the invention of basketball -- 5/24/24

Today's selection -- from Basketball: Its Origin and Development by James Naismith. In 1891, the Canadian James Naismith, faced with the lack of a popular activity for athletes during winter, sat down at his desk and invented a new game:

“As I sat there at my desk, I began to study games from the philosophical side. I had been taking one game at a time and had failed to find what I was looking for. This time I would take games as a whole and study them.

“My first generalization was that all team games used a ball of some kind; therefore, any new game must have a ball. Two kinds of balls were used at that time, one large and the other small. I noted that all games that used a small ball had some intermediate equipment with which to handle it. Cricket and baseball had bats, lacrosse and hockey had sticks, tennis and squash had rackets. In each of these games, the use of the intermediate equipment made the game more difficult to learn. The Americans were at sea with a lacrosse stick, and the Canadians could not use a baseball bat.

“The game that we sought would be played by many; therefore, it must be easy to learn. Another objection to a small ball was that it could be easily hidden. It would be difficult for a group to play a game in which the ball was in sight only part of the time.

“I then considered a large ball that could be easily handled and which almost anyone could catch and throw with very little practice. I decided that the ball should be large and light, one that could be easily handled and yet could not be concealed. There were two balls of this kind then in use, one the spheroid of Rugby and the other the round ball of soccer. It was not until later that I decided which one of these two I would select.

“The type of a ball being settled, I turned next to the point of interest of various games. I concluded that the most interesting game at that time was American Rugby. I asked myself why this game could not be used as an indoor sport. The answer to this was easy. It was because tackling was necessary in Rugby. But why was tackling necessary? Again the answer was easy. It was because the men were allowed to run with the ball, and it was necessary to stop them. With these facts in mind, I sat erect at my desk and said aloud:

“‘If he can't run with the ball, we don't have to tackle; and, if we don't have to tackle, the roughness will be eliminated.’

“I can still recall how I snapped my fingers and shouted, ‘I've got it!’

“This time I felt that I really had a new principle for a game, one that would not violate any tradition. On looking back, it was hard to see why I was so elated. I had as yet nothing but a single idea, but I was sure that the rest would work out correctly.

“Starting with the idea that the player in possession of the ball could not run with it, the next step was to see just what he could do with it. There was little choice in this respect. It would be necessary for him to throw it or bat it with his hand. In my mind, I began to play a game and to visualize the movements of the players. Suppose that a player was running, and a teammate threw the ball to him.

“Realizing that it would be impossible for him to stop immediately, I made this exception: when a man was running and received the ball, he must make an honest effort to stop or else pass the ball immediately. This was the second step of the game. 

“In my mind I was still sticking to the traditions of the older games, especially football. In that game, the ball could be thrown in any direction except forward. In this new game, however, the player with the ball could not advance, and I saw no reason why he should not be allowed to throw or bat it in any direction. So far, I had a game that was played with a large light ball; the players could not run with the ball, but must pass it or bat it with the hands; and the pass could be made in any direction. 

“As I mentally played the game, I remembered that I had seen two players in a soccer game, both after the ball. One player attempted to head the ball just as the other player kicked at it. The result was a badly gashed head for the first man. I then turned this incident to the new game. I could imagine one player attempting to strike the ball with his fist and, intentionally or otherwise, coming in contact with another player's face. I then decided that the fist must not be used in striking the ball. 

“The game now had progressed only to the point where it was ‘keep away,’ and my experience with gymnastic games convinced me that it would not hold the interest of the players.

“The next step was to devise some objective for the players. In all existing games there was some kind of a goal, and I felt that this was essential. I thought of the different games, in the hope that I might be able to use one of their goals. Football had a goal line, over which the ball must be carried, and goal posts, over which the ball might be kicked. Soccer, lacrosse, and hockey had goals into which the ball might be driven. Tennis and badminton had marks on the court inside which the ball must be kept. Thinking of all these, I mentally placed a goal like the one used in lacrosse at each end of the floor.

“A lacrosse goal is simply a space six feet high and eight feet wide. The players attempt to throw the ball into this space; the harder the ball is thrown, the more chance to make a goal. I was sure that this play would lead to roughness, and I did not want that. I thought of limiting the sweep of the arms or of having the ball delivered from in front of the person, but I knew that many would resent my limiting the power of the player.

“By what line of association it occurred to me I do not know, but I was back in Bennie's Corners, Ontario, playing Duck on the Rock. I could remember distinctly the large rock back of the blacksmith shop, about as high as our knees and as large around as a wash tub. Each of us would get a ‘duck’ a stone about as large as our two doubled fists. About twenty feet from the large rock we would draw a base line, and then in various manners we would choose one of the group to be guard, or ‘it.’

The first basketball court: Springfield College

“To start the game, the guard placed his duck on the rock, and we behind the base line attempted to knock it off by throwing our ducks. More often than not, when we threw our ducks we missed, and if we went to retrieve them, the guard tagged us; then one of us had to change places with him. If, however, someone knocked the guard's ‘duck’ off the rock, he had to replace it before he could tag anyone.

“It came distinctly to my mind that some of the boys threw their ducks as hard as they could; when they missed, the ducks were far from the base. When they went to retrieve them, they had farther to run and had more chance of being tagged. On the other hand, if the duck was tossed in an arc, it did not go so far. If the guard's duck was hit, it fell on the far side of the rock, whereas the one that was thrown bounced nearer the base and was easily caught up before the guard replaced his. When the duck was thrown in an arc, accuracy was more effective than force.

