The Birth of Basketball
A CultureMap®
by Stephen Brewer
Published on 3/17/14

As the winter months pass and the long NBA season marches on toward the spring playoffs, we’re continually awed by such phenoms as Kevin Durant and LeBron James. Amid all the excellence, however, it’s somehow comforting to learn that basketball as we know it began more than 100 years ago with a bunch of bored teens at a drafty YMCA. Basketball kept them well occupied and has been a slam dunk ever since.

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James Naismith  (1861–1939 | Canadian teacher, physician)
to  Duck on a Rock

As the story goes, James Naismith created basketball while fondly remembering childhood games of “duck on a rock” played in his native Canada. In this complicated contest, players throw small stones in attempts to dislodge a rock (the “duck”) that is perched on a larger rock. Once a player successfully knocks the duck off the rock, the others rush forward to retrieve their stones and return to the throwing line before the “guard” player can tag them. The guard, in turn, has to replace the duck atop the rock before tagging the other players. And who knows? If history had taken a different turn, or if Naismith had stayed closer to his source for inspiration, today’s sports fans might be watching national duck on a rock playoffs. How amusing it is to think of millions of television viewers cheering and cursing as gangly, highly paid, baggy-shorts-wearing athletes lob stones with finely honed precision! But it’s downright chilling to imagine what might have been if another basketball-like game, played by the Olmecs and Aztecs, had survived the centuries. Before resorting to rubber balls, these ancient Mesoamerican cultures allegedly used the skulls of conquered foes.

James Naismith  (1861–1939 | Canadian teacher, physician)
to  YMCA  (international youth organization | est. 1844)

James Naismith came up with basketball to keep students at the YMCA training school in Springfield, Massachusetts, active and entertained when winter weather prevented outdoor sports. He later commented, “The invention of basketball was not an accident. It was developed to meet a need. Those boys simply would not play ‘drop the handkerchief.’” (Since that game can involve chasing players around and kissing them, Naismith’s instincts were probably correct.) He had already failed to interest the guys in indoor lacrosse and football, plus some other games of his own invention, including hylo ball and scruggy ball. Ready to throw in the towel, on December 21, 1891, Naismith nailed two peach crates to balconies at either end of the gymnasium and watched apprehensively as his charges filed in. “I felt this was a crucial moment in my life as it meant success or failure of my attempt to hold the interest of the class and devise a new game,” he wrote. He needn’t have worried. As Naismith’s students went on to work at YMCAs across the U.S., basketball’s popularity spread. College teams were playing one another by 1893, and by 1898 six professional squads inaugurated the National Basket Ball League.

1936 Summer Olympics  (Berlin)
to  YMCA  (international youth organization | est. 1844)

The 1936 Olympic Summer Games in Berlin were as fraught with political strife as with athletic competition. Many U.S. groups, including the American Jewish Congress and the Jewish Labor Committee, called for a boycott of the Games to protest Nazism and its racist policies. The head of the American Olympic Committee, former track star Avery Brundage, who would later serve as president of the International Olympic Committee, voiced some remarkably shortsighted, wrongheaded views. He claimed that Jewish athletes were being treated fairly in Germany, that Americans should not become involved in the “Jewish-Nazi altercation” and that a “Jewish-Communist conspiracy” was trying to keep the United States out of the Olympics.

YMCA spokesman Frank Bayley also strongly favored sending a U.S. team to the Berlin Olympics, but for entirely different reasons: He saw the event as a vehicle to promote the interfaith, interracial and international understanding his organization espoused. “Hitlerism is a total negation of all the American ideals of free press, freedom of religion, freedom from tyranny and freedom of education,” he said. “In Nazi Germany today, the child is the chattel of the State.”

