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The Ancient History of Basketball

The Aztecs of Mexico, although not very tall, invented back in the 16th century a game very similar basketball today. They named their game ollamalitzli.  The game was played by trying to  put a solid rubber ball through a stone ring placed high at one end of the court.  Unlike today, they had no rules.   It was brutal.  You could kick, hit, gouge,  pull hair, trip, and anything else you can think of to your opponents. A score of one point won the game.

The winning team was rewarded by getting to take the clothes and jewelry right off the spectator's backs. (Duh? Why go to the game?)
The captain of the defeated team got it worse. His head was cut off.

Recently archaeologists  learnt about the Aztec games of ollamalitzli. But, James Naismith has always been considered the man who invented  modern, American basketball.  But,  at the time he did, he had never even heard of the Aztec's ollamalitzli version. 

James Naismith, was born in  Almonte, Ontario, Canada but is credited to be the inventor of Modern American Basketball as we know it today, with a much kinder and gentler version than the Aztec ollamalitzli  game. This is how it all began.

James Naismith  was a PE (Physical Education) instructor at the International YMCA Training School in Springfield, Mass.  Today that is Springfield College.  He was also the newest and youngest teacher there.  One very cold December day in 1891 he went to the school's gymnasium where he found two of his other PE teachers not too happy. It seems the school's president had TOLD them to come up with a game that students could play inside on cold days.  The teachers were not doing too well with coming up with something that was inside and physical (not like chess or something).

After the two other PE teachers left, James Naismith looked around an empty gym and pondered. Hmmm? His first idea was to set up goal posts at both ends of the gym.  He figured by using a rugby ball the kids could play sort of an indoor-type of football. But then he thought it would be too rough.  (Little did he know how rough ollamalitzli was!)

So then he thought of "boxball" where 2 wooden boxes could be nailed to both ends of the gym and they kids could toss a football to teammates who would then in turn try to toss the ball into the box.

However, the janitor said that he didn't have any wooden boxes, but he did have a couple of peach baskets they could use from the janitor's room.  Whatever, thought Naismith. So he nailed the baskets to each end of the gymnasium about 6 feet high from the ground.  Then he decided this would be too easy to score, so he raised them up to 10 feet, the height they are at today.  Naismith, testing out his game, took a few practice shots with the football into the peach baskets.

The problem was the egg-shape of the football wasn't too good. It bounced around too crazily to go into the basket. So Naismith decided that a soccer ball (lying in the corner of the gym room) would be better.  He gave it a shot. And is the man who scored the first basket in basketball.

The next day the kids in Naismith's PE class played the game. It was an instant hit.  Their were 18 kids in his class so he put 9 players on one team and 9 on the other. For many years the teams had 9 players.  Later on, however it got reduced to 7, then jumped to 8 and then down to 5 as it is today.

With all this wild playing, the peach baskets didn't hold up well and got smashed a lot. So metal cans were tried.  Then came metal rims with net-like bags of heavy cord attached.  During the first 10 years of the game, no one ever thought of opening the hole in the bottom of the basket so the ball could just fall out.  A successful shot was one that went in the basket (peach, trash or net). But, each time it did, *someone* had to climb up a ladder to get the ball out and back into the game.  This got annoying and slowed  down the game play a lot.

So sporting manufacturers started competing for the answer! They created a basket with a pull-down chain that temporarily opened to get the ball to fall out. Finally, finally in 1896 (5 years later from the games original creation) a player (no one knows his name) for a semi-pro team got fed up.  He took a pair of scissors and cut the bottom of the net basket out.  Now the ball could fall through and ladder-climbing was finished.

Another problem with basketball, just like today, was over zealous fans. They would literally use their hands, sticks, umbrellas to knock the opponents shots away from the baskets and push in their own teams balls.  To stop this, backboards got invented.  First they were wire mesh. But the enthusiastic fans simply managed to get the objects through the mesh holes.  So then plain wood was used. But that blocked the view. Then glass was used so spectators could see the action but not interfere anymore.

Early on Naismith said that players could not just run around with the ball helter-skelter. It would ruin the game. So he made that illegal.  He said the the ball could be advanced and passed to another player  only before a player bounced the ball as many times as he wanted. Soon the players started taking advantage of this bouncing while running rule and thus "dribbling" was started.

Another rule he created was that the ball couldn't be smashed or kicked with the fist.  And there was also to be no tackling, tripping, slapping or knocking down of other players.  If so, penalties were enforced.  And at first there were no free throws for fouling. Instead 3 fouls in a row by a team resulted in the other team being given one point.  The loophole was that the fouls all had to be consecutive for the other team to gain the point. And that the opposing team had no fouls of their own on record.

The idea of free throws came around 1893.  But the free throw was not shot by the person who was fouled.  Instead each team was allowed a "Specialist" in free throws to shoot.  This rule was eliminated in 1923 so that the player who was fouled upon had to make his own free throw shot to get the point.

Originally the free throw, as all other shots = 3 points.  But in 1896 the free throw points got reduced to 1 point and field goals were reduced to 2 points.  Years later the 3 point basket was back, but only for extra-long shots.

For almost 50 years there was always a "center jump" after each score. This got to be too disruptive and made the game well, jumpy and slowed down the action flow. So in 1938 the center jump was removed and the ball was allowed to be put back into play by the team that scored.

Today when the game is done, and if it is tie then the teams play as many as five-minute overtimes as needed until one team wins.  But in the original rules, Naismith wrote this: "In case of a draw the game may, by agreement of the captains, either be considered to be concluded or may be continued until one goal is made."

The history and origin of basketball is unique because it was the idea of just ONE person and not by a group or culture as with other sports.

James Naismith had 13 original rules.  Twelve of those rules still remain today!

James Naismith later went on to become an ordained Presbyterian Minister and a medical doctor.  He died at the age of 88, but remained a sports enthusiast and physical fitness nut all his life. He also had the pleasure of seeing his sport evolve into one of the most popular U.S. games we have today.

The sport of Basketball, just like other sports, each year creates more history, facts, data, stats.  And in some cases colorful characters, lawsuits, scandals etc.  It's impossible for me to basketball's thousands of years in one page.  But, here's a link to the NBA (National Basketball Association) for more current information.

What basketball shot was once illegal?

(Place your cursor over the dot)

Check out some other Sports Fun at our Main Entry Page.

Source: "When Human Heads were Footballs"
By Don L. Wulffson
Aladdin Paperbacks (Simon and Schuster) © 1998

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