Here's the history of basketball—from peach baskets in Springfield to global phenomenon

The first game used baskets as hoops and turned into a brawl. Soon after, basketball evolved into a pillar of American sports.

The nets used by athletes to dunk the ball and score points in the beloved game of basketball evolved from peaches, or rather the baskets used to collect peaches.

That’s what a young athletic director ultimately used on a cold day back in 1891 for a new game he created to keep his students engaged. 

James Naismith was a 31-year old graduate student teaching physical education at the International YMCA Training School, now known as Springfield College, in Springfield, Massachusetts when students were forced to stay indoors for days due to a New England storm.  The usual winter athletic activities were marching, calisthenics, and apparatus work but they weren’t nearly as thrilling as football or lacrosse which were played during the warmer seasons. 

Naismith wanted to create a game that would be simple to understand but complex enough to be interesting. The game had to be playable indoors, and it had to accommodate several players at once. The game also needed to provide plenty of exercise for the students, yet without the physicality of football, soccer, or rugby since those would threaten more severe injuries if played in a confined space. (See 100 years of football in pictures.)

Naismith approached the school janitor, hoping he could find two square boxes to use for goals. When the janitor came back from his search, he had two peach baskets instead. Naismith nailed the peach baskets to the lower rail of the gymnasium balcony, one on each side. The height of that lower balcony rail happened to be 10 feet. The students would play on teams to try to get the ball into their team’s basket.  A person was stationed at each end of the balcony to retrieve the ball from the basket and put it back into play.

The first game ever played between students was a complete brawl.

“The boys began tackling, kicking and punching in the crunches, they ended up in a free for all in the middle of the gym floor before I could pull them apart,” Naismith said during a January 1939 radio program on WOR in New York City called We the People, his only known recording. “One boy was knocked out. Several of them had black eyes and one had a dislocated shoulder.” Naismith said. “After that first match, I was afraid they'd kill each other, but they kept nagging me to let them play again so I made up some more rules.”

The humble beginnings of the only professional sport to originate in the United States laid the foundation for today’s multi-billion-dollar business. The current National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) March Madness college basketball tournament includes the best 68 of more than 1,000 college teams, stadiums that seat tens of thousands of spectators and lucrative television contracts.

Original rules of the game

Naismith didn’t create all of the rules at once, but continued to modify them into what are now known as the original 13 rules. Some are still part of the modern game today.  Naismith’s original rules of the game sold at auction in 2010 for $4.3 million.

In the original rules: The ball could be thrown in any direction with one or both hands, never a fist.  A player could not run with the ball but had to throw it from the spot where it was caught. Players were not allowed to push, trip or strike their opponents. The first infringement was considered a foul. A second foul would disqualify a player until the next goal was made. But if there was evidence that a player intended to injure an opponent, the player would be disqualified for the whole game.

Umpires served as judges for the game, made note of fouls and had the power to disqualify players. They decided when the ball was in bounds, to which side it belonged, and managed the time. Umpires decided when a goal had been made and kept track of the goals.

If a team made three consecutive fouls, the opposing team would be allowed a goal.

A goal was made when the ball was thrown or batted from the grounds into the basket and stayed there. If the ball rested on the edges, and the opponent moved the basket, it would count as a goal. When the ball went out of bounds, it was thrown into the field of play by the person first touching it. The person throwing the ball was allowed five seconds; if he held it longer, the ball would go to the opponent. In case of a dispute, an umpire would throw the ball straight into the field. If any side persisted in delaying the game, the umpire would call a foul on that side.

The length of a game was two 15-minute halves, with five minutes' rest between.  The team making the most goals within the allotted time was declared the winner. If a game was tied, it could be continued until another goal was made.

First public games

The first public game of basketball was played in a YMCA gymnasium and was recorded by the Springfield Republican on March 12th, 1892. The instructors played against the students. Around 200 spectators attended to discover this new sport they had never heard of or seen before. In the story published by the Republican, the teachers were credited with “agility” but the student’s “science” is what led them to defeat the teachers 5-1.

Within weeks the sport’s popularity grew rapidly. Students attending other schools introduced the game at their own YMCAs. The original rules were printed in a college magazine, which was mailed to YMCAs across the country. With the colleges’ well-represented international student body the sport also was introduced to many foreign nations. High schools began to introduce the new game, and by 1905, basketball was officially recognized as a permanent winter sport.

The first intercollegiate basketball game between two schools is disputed, according to the NCAA. In 1893, two school newspaper articles were published chronicling separate recordings of collegiate basketball games facing an opposing college team.

In 1892, less than a year after Naismith created the sport, Smith College gymnastics instructor Senda Berenson, introduced the game to women’s athletics. The first recorded intercollegiate game between women took place between Stanford University and University of California at Berkeley in 1896.

With the sport’s growth in popularity, it gained notice from the International Olympic Committee and was introduced at the 1904 Olympic Games in St. Louis as a demonstration event. It wasn’t until 1936 that basketball was recognized as a medal event. Women’s basketball wasn’t included as an Olympic medal event until the 1976 Montreal games. (Wheelchair basketball in Cambodia changed these women's lives.)

As the sport continued its rapid spread, professional leagues began to form across the United States. Basketball fans cheered on their new hometown teams. The first professional league was the National Basketball League (NBL) formed in 1898, comprised of six teams in the northeast. The league only lasted about five years. After it dissolved in 1904, the league would be reintroduced 33 years later in 1937 with an entirely new support system, with Goodyear, Firestone, and General Electric corporations as the league owners, and 13 teams.

While professional sports leagues gained nationwide attention, college basketball was also a major fixture. The first NCAA tournament, which included eight teams, was held in 1939 at Northwestern University.  The first collegiate basketball national champion was the University of Oregon. The team defeated Ohio State University.

Like most of the United States in the early to mid 1900s, basketball was segregated. The sport wouldn’t be integrated until 1950 when Chuck Cooper was drafted by the Boston Celtics. Prior to Cooper being drafted there were groups of black teams across the country, commonly known as “the black fives”, which referred to the five starting players on a basketball team.  All-black teams were often referred to as colored quints or Negro cagers.  The teams flourished in New York City, Washington, D.C., Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Chicago, and in other cities with substantial African American populations. They were amateur, semi-professional, and professional.

Of the more than 1,000 collegiate basketball teams across all divisions of the NCAA, 68 teams play in the annual March Madness tournament. The best college teams from each conference around the country compete for a place in the Sweet 16, Elite Eight, Final Four and, ultimately,  the national championship. Though basketball might not be played the same way as it was when Naismith invented it—peach baskets have been replaced with nets, metal hoops and plexiglass blackboards—its evolution proves that the game has transcended a century.

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