Naismith Invents Basketball Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Basketball, invented by James Naismith, is a traditionally American game first played as an indoor sport in YMCA gymnasiums during winter months. The game was quickly embraced, and it spread rapidly throughout the world to become not only a playground and school sport but also an Olympic and professional sport.

Summary of Event

Basketball, a traditionally American game that has achieved international popularity, was invented in 1891 by James Naismith while he was a student at a training school (now Springfield College) for leaders of the Young Men’s Christian Association Young Men’s Christian Association[Young Mens Christian Association];and basketball[Basketball] (YMCA). Luther Gulick, the school’s dean, asked Naismith and fellow student Amos Alonzo Stagg to form a football team. Stagg became the captain and Naismith played center. Naismith, James Basketball Gulick, Luther Halsey Stagg, Amos Alonzo [kw]Naismith Invents Basketball (1891) [kw]Invents Basketball, Naismith (1891) [kw]Basketball, Naismith Invents (1891) Naismith, James Basketball Gulick, Luther Halsey Stagg, Amos Alonzo [g]United States;1891: Naismith Invents Basketball[5740] [c]Sports;1891: Naismith Invents Basketball[5740] [c]Organizations and institutions;1891: Naismith Invents Basketball[5740] Mahan, Frank

Football and baseball were popular with the students, who were also YMCA directors, but they were unhappy with the indoor gymnastics classes that they taught during the winter months. The marching drills, Indian-club and medicine-ball routines, and calisthenics did not appeal to them. Gulick called upon Naismith to find an alternative training system and sent him to Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, to study Baron Nils Posse’s Swedish gymnastics system. The Swedish system, however, was found to be no more helpful than the German and French systems. Naismith suggested inventing a new sport.

Naismith tried to adapt soccer, lacrosse, and rugby to indoor play, but he had no luck. He imagined using a large ball that would be advanced not by running, which would involve tackling, but by passing. He solved the problem of scoring when he created a goal by adapting a childhood game called Duck on the Rock, which involved lobbing small stones onto a large rock and knocking off the rocks of the opposition. He then assumed that if he placed the goal on the floor, players would be able to surround it and thus prevent scoring entirely. Placing the goal over the players’ heads solved the problem. He secured peach baskets (fifteen inches in diameter) that he got from the school’s janitor and raised them ten feet above the floor; he used a soccer ball as the first basketball. He also substituted the center jump for the rugby scrimmage to put the ball in play.

Naismith’s thirteen original rules, which included fouls, goals, and out-of-bounds penalties, were posted on the bulletin board at the Armory Street YMCA gymnasium. He later tried the game with his class, dividing the eighteen players into two teams, one captained by Eugene Libby of Redlands, California, the other by Duncan Patton of Canada, two men who had been playing Naismith’s other games for two weeks. Each team had a goalkeeper, two guards, three center men, two wings, and a home man or goal thrower (three centers, three forwards, and three guards).

Acting as the sole official in the game, Naismith threw the ball up between a center from each team, and play began. As Naismith later acknowledged, there were many fouls at first, probably because the players were accustomed to the roughness of football. Initially, all the players tried to score, but eventually there was some semblance of teamwork as players learned that those closest to the basket had a better chance of scoring. In that first classroom game, played on a very small court (approximately thirty by fifty feet) and with only imaginary boundary lines, only one goal was scored, a shot by William R. Chase of New Bedford, Massachusetts, from midcourt. Afterward, a player had to climb a ladder to retrieve the ball from the peach basket, prompting Naismith to think of a better way for the ball’s return to the court.

Naismith’s students went home for Christmas break and took the game with them; it became popular immediately. When Frank Mahan Mahan, Frank returned to Springfield, he met with Naismith to discuss what to call the game. Mahan first suggested “Naismith ball,” but Naismith objected; then he suggested “basketball,” and Naismith agreed. The thirteen rules and Naismith’s instructions were printed January 15, 1892, in the Triangle, the school newspaper, which had national distribution. Naismith’s nine-man team, called the Flying Circus and captained by Mahan, became the first basketball team in history.

By April, The New York Times New York Times;on basketball[Basketball] was covering the sport, which was played primarily at YMCAs. On February 12 and March 15, the Central and Armory branches of the New York YMCA played each other, but the most important public game was played March 11, 1892, at the International YMCA Training School in Springfield. Naismith, Gulick, Stagg, and four others played against seven students. (Naismith had said that the game could be played by any number of players.) Naismith’s team lost, 5-1. The only faculty member to score was Stagg, whose aggressive play earned him a black eye. In 1896, Stagg also appeared in a game between a YMCA team made up of University of Iowa students and another of University of Chicago students. That same year Yale Yale University;basketball University organized the first regular college games, playing Trinity, Wesleyan, and the University of Pennsylvania.

Because the YMCA was an international movement, the game spread to more than one dozen countries by 1900. Naismith went to the University of Kansas to coach basketball, and Gulick helped modify the rules and publicize basketball internationally. By 1900, American soldiers had played basketball in the Philippines and in China.


Basketball became to the winter season what baseball and football were to the rest of the year. Whereas ice hockey was established in some parts of the north, there was no national winter sport in the United States until the creation of basketball. Naismith invented the game, and Gulick popularized it through his involvement with the YMCA. Within just a few short years, however, the game was too big for one individual to administer.

In 1896, control of the game passed to the Amateur Athletic Union of America Amateur Athletic Union of America , and in 1908 the National Collegiate Athletic Association National Collegiate Athletic Association Olympic Games;basketball in (NCAA) determined college rules for the sport. During the twentieth century basketball became an Olympic sport (baseball gained Olympic status late in the twentieth century, and American football has remained an American sport), and it is played professionally around the globe. U.S. Olympic basketball teams traditionally were made up of college players who brought home many gold medals, until other countries became competitive in the sport. When Olympic teams were allowed to use professional players during the early 1990’s, the U.S. squad was nicknamed the Dream Team and won international fame. Over the next decade, basketball won greater popularity around the world, and during the early twenty-first century, other nations began to challenge American dominance in the sport.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bjarkman, Peter C. The Biographical History of Basketball. Chicago: Masters Press, 2000. Acknowledges Naismith as the founder of basketball but points out that Naismith saw basketball as essentially a way to provide off-season exercise for his football players. Notes that only about six of Naismith’s original thirteen rules are still in effect.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cosentino, Frank. Almonte’s Brothers of the Wind: R. Tait McKenzie and James Naismith. Burnstown, Canada: General Store Publishing House, 1996. Ties the careers of the two men together in terms of physical education and health.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fox, Larry. Illustrated History of Basketball. New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1974. Fox’s first three chapters cover Naismith’s invention of basketball and the game’s rapid increase in popularity.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Naismith, James. Basketball: Its Origin and Development. New York: Association Press, 1941. The game’s inventor discusses how the game changed since its inception.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Peterson, Robert W. Cages to Jump Shots: Pro Basketball’s Early Years. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2002. Peterson explores the earliest years of basketball, from its inception in 1891 to 1954. Also looks at how the sport and the makeup of teams have been affected by social trends.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Webb, Bernice Larson. The Basketball Man: James Naismith. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1973. Biography of Naismith that explores the game’s origins.

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Related Article in <i>Great Lives from History: The Nineteenth Century, 1801-1900</i>

William Gilbert Grace. Naismith, James Basketball Gulick, Luther Halsey Stagg, Amos Alonzo

Categories: History