Arts and Leisure

How Basketball History (and Basketball) Was Made in Springfield, Mass., in 1891

If it weren’t for a bad case of cabin fever, basketball history would never have been made.

Nor, for that matter, would basketball.


The team that made basketball history, as the first ever. Dr. James Naismith wears the suit. Photo courtesy National Archives.

In the winter of 1891, James Naismith had a problem with his class of physical education students at the  Springfield, Mass., YMCA. The boys, sick of being cooped up inside, acted rowdy and on edge. Dr. Luther Gulick, Naismith’s boss, gave Naismith 14 days to come up with an indoor game.

Basketball History

Gulick gave Naismith four criteria: It couldn’t take up much space, it had to keep the athletes in shape, it had to be fair to everyone and not too rough.

The first basketball court

Basketball history: the 1st basketball court

Naismith, born in 1861 in Almonte, Ontario, remembered a game called Duck on a Rock from his youth. Children would try to knock a rock off a larger rock. Naismith chose a soccer ball instead of a rock and hung two peach baskets from the railing of the gallery 10 feet off the floor.

Players would lob the ball into the basket to score a point. Naismith wrote down 13 rules, tacked them onto the bulletin board and awaited the class’s arrival.

“The class did not show much enthusiasm,” he later wrote.

That was on Dec. 21, 1891. People have been playing basketball constantly ever since.

Naismith’s class produced the world’s first basketball team, made up of four Americans, four Englishmen and one Canadian.

The game spread rapidly throughout the YMCA system.

Smith College in nearby Northampton took up basketball in 1892, and within 10 years intercollegiate games were played along the East Coast. The rules changed since then: there are five players on each team, instead of nine; players can dribble the ball now when they could only pass it in Naismith’s day; the court is twice as big; and bottomless nets replaced the peach baskets so no one has to retrieve the ball.

Greener Pastures?

Naismith went on to Denver to earn a medical degree and then to Lawrence, Kans., to establish the University of Kansas’ men’s basketball program. Ironically, Naismith is the only Kansas basketball coach to have a losing record.

At the age of 74, Naismith went to the 1936 Summer Olympic games in Berlin to watch basketball played as an Olympic sport. He handed out the medals to the three winning teams: Gold to the U.S., silver to Canada and bronze to Mexico. Naismith died Nov. 28, 1939 in Kansas.

Smith College basketball, 1904

Smith College basketball, 1904

The Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield was named in his honor. The Springfield YMCA is now Springfield College.

This story about basketball history was updated in 2018.

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