early basketball -- 6/21/24

Today's selection -- from Basketball by James Naismith. Dr. James Naismith writes on the equipment and other development in the game of basketball:

“A few years ago I was asked by a committee at a physical education convention to reproduce the first basketball game. At first I thought that this would be comparatively easy, and I began to visualize the material for an accurate reproduction. 

“As I recalled that first game, I began to realize that the job would not be so easy as I had at first thought. The old gymnasium at Springfield would be hard to reproduce under the present conditions. I remembered the dim lights that were set in the ceiling, the great mass of apparatus that was shoved into the corners, the walls lined with clubs, dumbbells, and wands, and the gallery that ran completely the length of the floor. The more I thought of reproducing these conditions, the more dubious I became. 

“It would be comparatively easy to obtain a couple of peach baskets and a soccer ball for the game, and this much I would not need to worry about. 

“The next difficulty that presented itself was to find eighteen players. To be truly representative of that first group, there should be some with walrus mustaches and some with full beards, the others looking comparatively modern. None of them should ever have seen a basketball game. This was a problem that would be hard to solve. I might be able, in a city of one hundred thousand, to find eighteen young men with the proper facial adornment. I felt sure that I could find eighteen men who had never seen a basketball game, but to find the combination was another matter. After thinking the matter over, I decided that the whole show would be a case of acting and that it would be impossible for any group of young men who had ever handled a basketball to approach the confusion and awkwardness of that first team without a great deal of coaching. 

“Writing to the committee, I explained to them that unless they could find the men required, I did not feel that I had the time to coach a group so that it could give an authentic idea of the first game. Realizing the difficulties, the committee decided to omit this part of the program. 

“I have had many requests for a description of this first game, in order that it might be reproduced. Even since starting to write this chapter, I have had such a request from a school in Wisconsin. A description of some of the changes that have taken place in basketball equipment in the past forty years may, therefore, be entertaining. 

“The Uniforms 

“For the first few years, the basketball uniform was any suit that was used in the gymnasium. Some of the teams used the long trousers and short-sleeved jerseys, others used track suits, and some even played in the clothes that they used on the football field. 

“The first basketball outfit was listed in the Spalding catalogue in 1901, and the advertisements for these suits would today seem ridiculous. There were three types of pants suggested as being correct for the game. There were the knee length padded pants that were almost exactly like those used on the football field, and the short padded pants that, except for length, resembled those of the present day. Last were the knee-length jersey tights. Any of these pants appearing on the floor today would cause hoots of amazement. 

“The rest of the equipment was not so striking. It is true that the quarter length sleeves were used, but sleeveless shirts were also suggested. The first suction sole basketball shoes were advertised by the Spalding Company in 1908. These were guaranteed not to slip even on a dancing floor. There was also a statement in the advertisement that the team equipped with these suction soled shoes possessed a decided advantage over the team that did not have them.

Old-style basketball with laces

“The Ball

“Probably the piece of equipment that has had fewest changes is the ball. For the first two years it was an ordinary Association (soccer) football, and it was not until 1894 that there was any such thing as a basketball. In this year a larger ball was adopted as the official ball for the game. This ball was made by the Overman Wheel Company, who were manufacturers of bicycles at Chicopee Falls, Massachusetts. It is surprising how little change has taken place since that time.

“In 1894 the rule read that the ball should be not less than thirty inches nor more than thirty-two in circumference. The 1983 rules listed the same speci:fications. There was some change in the 1984 rules, but it was negligible. The spherical shape of the ball is shown by the rule that was inserted in the Guide of 1898. This rule states that the ball shall not vary more than a quarter of an inch in any diameter.

“In 1898 the weight of the ball was established at a minimum of eighteen ounces and a maximum of twenty ounces. This remained the official weight until 1909, when the manufacturers complained that they could not make a ball of the required weight that would have the required lasting qualities. The weight was then increased to a minimum of twenty and a maximum of twenty-two ounces. This weight still remains.

“The Goal

“The goals, as has been stated many times, were originally peach baskets. These were so frail that they would last only a short time. In 1892, Lew Allen of Hartford, Connecticut, conceived the idea of making cylindrical baskets of heavy woven wire. The peach baskets that had been used were larger at the top than at the bottom. When they were nailed to a flat surface, the outer edge of the basket was somewhat lower than the edge against the support. This condition was corrected by the cylindrical wire baskets.

“In 1898, the Narragansett Machine Company of Providence, Rhode Island, manufactured a basket that was very similar to the one that is in use today. It was made of an iron rim and a cord basket. 

“It was stated in the rules at first that the ball must stay in the basket in order to count as a goal; and since the basket was ten feet from the ground, there had to be some way of getting the ball out. When the goal was fastened to the gallery, the ball was easily retrieved by anyone who could reach over the balcony rail. When the basket was against the wall, however, it was sometimes necessary to use a ladder to get the ball. Later we made a practice of drilling a hole in the bottom of the peach baskets in order that a wand might be inserted from below and the ball might be punched out in this manner. Since the pole was often missing, we had to resort to many other devices. On account of the inexperience of the players, fortunately, the goals were few and far between. 

“The Narragansett, realizing our difficulties, constructed a goal with the net entirely closed. When a goal was made, the ball stayed in the basket. To get the ball out of this basket, an ingenious device was installed. A chain was fastened to the bottom of the net and passed over a pulley on the brace that fastened the basket to the support. To empty the basket, the referee pulled the handle of the chain and the ball rolled out. 

