The Origin of Basketball

Today I found out the origin of the sport basketball.

Surprisingly, unlike most sports whose origins are somewhat obscure, often being the combination of other sports and developed gradually through time, basketball has a very precise and fully known origin (the inventor himself wrote an account of it, published after his death; see the “Sources and Further Reading” below).  Even the date of the very first game is known, December 21, 1891.

It was all started by Dr. James Naismith, the son of two Scottish immigrants to Canada.  By 1891, Dr. Naismith was teaching physical education in Springfield, MA at the YMCA International Training School (which today is Springfield College).  While there, he was asked by the director of physical education, Dr. Luther Gulick, to come up with a new game students could play indoors during the winter that would help keep track and field runners in shape and would be relatively safe to play (particularly that it would have a small amount of physical contact so that the players wouldn’t get injured in this game).

Dr. Naismith was given two weeks to come up with such a game.  What he came up with was inspired by a game he had played as a child, “Duck on a Rock”, which is a game that has been played since medieval times.  In “Duck on a Rock”, a large stone (“duck”) would be placed on top of an even larger rock or tree stump or the like.   One unlucky player was then given the job of guarding the rock.  All the other players would then have one rock to throw at the “duck” each, in order to knock it off the tree stump or rock it had been placed on.  If the “duck” was knocked off before the throwers had all thrown their rocks, the defender will cease defending and pick up the “duck” and go on the offensive.  Unfortunately, he does not get to chuck the duck back at the people who were just chucking rocks in his general direction.  Rather, after the duck is knocked off, all the players throwing stones must go and retrieve one of the thrown stones and then make it safely back to the throwing line.  After the defender picks up the fallen “duck” and places it back on the rock or tree stump, he/she is then allowed to run around and tag any of the players who have not yet made it back to the throwing line.  If a player is tagged, they become the new guard.

Rather than using a rock, Dr. Naismith’s decided his game would be played with an association football, also known as a soccer ball (click here to read about the origin of the name “soccer”, which, by the way this name preceded the first known instance of the sport first being called by the singular term “football”).  The goal of Dr. Naismith’s game would be to throw a soccer ball into a peach basket, which would be nailed up high on the wall.  He chose the soccer ball as he deemed it to be fairly safe to be thrown around and not likely to cause injury.  He decided to put the basket high on the wall because he observed most injuries seemed to happen in sports around the goal zone with both defenders and the offensive side becoming very aggressive in these regions. So he felt by putting it up high, it would prevent some of the potential for injury between offenses and defenses.

Interestingly, the original peach baskets did not have their bottoms knocked out, so whenever someone would get the soccer ball in the basket, the game would be temporarily paused while someone climbed a ladder to retrieve the ball.  This obviously soon became annoying, so a hole was put in the bottom of the basket.  Bizarrely, when they put this hole in the basket, they did not initially think to knock out the entire bottom and instead still had to use a long wooden dowel to poke the soccer ball out of the basket, which was at least less annoying than needing to climb a ladder.

Another major difference from modern day basketball is that there was no dribbling allowed, only passing and the person with the ball had to stay in place, excepting if they were running when they caught the ball, then they were allowed some leeway in which to continue moving while they slowed themselves quickly to a stop.  This rule against running with the ball was because Dr. Naismith observed that in most sports, many injuries tended to happen when the player with the ball ran around, particularly with the other team more or less attacking that player.  This way, the focus would be more on the ball, rather than the player.

As mentioned, the game was first played on December 21, 1891.  This inaugural game was played with nine players on each team and after 30 minutes total of play (two fifteen minute halves) the final score was  1-0, fitting for a game played with a soccer ball.   The lone point was scored by William R. Chase, from around 25 feet away from the basket. The thirteen rules used in this original version of basketball were as follows:

  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, but 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 running at 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, striking or tripping in any way of an opponent. 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 substitution shall be allowed.
  6. A foul is striking at the ball with the fist, violations of Rules 3 and 4 and such as described in Rule 5.
  7. If either side make three consecutive fouls it shall count as a goal for the opponents (consecutive means without the opponents in the meantime making a foul).
  8. Goal shall be made when the ball is thrown or batted from the ground 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 opponents move 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 first person touching it. In case of 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 the power to disqualify men according to Rule 5.
  11. The referee shall be the judge of the ball and decide when it 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 15-minute halves with five minutes’ rest between.
  13. The side making the most goals in that time shall be declared the winners.

