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 In Iowa the girls' game even superceded the boys' in popularity, despite its adherence to the divided court system until the 1993-1994 season.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.
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