“As the skill of the players increased, they demanded that the equipment be exact, and especially that the goals be horizontal. To meet these demands, a basket was constructed in which the braces, instead of being welded, were screwed into the rims. This allowed the rims of the goal to be properly adjusted. 

“It is only in comparatively recent years that the goal has been made without braces and the nets have been opened at the lower end to allow the ball to pass through. Today, a clause in the rules states that the ball shall be momentarily checked as it passes through the net. This rule is frequently neglected; and the ball passes through the net so quickly that the spectators are in doubt as to whether a goal has been made or missed. 

“The Backboards 

“The backboards are really the only accessory of the game that are accidental in their origin. Had it not been for the overzealous spectators who gladly used any means to help their team win, the backboard might not be in use today. 

“When the game began to attract crowds, the only available space for them was in the gallery. As the baskets were nailed to the lower edge of the balcony, it was easy for a person to thrust his hand suddenly through the rail and deflect the ball enough to make it enter or miss the goal, as he desired. 

“I can distinctly remember one boy about fifteen years old who used to come into the balcony and take a place directly behind the basket. He came early in order that he might always get this seat. He patiently waited an opportunity to help his team by darting his hand through the rail at the proper time to help the ball into the basket. 

“To do away with this practice, the following year a clause was entered in the rules, which stated that the goal must be protected from the spectators by a screen at least six feet on each side of the goal and at least six feet high. In 1895, the rules stated that there should be a backstop made of screen or other solid material and the size, six feet by four feet, was definitely settled at that time. This is the size of the regulation backboard today. 

“When the backboard was made of wood, it interfered with the view of the spectators who were seated behind the goal. This interference came at the most interesting time, when the ball was shot for the basket. To allow the spectators to see the goal, most of the backboards were made of heavy screen. 

“There were several objections to these screen backboards, however. The visiting team was under a distinct handicap. If the screen was comparatively loose, it would have a certain amount of ‘give,’ and the rebound would be slight.

“Another objection to the screen was that after some play, and sometimes by scienti:fic manipulation, the screen would become grooved, and the home team, knowing-these peculiarities, would have a decided advantage. These facts led to the introduction of the wooden backboards.

“In 1909, plate glass backboards were introduced, in order that the spectators behind the goals might see the ball as it was thrown for the basket. Many of the universities and larger institutions used these backboards for several years. There were, however, some objections. The teams that did not have the glass backboards found themselves at a disadvantage when required to play on a court which was equipped with them.

“The carom shot was not the same on the glass as it was on the wooden backboard; for the players who were shooting, on looking at the basket, found it suspended without a background. This circumstance made it difficult for a team that had been practicing on the wooden equipment.

“When, in 1916, the rules read that the backboards must be painted white, the plate glass backs were considered to be of no further value and were discontinued. However, they are extremely popular today.

The first basketball court: Springfield College

“The Court

“It would be hard for us today to visualize a basketball court with an imaginary boundary line; but so far as the rules were concerned, this was the condition for the first two years of the game.

“In 1894, the rules specified that there must be a well-defined line around the playing area at least three feet from the wall or fence. The boundary line naturally followed the contour of the gymnasium walls, which in many cases had projections to accommodate stairways or offices. Many courts were of irregular shape, frequently being wider at one end than at the other. The team that played on the narrow end was therefore handicapped.

“In 1903, a clause was inserted in the rules stating that the boundary lines must be straight. Later the rules specifically stated that the court must be a rectangle.

“As the game was originally designed to be played on any court, there was no regulation size, the only stipulation being that the larger the court, the greater the number of players. In 1896, when the team was definitely cut to five men, the rules contained a provision that the court should not exceed thirty-five hundred square feet of playing space. This size court was official until 1908, when the maximum court was set as ninety feet long and fifty-five feet wide. The width of the court was reduced to fifty feet in 1915.

“In 1917, E. C. Quigley, who is in reality the dean of basketball officials, made a suggestion to the rules committee that proved to be of great value. For years ‘Quig,’ in his capacity as an official, had raced from one end of gymnasiums to the other. One of his greatest difficulties was to determine whether a man who was shooting for a basket under his goal, was in or out of bounds. The goal at that time was directly over the end line, and in the confusion that of ten occurred under the basket, it was almost impossible to determine just who was in and who was out of bounds. If the basket was made while the player had his foot on the line, it was invalid; this point was the cause of many heated disputes.

“At St. Mary's College, Kansas, Quigley tried an experiment that led to his suggestion. Ile drew the arc of a circle under the basket and two feet beyond the end line; this area was considered in bounds. After a year's experiment, Quigley found that this change not only did away with much of the indecision but also helped the game, as it allowed more space under the basket.

“The rules committee saw the value of Quigley's suggestion, and in 1917 they introduced the end zone, the radius of which was seventeen feet, with its center on the free throw line. This end zone was so successful that the following year the extension went entirely across the court. At first the end zones were not included in the court, but in 1933 they became recognized as part of the playing field. The addition of these end zones has increased the length of the court until today the maximum official court is ninety-four by fifty feet.

“In 1922, a goal zone line was added to the floor markings. This line was simply an extension of the free-throw line to meet the side lines. It was felt that a foul committed in this area by a defensive player should be more severely dealt with than one committed on some other part of the floor. The rules for that year stated that a foul committed by a defensive player in this territory should carry the penalty of two free throws instead of one. This goal zone was short-lived, and in 1925 it was dropped from the guide.

“In 1932, a line across the center of the floor was introduced. This line divided the field into two courts called the front and the back court, according to the team in possession of the ball. Today the use of this line is causing much controversy.”

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James Naismith


Basketball: Its Origin and Development


Bison Books


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