This first game was described thus:

When Mr. Stubbins brought up the peach baskets to the gym I secured them on the inside of the railing of the gallery. This was about 10 feet from the floor, one at each end of the gymnasium. I then put the 13 rules on the bulletin board just behind the instructor’s platform, secured a soccer ball and awaited the arrival of the class… The class did not show much enthusiasm but followed my lead… I then explained what they had to do to make goals, tossed the ball up between the two center men & tried to keep them somewhat near the rules. Most of the fouls were called for running with the ball, though tackling the man with the ball was not uncommon… It was the start of the first basketball game and the finish of trouble with that class.

Despite the somewhat underwhelming first game results, which was just one point away from ending in a meaningless tie, the game soon became extremely popular at the YMCA in Springfield and within a year was spreading to other YMCA’s.  Within three years, basketball started being accepted as not just a fun game to play indoors, but a legitimate sport in its own right.  The rules, of course, began being tweaked nearly from the beginning and the old peach basket was thrown out in favor of iron rims with netting as early as 1893 (though, interestingly, the first netted hoops had a closed bottom, so a long wooden dowel still had to be used to retrieve the ball for around a decade after the net was introduced until someone finally got the bright idea of just using an open ended net, so that the ball would just fall through, no stick required).  In addition to that, specialized balls began being made, instead of just using a soccer ball.  Fast-forward to today and basketball is considered one of the world’s most popular sports, being played by an estimated 300 million people.

No discussion of the origin of basketball would be complete without addressing the common alternate “conspiracy theory” origin.  This theory popped up in the 1950s, claiming that a director of a YMCA in Herkimer, New York, Lambert G. Will, actually invented the game almost a year before Dr. Naismith claimed the first basketball game took place.  The primary piece of evidence to support this claim is a photograph of what is apparently a basketball team in Herkimer dated in 1892.  Obviously this is after the game illustrated above, but what makes this picture intriguing is that the ball in the picture has 91-92 written on it, implying the team had been formed in 1891, which doesn’t necessarily mean this was before Dr. Naismith’s first game, but possibly.  There are a few problems with this, though.  First, that Lambert G. Will himself never claimed to have invented the game and further, his grandson, Rick Will claims that his grandfather always implied that Dr. Naismith had invented the game, not himself.  Thus even without the mountain of evidence that backs up Dr. Naismith’s claim, while the “91” on the ball seems curious, if Will himself claimed Dr. Naismith invented it, then one would tend to believe Dr. Naismith’s story of the origin of basketball and the first game.

Now, to be clear, while Will’s descendants don’t claim that Lambert G. Will invented the game, they do claim that he gave Dr. Naismith several suggestions on improving the game as Dr. Naismith had contact him about the new game, asking for suggestions.  However, as another of his grandson’s, Lawrence Will, stated, “He came up with some ideas, but I suspect he wasn’t the only one.”  What his exact suggestions might have been are unclear, some, like Lawrence Will, indicate that he only made a few suggestions, some of which were adopted, perhaps because of Lawrence Will’s suggestion or perhaps because of another who made the same suggestion (a lot of people in the early days of the sport helped tweak the game).  Others go so far as to basically state that Lawrence Will came up with almost every key feature of the game including: passing by hand (these individuals claim Dr. Naismith’s game only included passing by foot with, oddly, a medicine ball, not a soccer ball being used, which obviously makes no sense in the “don’t get people injured” rule for developing the game); introducing a bounceable ball and dribbling; the metal rim; the net (knitted by his wife no less),;standardizing the basketball court; and giving the idea for an open bottom on the net so the ball could fall through.  Obviously this seems highly unlikely as it flies in the face of a lot of direct evidence in the Dr. Naismith camp and Will’s descendants on the whole make no such significant claims based on what they know of Lawrence Will’s part in the development of basketball.  In the end, it is likely that Will had a part through correspondents with Dr. Naismith in the development of the early game after it was introduced, but it seems pretty clear that he did not invent it, as some basketball conspiracy theorists claim.