1936 Summer Olympics  (Berlin)
to  James Naismith  (1861–1939 | Canadian teacher, physician)

The 1936 Summer Olympics could have been James Naismith’s finest hour. Basketball, his invention, was an Olympic sport for the first time, and the 74-year-old sailed to Germany with the U.S. team to flaunt the game on a world stage. German organizers, it seemed, did not share his enthusiasm. Not only did they decline to honor Naismith with a ceremony, they failed to issue him game tickets. In last-minute arrangements, Naismith attended the opening of the basketball competition, watching proudly as the members of 21 nations’ basketball teams passed by. But the mishaps continued. Unfamiliar with the game, Olympic organizers had arranged for matches to be played outdoors on a clay court. As a U.S. player said, “The Nazi mentality, which was supposed to be the apotheosis of detail and organization, had certainly misfired. Why hadn’t the Master Organizers bothered to find out basketball was an indoor game?” The final contest was literally a washout, as a downpour turned the court into a muddy lake. Another player observed, “It was almost like watching a water polo game.” Team USA, however, won the match and took the gold medal—one of 24 golds U.S. athletes brought home that year.

1936 Summer Olympics  (Berlin)
to  Dream Team  (American national basketball squad | 1992)

The 1936 Summer Olympics are remembered for the grandiosity of Berlin’s arenas, the elaborate propaganda highlighting Aryan superiority, and the sweeping victories of Jesse Owens, one of 18 African American competitors whom Hitler had originally banned from the Games along with Jewish athletes. Only sports cognoscenti, however, likely remember that year’s U.S. basketball squad, the very first. Seven were from Kansas—unheralded amateur players who worked at the Globe Refinery in McPherson and played for the semipro Globe Refiners.

Half a century later, in 1992, U.S. Olympic basketball players were household names. That year’s Summer Games, held in Barcelona, also marked a first; the U.S. Olympic hoops team now included professional players, something other countries had been doing for years. The squad was the finest ever assembled: Michael Jordan, Earvin “Magic” Johnson, Larry Bird, Charles Barkley, Karl Malone, Scottie Pippen, Chris Mullin, Patrick Ewing, Clyde Drexler, David Robinson, John Stockton and Christian Laettner. Most are now in the sport’s Hall of Fame as some of the all-time greats. They swept up the gold medal and—like their 1936 predecessors, who introduced basketball to the world—showed a global audience just how incredible the game could be.

Julius Erving  (b. 1950 | American basketball player)
to  Original Celtics  (American basketball team | 1918–1926)

Julius Erving, a.k.a. Dr. J, played 800 games in the 1970s and ’80s, averaging 22 points each. His ball-handling wizardry and personal style on the court delighted fans, not unlike the way the Original Celtics had earlier in the 20th century, when they brought national attention to professional basketball. Formed as the New York Celtics just before World War I, the team crossed the country from 1922 to 1923 on a barnstorming tour, winning 193 of 205 games.

Erving is best known for his speed and offensive agility, while the Original Celtics emphasized an aggressive zone defense. Yet some early Celtics stars would have given Dr. J a run for his money. Forward Johnny Beckman was nicknamed the “Babe Ruth of basketball” because of his spectacular shooting, and Henry “Dutch” Denhert is credited with refining the pivot shot, a one-handed lob made while swiveling on one foot. A later master of this technique, superstar Kareem Abdul-Jabbar became famous for bending his body like a straw to execute a “skyhook.” Such athletic prowess has steadily increased basketball’s worldwide popularity. Today the NBA has more Facebook followers than American professional football, baseball and ice hockey leagues combined.

Julius Erving  (b. 1950 | American basketball player)
to  James Naismith  (1861–1939 | Canadian teacher, physician)

James Naismith correctly theorized that taller players have a distinct advantage when it comes to getting the ball in the basket. Naismith experimented with a body stretcher of his own design, hoping to produce future generations of towering basketball players; he determined that “stretching the body 30 minutes a day for six months [would] lengthen [it by] two inches.” Somehow the device, most effective on infants between five and 12 months of age, never caught on the way basketball did. Naismith would no doubt relish watching Oklahoma City Thunder center Hasheem Thabeet, who, at seven-foot-three, is currently the NBA’s tallest player.

Even at a measly six-foot-seven, Julius Erving proved Naismith’s point in the 1970s, when he perfected midair spins ending with powerful slam dunks. Watching Erving glide down the court and place the ball in the hoop with an underhand scoop, Los Angeles Laker Magic Johnson observed, “My mouth just dropped open. He actually did that.” Fans felt the same way, and in a career that included championship seasons with the New York Nets and the Philadelphia 76ers, Erving won four Most Valuable Player awards and was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.