational tournament started by the University of Chicago in 1918. Racial, ethnic, and religious rivalries spurred the formation of teams and fostered greater assimilation in the process. Organizations originally founded to preserve ethnic cultures, such as the German Turners, Czech Sokols, and Polish Falcons, acquiesced to the interests of second-generation youths in American sports, such as basketball. Both the B'nai B'rith Youth Organization and the Catholic Youth Organization (CYO) aimed to counteract the Protestant influences of the YMCA. The latter conducted its own National Catholic Interscholastic Basketball Tournament at Chicago's Loyola University after 1923. By the 1930s the CYO claimed the largest basketball league in the world, as its Chicago archdiocese accounted for more than 400 teams.

The best youths earned college scholarships or graduated to semipro or professional units that proliferated throughout American cities. Others joined barnstorming teams, like Chicago's Savoy 5 (later renamed the Harlem Globetrotters). Girls, too, found similar opportunities, particularly on employer-sponsored teams in the South.

The international scope of the game resulted in its inclusion in the 1936 Olympic Games. Nationally, basketball prospered throughout the latter half of the twentieth century, gradually assuming a primary role in inner-city playgrounds and urban community recreation programs. Like past sponsors, entrepreneurs initiated basketball camps, tournaments, and traveling teams that promised training, continuous competition, and offered hopes of recognition by high school, college, and professional coaches. By the late twentieth century the best high school boys eschewed college play, opting for direct employment in the National Basketball Association. Most, however, honed their skills on thousands of community teams that offered age group competition or played recreational basketball on city playgrounds or rural spaces.

See also: Sports; Title IX and Girls Sports; YWCA and YMCA.


Axthelm, Pete. 1970. The City Game: Basketball, from the Playground to Madison Square Garden. New York: Harper's Magazine Press.

George, Nelson. 1992. Elevating the Game. New York: Harper Collins.

Hult, Joan S., and Marianna Trekell, eds. 1991. A Century of Women's Basketball: From Frailty to Final Four. Reston, VA: American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation, and Dance.

Gerald R. Gems


views updated May 11 2018

basketball Game that originated in the USA, and is now played worldwide. Devised in 1891 by Dr James Naismith, it has been an Olympic sport since 1936. It is played by two teams of five (plus substitutes), usually indoors. The court is up to 27.8m (91ft) long and 15m (49ft) wide. At each end is a backboard on which a bottomless netting basket hangs from a hoop 3m (10ft) above the floor. The object is to put the ball down through the opposing team's basket, scoring points. In normal play, two points are scored when the ball is thrown from within a zone close to the basket, and three points from farther away; a free throw (for a foul) counts one point. Players may move with the ball when dribbling it one-handed. With growing commercialization and the worldwide transmission of National Basketball Association (NBA) games, basketball is one of the most popular spectator sports.