Bonus Facts:

  • Dr. Naismith became the first coach of the University of Kansas’ basketball team, where he coached nine seasons.  Interestingly, to date, he’s the only coach in University of Kansas history to retire with a losing record (55-60).  He also held the positions of campus chaplain and physical education director.
  • Another difference between the first game of basketball and the game we have today was that once the ball was retrieved from the basket following a successful shot, the ball was taken back to center court for a toss up.
  • Dr. Naismith didn’t believe there was anything to coaching and that it was better just to let the players play.  He even tried to instill this in one of his former players, famed coach Forrest “Phog” Allen.  When Allen told Dr. Naismith he was going to coach, Dr. Naismith told him, “You can’t coach basketball; you just play it.”  Forrest Allen went on to prove Dr. Naismith completely wrong, becoming one of the great coaches in basketball history and today is considered the “father of basketball coaching”.
  • The Basketball Hall of Fame is named after Naismith: The Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.  It is located in Springfield, MA, the city where basketball was first invented and played.
  • Despite eventually becoming highly educated, Dr. Naismith actually dropped out of high school and became a lumberjack for a time.  Apparently not finding the world of lumberjacking to be his long term career choice, he went back to school and graduated high school at the age of 21.  He followed this by pursuing a degree at the McGill University in Montreal, where he first earned a degree in physical education and then a degree in theology at the Presbyterian College, which was affiliated with McGill University.
  • While at McGill pursuing a degree in theology, Dr. Naismith became an instructor of physical education and the director of athletics, where he is often credited as being the one who invented the predecessor of the football helmet, though there are several others around this time who also independently chose to wear different types of headgear, such as “helmets” made of moleskin and the like, though it was rare.  So whether he was actually the first to introduce this idea is still a matter up for debate.
  • He eventually left McGill and went to the YMCA Training School in Springfield, MA where he began teaching and subsequently invented basketball there just one year after leaving Canada.
  • As you might have guessed due to the fact that I keep referring to him as “Dr. Naismith”  instead of “Mr. Naismith”, Dr. Naismith graduated from the Colorado Medical School in 1898.  At the time, he was the physical education director at the YMCA in Denver and decided to pursue a degree in medicine on the side.
  • Dr. Naismith was born in Ontario, Canada and was raised by his uncle Peter and grandmother as his parents had died of typhoid when he was nine years old.
  • Funds were raised by the National Association of Basketball Coaches so that Dr. Naismith could fly to the Berlin Games in 1936, the first Olympics in which basketball was an official participating event (it had previously been a demonstration sport in the Olympics as early as 1904).  While there, Dr. Naismith got to be the one to toss the ball up at the start of the first official Olympic basketball game.  He also got to present the medals to the winners: U.S. (gold), Canada (silver), and Mexico (bronze).  Dr. Naismith was at this point a citizen of two of the former two of those countries.  He died just three years later of a brain hemorrhage.
  • The first official college basketball game was played on January 18, 1896 between the University of Iowa and the University of Chicago.  The final score was 15-12, with the visiting Chicago team the victors.
  • The document Dr. Naismith wrote down the original thirteen rules of basketball on sold in 2010 for $4.3 million.  In the year Dr. Naismith made this document, $4.3 million would have been roughly worth about $100 million today in buying power.  Makes one wonder what his reaction would have been if someone had told him on the day he created the document that in 119 years, someone would buy that piece of paper for $4.3 million.
  • The other players in the original basketball game besides William R. Chase, who scored the first basket in basketball history, were, The Winning Team: John J. Thompson, Eugene S. Libby, Edwin P. Ruggles, T. Duncan Patton, Frank Mahan, Finlay G. MacDonald, William H. Davis and Lyman Archibald; The Losing Team: George Weller, Wilbert Carey, Ernest Hildner, Raymond Kaighn, Genzabaro Ishikawa, Benjamin S. French, Franklin Barnes, George Day and Henry Gelan.
  • Not only did the YMCA have a huge part in spreading basketball around the world, but WWI and the North American soldiers that fought in it are also frequently given credit for spreading the game throughout the world.
  • The early basketballs were brown.  This was later changed to orange to make it easier for spectators to see the ball.
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  • lol, we canadians already know this, we used to have to watch it on tv how basketball was invented by a canadian 😛

