Saturday, September 24, 2005

From Peaches Baskets to Basketball

In a time before radio broadcasts, televised games and marketing superstars, local enthusiasts would gather together in gymnasiums, local dance halls and homemade courts to play a rough and tumble game of basketball. Over the years, basketball has developed from an accepted pastime to one of the world's most popular sports.
The game's founder, James Naismith, was born in Almonte, Ontario in November 1861. An active child with an interest in physical education, Naismith graduated from McGill University with a degree in philosophy in 1887. He later pursued a second degree in religion at Montreal's Presbyterian College. In 1891, Naismith found himself in Springfield Massachusetts at the YMCA Training School teaching physical education.
Dr. Luthor Gulick, head of the physical education department, asked Naismith to invent a game that could be played inside, intended to distract the students during the winter. Naismith was instructed the game had to be easy to learn and played in teams. Gulick gave Naismith two weeks to come up with something.
Based upon a childhood game he used to play called "Duck on a rock," Naismith came up with 13 basic rules for his new game. According to an article in Maclean's"Naismith took a soccer ball and asked the school janitor, a Mr. Stebbins, to find him two small boxes to use as goals." As there were no boxes to be found, they improvised and used peach baskets instead. The baskets were nailed approximately three metres off the ground on either side of the gymnasium.The first game of basketball was played on December 1, 1891. Naismith organized the game so there were a total of 18 players - nine per side. He acted as the referee and the final score was 1-0. Basketball was an immediate success, and it spread by word of mouth across the country, sometimes to the detriment of other organized activities. Most of Naismith's original 13 rules are still a part of the game today.
Professional basketball appeared as early as 1896, when a team in Trenton, New Jersey charged admission to a game and then dispersed the profits between its players. The early games were framed by a 60 by 40 foot court enclosed by chicken wire to prevent the ball from ever being out of play. Players were often pushed into the wire, resulting in numerous bloody injuries along the way. After each point was scored there would be a centre jump, unlike present day games, where a jump ball is introduced at the beginning of the game and at the start of the second half.
Early basketball games had no limitations with respect to holding onto the ball during play. This meant that aggressive teams held the ball in the backcourt for seemingly never-ending periods of time. These stalling techniques were commonplace, and the foul became an important tool in gaining possession of the ball. Teams had specific players dedicated to making foul shots, which became integral to winning a game.
In the United States, the National League was formed in 1898, mostly to prevent less than honest promoters from exploiting players. In early league play, basketball players were not signed to specific contracts, so they could switch teams at whim, ensuring line-ups would change on a regular basis. Outfitted in long socks, sneakers, shorts and tank tops, the players would move from team to team according to pay scale. After only five seasons, the inaugural league folded.During the 1920s, the chicken wire was replaced by netting. Players would then use the nets to change the direction of play, changing the pace of the game entirely. Other innovations during this time period were "pivot play" (developed by the original Celtics) and man-to-man defense (because you'd never know who was going to be on your team). In 1925, the American Basketball League was founded. The league signed players to individual contracts, banned the chicken wire cage, made backboards mandatory and also adopted the college rule whereby two-handed dribbling was illegal.
Various other professional leagues appeared on the landscape before the National Basketball Association was formed for the 1949-1950 season. Two of the more important leagues were the National Basketball League (1937) and the Basketball Association of America (1946). The National Basketball League saw professional teams developed by specific corporate sponsors, in this case, Firestone and Goodyear. The Basketball Association of America was heavily influenced by the popularity of college ball, recruiting the top players from schools around the country and using primarily collegiate rules. The BAA also drew heavily upon the NHL for their structure and, in fact, of the 11 teams in the original league, five were directly connected to hockey teams.
The Toronto Huskies played against the New York Knicks in the BAA's first game November 1, 1946. Unfortunately, the Toronto franchise was not successful, ending up last in its division and folding after the first season. The rivalry between the two leagues was the main precursor to their merger in 1949. The National Basketball Association's first season started with 17 teams drawn from both leagues. Today, the league consists of two conferences with 29 teams comprised of talented players from all ends of the earth.


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