The birth of basketball was in 1891 in Springfield, Massachusetts, the brainchild of Canadian-born James Naismith. By the end of its first 25 years of existence, the sport had rapidly gained in popularity, not only in America but throughout the world.
However, seen in comparison to today, a game from that period would be described by a present-day observer as anywhere from amusing to boring.
Basketballs were made of brown leather panels sewn together over a rubber bladder. Unlike modern balls, they did not have pebbled surfaces and their slickness made them difficult to hold, control, or shoot. They also had a tendency to quickly lose their shape.
The basketball backboard, which was first used to prevent spectator interference, not as a shooting aid, was usually made of wood, metal, or even metal screening. The glass backboard was introduced in 1912, but not widely used until much later.
By 1910, open-ended nets were widely used for basketball goals, replacing the hammock-style ones which in turn had replaced actual wood baskets. The backboards and goals were usually mounted to balconies or directly on walls.
The game was played in small gyms which usually held 100 or fewer spectators. The courts themselves were much shorter and narrower than today’s standards.
On some courts to keep spectators from interfering with the action, chicken wire or ropes were used as barriers or “cages,” thus forming the origin of the term cagers to describe players.
The players in early basketball games rarely made better than 30% of their shots. Part of this inefficiency was due to the four basic shots used, all usually taken with feet planted firmly on the floor.
Many of the rules from the World War I era seem quaint and even silly today. These included:
A game was slow-paced and usually very low scoring. There were several reasons for this. There was no “ten second rule” for crossing mid-court or shot clock, so teams could, and did, play at a leisurely pace.
The large number of jump balls compared to today did much to interrupt the flow of play and the speed of the games. And, low scores were also the the result of the players’ poor shooting skills.
Most importantly though, the offensive philosophy of the times was centered more on “waiting for things to happen” rather than “making things happen.” This produced a game which was played at a much slower tempo.
Since most teams played man-to-man defense, offenses used screening and cutting off set plays. This placed emphasis on patience and on passing rather than dribbling. In fact, many coaches often considered dribbling as being “selfish” and a form of showboating. The players considered the most important were those with passing skills.
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