  • So he actually invented netball, right?

  • Naismith didn’t invent basketball. It was Will, whether or not his relatives concur or not. If there’s a photo that proves he formed a basketball team well before Naismith’s first game, then he invented it, not Naismith. That is basic elementary logic.

  • Basketball was invented in America by a British subject named James Naismith who was born and grew up in what was then the Province of Canada. Canada was not an independent country and “Canadians” were not Canadians then. They were considered British.
    But history is a funny business, of everyone claiming everything was invented in their country. The modern game of basketball had its origins in Naismith’s game, but bears only some resemblance to his original idea. Today’s game is a finest tuned complication of many decades of “tweaking” from many sources. Most of which are North American in origin. So it might be most accurate to say Naismith invented it while getting paid by Americans to do so. lol. 😉

    • Not quite right. Canada became a self-governing entity, effectively its own country, in 1867. While additional steps would be taken in in later decades (Statute of Westminster, repatriation of the constitution), Canada existed as a country by the time Naismith invented basketball, Canada was a country. Furthermore, a Canadian national identity pre-dated the formation of the country (The french speaking population of Quebec, in particular, had been referring to themselves as Canadien since the late 17th/early 18th century). While english speaking Canadians of the time, and for a long time afterward, largely (not wholly) considered themselves British subjects, they identified as Canadian.

      I suspect you’re confusing this with the precursor entities of upper and lower Canada, which roughly correlate to modern day Ontario and Quebec respectively.

    • History once again lied and it’s sad because what has transpired Lambert Will Created the game and this man name James Naismith steals it and claim it. This Is a sad history and another part of is if he so call created the game CANADA wasn’t even consider Canadian during this time which is another part of history in lies this country and created a fake narrative. It’s sad how this country allow things to take place and no accountability.

  • I must say I found this article interesting..however I feel it fair to say how I understand much of this history to be much different. I have in the past done research on this topic mainly because Lambert Will was my great grandfather and I feel the author of this article has twisted some testimony around and think he should do more research. As a matter of fact the book “I grew up with basketball” written by author Frank basloe may be a good place to start. It only amazes me how history itself seems to change with peoples interpretation. Frank basloe was a promoter of basketball in earlier days of the game. This conspiracy the author speaks of seems to be more of a way to discredit Lambert Will’s contribution to the game as we know it today. I feel anyone that has questions or interest in this topic would be better informed to refer to the book “I grew up with basketball” for some holes left out in this article. My grandfathers wish was to see his father got credit for his contributions to the game in which we all know today as basketball. My great grandfather was inducted into the hall of fame in 1995..I know first hand because I was there. I do feel much of my great grand fathers legacy and contributions are discredited by articles like this one. My grandfather went to his grave knowing he did the best he could to see his father was recognized. I don’t feel he was 100% satisfied with the outcome only happy he got some kind of recognition. The true conspiracy of this subject comes from articles written like this one.

