The History Of The YMCA And Basketball

When the Village People sang about the YMCA, they told the “young man” to whom the song was addressed that they were “sure [he would] find many ways to have a good time.” Perhaps playing basketball was one of the ways they had in mind, since it’s thanks to the Young Men’s Christian Association that basketball exists at all, lauded as an essential element of sports culture. According to History, in December of 1891, a man named James Naismith wrote basketball’s original 13 rules as part of an assignment at the YMCA International Training School in Springfield, Massachusetts. (The rules are different in North Korea.)

Born in Canada, Naismith had come to Massachusetts to learn more about physical education and Christian ministry. His assignment was to create a game to be played in YMCAs across the country. 

Per World YMCA, Dr. Luther Halsey Gulick, director of the school’s athletic department, specified that the new game needed to be “interesting, easy to learn, and easy to play indoors in the winter.” Naismith considered the rules of other sports and decided that in order to avoid the tackling necessary in football, his game would prohibit players from running with the ball. He also concluded that scoring points had to be horizontal instead of vertical, so “players would be compelled to throw the ball in an arc; and force, which made for roughness, would be of no value.” Naismith also realized the goal had to be above players’ heads.

'An uproarious game'

 “If nine men formed a defense around the goal, it would be impossible for the ball to enter it; but if I placed the goal above the players’ heads, this type of defense would be useless,” he wrote.

The first games featured nine players attempting to throw a soccer ball into peach baskets nailed to balconies at the ends of the gym. No one thought to remove the bottoms of the baskets, necessitating a pause when a player actually made a basket so someone could climb up a ladder and retrieve the ball. The game was a success and soon attracted onlookers. According to Britannica, Senda Berenson, a physical education teacher at nearby Smith College, modified Naismith’s techniques and started the first women’s basketball team at Smith in 1892.

The game spread throughout YMCAs, to colleges, to the first professional league in 1898. Somehow, nets didn’t replace baskets until 1905. The early matches made one onlooker describe what the YMCA called “an uproarious game accompanied by much yelling and undignified cheering,” which can still be said about many basketball games today. Naismith eventually left Massachusetts for Colorado, where he became the physical education director for Denver’s YMCA. He eventually worked as an athletic coach and director at the University of Kansas. Naismith and his wife attended the 1936 Olympic games in Berlin, Germany, the first Olympics at which basketball was an official event. Naismith passed away three years later at the age of 78. 

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