Hoop History: Basketball’s First Public Game

| March 18, 2013 | 1 Comments

Basketball's first game

March Madness is underway so we thought it was a good time to reflect on basketballs first publicly played game. Most serious NBA fans know the first game of basket ball (two words originally) was played on January 20th, 1892, but the first public game didn’t happened until March 11, 1892. On that date in Springfield, Massachusetts 200 curious fans elbowed their way into the Armory Hill YMCA to watch.

Okay, it’s probably too early to call them fans and it’s unknown if any elbows were thrown, but Springfield Republican wrote that 200 spectators did show up and “followed the game with interest and amusement.”

Details of the game to follow but first a little background on the events leading up to that first hardwood tussle at the Y.

In 1890, a Canadian physical education instructor, James Naismith, left his position at Montreal’s McGill University for a similar job at the International YMCA Training School in Springfield. In December of 1891, his boss challenged him to devise an indoor activity to keep his unruly students occupied during the cold, New England winter. He gave him 2 weeks to do it.

Naismith began by sketching out some of the conditions the new game would have to meet. His 18 students, mostly football and rugby players, would require something vigorous to keep them excited. It had to be relatively simple, so that anyone could play, but challenging enough to keep them interested. And it had to fit within the confines of a gym measuring 30 feet by 50 feet.

Naismith thought back to his childhood and a game he and his friends used to play, called duck-on-a-rock. It was a simple game whose goal was to knock a large rock off the top of a boulder by hitting it with smaller rocks, tossed from a distance. He then recalled his days as a student at McGill, when rugby players would warm up in the gym by tossing a ball into a box. It was his aha moment. Naismith asked the school janitor, “Pop” Stebbins, to nail a couple of boxes to the balcony that surrounded the gym, but all the janitor could come up with were a couple of peach baskets. The balcony happened to hang ten feet above the gym floor, so the baskets were hung at ten feet, the official basket height that’s still with us today.

Naismith drafted 13 rules for his new, “basket ball” game. The rules called for one point for a basket. There was no dribbling as we know it today and the ball could only be advanced through passing. Running with the ball was a foul.

On Dec. 21, 1891, he posted the rules on the gymnasium wall, gave a brief explanation to his skeptical students, and basketball’s first scrimmage was ready to begin. Naismith divided his 18 students into two teams of nine, and the men began scrambling around the court, passing a soccer ball back and forth, all the while, failing miserably to put the ball in the basket. William Chase, who would become the YMCA’s Executive Secretary, scored the first, and only bucket, from about 25 feet away. Sadly, it did not count as a three, and basketball’s first game ended with a 1-0 score.

The first publicly viewed game featured the YMCA Training School students competing against the faculty. The Springfield Republican’s report appeared on page 6 of the following day’s paper under the heading “Basket Football Game.” In his original notes, following the introductory December game, Naismith wrote, “tackling the man with the ball (though a foul) was not uncommon.” Though no tackling is mentioned, it might account for the article’s unusual heading.

Though the original game was played nine to a side, only seven players to a side were mentioned. Playing two, 15-minute halves, the students trounced their mentors, 5-1. Leading all scorers, (well, there were only 3), was Edwin Ruggles, hitting four of his squad’s five baskets. Finlay MacDonald, who “did a great deal of brilliant playing,” hit the fifth.

Amos Alonzo Stagg who also coached the Springfield College Football team scored the faculty’s lone point. Stagg apparently brought his football background to the game, according to the Springfield Republican Stagg’s  “football training hampered him, and he was perpetually making fouls by shoving his opponents.”  Stagg would go on to establish his own legacy as a great innovator in both football and basketball. Among his basketball innovations Stagg is credited with introducing the idea of the 5-player team. Stagg was ultimately inducted in both the College Football and Basketball Halls of Fame.

Like any good inventor, Naismith continued to tweak his invention. He quickly realized the ladder required to retrieve the ball after a basket was unnecessary. He had a small hole cut into the bottom of the baskets so that someone could stick a pole through and poke the ball out. It later occurred to him to do away with the bottom of the basket altogether.

We don’t know whose job it was to go up and down the ladder during that first game, but we’d like to imagine it was the janitor old “Pop” Stebbins. So this year, as you fill out your tourney brackets, remember to give a silent nod to Dr. Naismith, his students, Amos Alonzo Stagg, and especially “Pop” Stebbins, for helping give life to the great game of basketball.

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