  • Again another poorly researched article by Daven Hiskey (The origin of the word ‘soccer’, is another poorly researched article). How can you write an article on the origin of Basketball without mentioning the fact that a very similar game had already existed in Germany called korbball (korb translates into English as basket) developed by Otto Hermann Kluge? Korbball pre-dates basketball by around 15 years. There has been other similar games in history.

    • Daven Hiskey

      @FootballFan1894: Just because they are similar and many other such sports where you throw a ball into a basket existed previously, doesn’t mean they have anything to do with the origin of the sport we call Basketball. If you know of an actual connection between Korbball and Basketball, like it inspired Naismith or something, do share.

      • You may need to go back to my reply, as where did I say that Korbball inspired Basketball? I
        pointed out that the two are very similar (which they are) and Korbball means Basketball in
        English. After all you felt it necessary to point out there were ancient ball games played by
        the Japanese, Chinese and Romans that you compared to Association Football, where in truth
        these had less in common with Association Football (the game the Romans played involved
        use of the hands more than the feet) than Korbball has with Basketball. Is this a case of one
        rule for you and another for everyone else?
        And how can anyone trust anything you write when your article on The Origin of the Word
        ‘Soccer’ contained so much incorrect information. Clearly written by someone who knows
        very little about the history of the game.

      • actually, its called korfball, not korball

        • FootballFan1894

          Dylan, these are two different sports, the German ‘Korbball’ which I was referring to and the Dutch ‘Korfball’, they are similar to each other.

          The German ‘Korbball’ pre-dates basketball by around 15 years, the Dutch ‘Korfball’ came later in 1902.

  • Typo in paragrapsh 8: “The loan point was scored ” should be “The lone point was scored “

  • oops! I meant paragraph 8

  • I was taught in school that Mr. James Naismith invented Basketball not this Mr Lambert G. Will. I think Mr. Will wanted to take credit for it.

  • Good job Daven. So far it is a credible article.

  • Lawrence P. Will

    I just recently learned of the re-publishing of the book “I grew up with basketball” and would like to send a kudos out to Michael A. Antonucci . This book has been a thorn in the side of everyone from Springfield Mass. (home of the basketball hall of fame) for a long time. funny I’ve never met this man and i’m sure
    my brother Rick hasn’t either , yet this guy Quotes us ! he really should proofread his stories better too as he confuses me with my grand father twice . our family has always said that n
    Naismith came up with the idea of throwing a ball through a hoop of some sort but after that we believe as the book states that he did indeed send a copy of his idea to various YMCA’s without any rules to go by . as the book states after writing Mr Naismith and getting no reply’s my grandfather and his members had to come up with some for themselves. the book makes a case for the hall of fame to be located in Herkimer instead of Springfield and back in the day there was quite a contested discussion between the two cities, money and commerce being
    what they are. it seems to me after all these years and all this controversy has passed the Naismith team
    should stop calling this a conspiracy and stop trying to alter history. By the way people, the story we’ve all been told about the cowboys and Indians isn’t quite accurate either! If you ever go to the hall of fame check out the oldest pictures of the first basketball teams (they are from the Mohawk Valley) or at least they were when we had my grandfather’s picture put in there , but then that might have changed by now too, as history gets rewritten everyday! Remember Billy Packard basketball fans ?
    he used to announce the March madness tournament . I’ll never forget him saying, (when referring to Mr. Naismith) ” here’s a man that never would take credit for inventing the game!” by the way who ever you are you have no right to falsely Quote me or anyone else!

    Lawrence P. Will (proud grandson of Lambert Will)

    • I guess I’m just here to read the comments as they say…but I’m new to the Lambert Will inventing the game or inputting his advice on the game…which would your family rather be happy with? His input or invention of the game…he supposedly had 2yrs ahead of Naismith on the game of basketball…all interesting…Does Naismith have any descendants right the claims on this history or are the Will family the only descendants left to admit any differences? Just asking

  • Why have I never heard of Lambert Will giving some advice to Dr. Naismith? Is this relatively new information?