“With this game in mind, I thought that if the goal were horizontal instead of vertical, the players would be compelled to throw the ball in an arc; and force, which made for roughness, would be of no value.

“A horizontal goal, then, was what I was looking for, and I pictured it in my mind. I would place a box at either end of the floor, and each time the ball entered the box it would count as a goal. There was one thing, however, that I had overlooked. If nine men formed a defense around the goal, it would be impossible for the ball to enter it; but if I placed the goal above the players' heads, this type of defense would be useless. The only chance that the guards would have would be to go out and get the ball before the opponents had an opportunity to throw for goal.

“I had a team game with equipment and an objective. My problem now was how to start it. Again I reviewed the games with which I was familiar. I found that the intent of starting any game was to give each side an equal chance to obtain the ball. I thought of water polo, where the teams were lined up at the ends of the pool and at a signal the ball was thrown into the center. There was always a mad scramble to gain possession of the ball, and it took only an instant for me to reject this plan. I could see nine men at each end of the gym, all making a rush for the ball as it was thrown into the center of the floor; and I winced as I thought of the results of that collision.

“I then turned to the game of English Rugby. When the ball went out of bounds on the side line, it was taken by the umpire and thrown in between two lines of forward players. This was somewhat like polo, but the players had no chance to run at each other. As I thought of this method of starting the game, I remembered one incident that happened to me. In a game with Queen's College, the ball was thrown between the two lines of players. I took one step and went high in the air. I got the ball all right, but as I came down I landed on a shoulder that was shoved into my midriff. I decided that this method would not do. I did feel, though, that if the roughness could be eliminated, that tossing up the ball between two teams was the fairest way of starting a game. I reasoned that if I picked only one player from each team and threw the ball up between them, there would be little chance for roughness. I realize now how seriously I underestimated the ingenuity of the American boy.

“When I had decided how I would start the game, I felt that I would have little trouble. I knew that there would be questions to be met; but I had the fundamental principles of a game, and I was more than willing to try to meet these problems. I continued with my day's work, and it was late in the evening before I again had a chance to think of my new scheme. I believe that I am the first person who ever played basketball; and although I used the bed for a court, I certainly played a hard game that night.

“The following morning I went into my office, thinking of the new game. I had not yet decided what ball I should use. Side by side on the floor lay two balls, one a football and the other a soccer ball.

“I noticed the lines of the football and realized that it was shaped so that it might be carried in the arms. There was to be no carrying of the ball in this new game, so I walked over, picked up the soccer ball, and started in search of a goal.

“As I walked down the hall, I met Mr. Stebbins, the superintendent of buildings. I asked him if he had two boxes about eighteen inches square. Stebbins thought a minute, and then said:

“‘No, I haven't any boxes, but I'll tell you what I do have. I have two old peach baskets down in the store room, if they will do you any good.’

“I told him to bring them up, and a few minutes later he appeared with the two baskets tucked under his arm. They were round and somewhat larger at the top than at the bottom. I found a hammer and some nails and tacked the baskets to the lower rail of the balcony, one at either end of the gym.

“I was almost ready to try the new game, but I felt that I needed a set of rules, in order that the men would have some guide. I went to my office, pulled out a scratch pad, and set to work. The rules were so clear in my mind that in less than an hour I took my copy to Miss Lyons, our stenographer, who typed the following set of thirteen rules.

“The ball to be an ordinary Association football.

1. The ball may be thrown in any direction with one or both hands.

2. The ball may be batted in any direction with one or both hands (never with the fist).

3. 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 who catches the ball when running at a good speed.

4. The ball must be held in or between the hands; the arms or body must not be used for holding it. 

5. No shouldering, holding, pushing, tripping, or striking, in any way the person of an opponent shall be allowed; the first infringement of this rule by any person shall count as a foul, the second shall disqualify him until the next goal is made, or, if there was evident intent to injure the person for the whole of the game, no substitute allowed. 

6. A foul is striking at the ball with the fist, violation of Rules 3, 4, and such as described in Rule 5. 

7. If either side makes three consecutive fouls, it shall count a goal for the opponents. (Consecutive means without the opponents in the meantime making a foul.) 

8. A goal shall be made when the ball is thrown or batted from the grounds into the basket and stays there, providing those defending the goal do not touch or disturb the goal. If the ball rests on the edge and the opponent moves the basket, it shall count as a goal. 

9. When the ball goes out of bounds, it shall be thrown into the field and played by the person first touching it. In case of a dispute, the umpire shall throw it straight into the field. The thrower-in is allowed five seconds. If he holds it longer it shall go to the opponent. If any side persists in delaying the game, the umpire shall call a foul on them. 

10. The umpire shall be judge of the men and shall note the fouls and notify the referee when three consecutive fouls have been made. He shall have power to disqualify men according to Rule 5. 

11. The referee shall be judge of the ball and shall decide when the ball is in play, in bounds, to which side it belongs, and shall keep the time. He shall decide when a goal has been made, and keep account of the goals, with any other duties that are usually performed by a referee. 

12. The time shall be two fifteen minute halves, with five minutes rest between. 

13. The side making the most goals in that time shall be declared the winners. In case of a draw, the game may, by agreement of the captains, be continued until another goal is made. 

“When Miss Lyons finished typing the rules, it was almost class time, and I was anxious to get down to the gym. I took the rules and made my way down the stairs. Just inside the door there was a bulletin board for notices. With thumb tacks I fastened the rules to this board and then walked across the gym. I was sure in my own mind that the game was good, but it needed a real test. I felt that its success or failure depended largely on the way that the class received it.”



James Naismith


Basketball: Its Origin and Development


Bison Books


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