Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from my masters thesis, “From the Triangle to the Cage: Basketball’s Contest Origins, 1891 – 1910”. You can read the full thesis here.

As he strolled into class on December 21, 1891, Frank Mahan noticed a peach basket hanging ten feet above the floor of the gymnasium. Craning his head, Mahan noticed a second peach basket at the opposite end. It was ten feet off the ground just like the other one. In the middle of the gym stood his instructor, James Naismith, with a soccer ball and thirteen rules to explain. Loudly, Mahan scoffed, “Huh! Another new game!”

All semester at the YMCA Training School there had been nothing but new games from these instructors. Each proved more disinteresting than the last to Mahan and his classmates. Now here it was in late December, almost time for Christmas break, and Naismith was trying yet another new game that promised failure like the others.

A. T. Halsted was the first physical educator who unsuccessfully tried new games that semester. Halsted “was an expert in marching and calisthenics” but the young men quickly bored of his regimens and had Halsted deposed as their instructor. Next in line was Dr. R. A. Clark, a master of gymnastics. He dropped the calisthenics and marching in favor of “apparatus work” and mixing in what athletic events could be held inside a small gymnasium during the winter. Still, the surly students opposed these unappealing exercises. Frustrated, Clark at a meeting of Training School instructors declared the class of young men “incorrigible” and that “no one could do anything with that group.” [1]

Naismith protested that assumption. The problem was not the group of students, but the activities given to them. Devising an indoor sport that appealed to their “play instinct” would resolve the issue. The group of assembled instructors thought quietly upon Naismith’s words for a moment. Then the Training School’s director, Luther Gulick, responded “Naismith, I want you to take that class and see what you can do with it.”

Thunderstruck, Naismith attempted to talk his way out of teaching the incorrigibles. Gulick, however, was unmoved. Referencing a prior conversation that occurred weeks before, Gulick simply told Naismith to “work on that new game that you said could be invented.”[2] Finally, after several failures, Naismith had hit upon a new game he was sure would work. Despite Mahan’s skepticism, which Naismith recalled as “rather discouraging,” the rules were explained. Two captains, Eugene Libby and T. D. Patton, divided the class of eighteen into two teams of nine and the churlish class was quickly won over by the new game.[3]

(LISTEN TO NAISMITH DESCRIBE THE FIRST GAME)

Enthralled, the incorrigibles soon became ardent missionaries spreading it to their home branches of the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) in Canada and the United States during their Christmas vacation in 1891. After the conclusion of their break, the students returned to the Training School for the spring semester. The once-cynical Mahan approached Naismith and asked him what he was going to call the game. Naismith had not given much thought to the matter. Mahan suggested calling the new game “Naismith Ball” after its inventor. Embarrassed, Naismith quickly rejected that notion. Mahan then proffered “basket ball” as a name. “We have a basket and a ball,” Naismith replied, “and it seems to me that would be a good name for it.”[4]

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Basketball, as its earliest proponents intended, was more than just a game. It was the embodiment of a worldview. The game exemplified sincere notions of morality from white middle-class Americans seeking firm control of American society. Examining the first two decades of basketball’s formal governance reveals that white middle-class reformers and advocates of physical education used the sport as a powerful tool constructing and maintaining proper race, gender, and class relations in a society they viewed as dangerously turbulent.

Pertaining to athletics, white middle-class notions of race, gender, and class meshed into the ideal of amateurism. Buttressed by the ideologies of the Triangle, muscular Christianity, and clean sport, amateurism provided a safe and respectable place for native-born, middle-class whites participating in athletics. Amateurism’s precepts eschewed, in theory, the increasing commercialization of sports enjoyed by more undesirable corners of society ruining the redemptive power of athletics.

Instead of using sport as a means toward all-around development that included spiritual and mental improvement, professionalism demanded athletes recklessly specialize in one area of life without moral regard. The lofty ideals of amateurism were always fraught with tension, however. In the process of combating professionalism for the attention of young people, the reformers often borrowed the tactics of professional sports – most notably competitive tournaments attracting crowds and fans. With professionalization already underway, the appropriation of pro tactics by amateur authorities only served to hasten the professionalization of basketball and inevitably complicate the amateur ideal.

Basketball’s invention during the winter of 1891 was another step in a larger, complex ideological struggle over physical education, sports, and American society. The students who first played the game were not teenagers, but young men in their twenties and thirties studying to be secretaries at branches of the YMCA. They were the frontline missionaries of the new theory of physical education sponsored by progressive reformers combatting the unseemly and reckless aspects of urbanization. As young middle-class men and women migrated to cities, reformers feared they were losing the invigorating vitality provided by pastoral lifestyles.

At the same time, urban life increased sinful habits in these young people as they encountered recent immigrants with suspect morality, gambling, prostitution, and other vices. The clean and Christian values of amateur sport offered an attractive alternative to violent sports like football and boxing, and the moral corruption of professionalized baseball. Indeed, basketball was quickly hailed as “free from much of the reputed roughness of Rugby.”[5] However, by 1910, all levels of the game – male and female, amateur and professional – witnessed escalating violence, which left purveyors of amateurism distraught over how basketball had been so corrupted so fast.

Few histories of sport and progressivism have singularly focused on the moral origins of basketball. Of these, “Play by the Rules: the Creation of Basketball and the Progressive Era, 1891 – 1917,”[6] is the best extant observation of basketball’s reformative purposes. What this study adds to “Play by the Rules” is greater focus upon the early work of the YMCA and Training School toward promoting and defining proper middle-class behavior and athleticism.

Additionally, the dichotomy of refined civilization (amateurism) and primal savagery (professionalism) is more explicitly observed and discussed. Explaining the initial hopes physical education reformers at the YMCA had for basketball, fortunately, proves relatively easy. Those in favor of clean amateur sport left behind an extensive trail of organizations engaged in numerous, explicit public debates on the meaning of sport for race, gender, and class relations. Explaining the rebellion against clean sport is more difficult. These purported malcontents did not leave behind many explicit statements and ideologies on why they professionalized or why they enjoyed playing rough. Nonetheless, they left residual evidence of their motivations such as riots, brawls, and quitting YMCAs that left quite the impression on reformers and newspapers that reported on the disturbances.

READ THE REST OF From the Triangle to the Cage: Basketball’s Contested Origins, 1891 – 1910

[1] James Naismith, Basketball: Its Origins and Development (1941; repr., Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1996), 32-35.

[2] Naismith, Basketball, 36-37.

[3] Rob Rains, James Naismith: The Man Who Invented Basketball, (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2009), 44-46.

[4] Naismith, Basketball, 58-60.

[5] James Naismith, “Basket Ball,” The Triangle 1, No. 10 (January 1892): 143-45.

[6] Marc Thomas Horger, “Play by the Rules: the Creation of Basketball and the Progressive Era, 1891 – 1917” (PhD diss., The Ohio State University, 2001).

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