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
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.