The seed that became modern basketball was famously planted by Dr. James Naismith, a Canadian physician, at a YMCA in Springfield, Massachusetts 128 years ago. There were no backboards, dribbling had yet to be invented, and the three-pointer would not be universally adopted for nearly a century.
Today, as the NBA prepares for its 74th season, basketball is nearly unrecognizable from the sport conceived with a peach basket and 13 simple rules. Even the name has graduated from its hyphenated form: ‘Basket-ball.’
Much of that transformation occurred in New York, where basketball moved from tiny high school gymnasiums and the city’s much-celebrated playgrounds to the sport’s so-called mecca, Madison Square Garden. (The modern MSG is actually the fourth incarnation of the arena)
To illustrate that evolution, the city cataloged a series of photographs from the late 19th and early 20th centuries depicting everything from New York’s first intramural teams to the introduction of the backboard.
The collection includes early scholastic publications marketing the sport as both good physical and team-building exercises. And while it predates many local legends, such as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Connie Hawkins, the catalog does offer a glimpse into New York’s early romance with what many consider to be America’s first home-grown sport.
In this archived photo from May of 1917, the Manhattan Bridge can be seen with a makeshift court at its base on Cherry Street
Soldiers at a mobilization camp play basketball without a backboard ahead of the Spanish-American War in 1896
In this 1938 photograph, young Manhattanites can be seen playing basketball at the corner of 68th Street and 1st Avenue
After all, both baseball (likely derived from cricket) and football (similar to rugby) trace their roots back to Europe. (Lacrosse, meanwhile, predates the formation of the United States and was played by Native Americans as early as the year 1100 AD)
But what really set basketball apart – particularly in a place like New York’s vast melting pot – was its accessibility.
Like baseball’s metropolitan cousin, stickball, basketball could easily be played on the street. And since it wasn’t as brutal as football or boxing, both of which were seen as unladylike, basketball could be played by anyone, male or female.
Perhaps the biggest difference between basketball and the most popular sports of the day was that it required a new level of team work.
Boxing is obviously an individual sport, and while baseball is technically played by two squads, the action begins with a one-on-one matchup between the pitcher and batter.
Where’s the whistle? An issue of the High School Bulletin in 1891 used pictures to teach passing to new players, although this particular photo could also be used to help referees identify a reach-in or over-the-back foul on the defense
Even football, with its heavily regimented individual assignments, lacked the instinctual teamwork required by basketball.
And given the need for five players to share one ball, physical educators saw basketball as a way to teach collaboration in a strenuous, high-energy environment.
‘Basket Ball is an excellent exercise,’ read a city report on the vacation schools and play grounds, 1899, which is cited in the New York City archives. ‘It develops nearly every muscle of the body, and especially the lungs and the heart. It gives training in quickness of thought and execution and in the coordination of muscles.
‘Try to have regular teams which play together every day,’ it continues. ‘Encourage each member of the team to play for the success of the whole, not to make star plays for himself. Praise every tendency of a boy to sacrifice himself for the good of his team. Show them that this is the only way to succeed. If you can develop this spirit, you have the foundation for co-operation, politeness and morals alike….’
Initially basketball was adopted by missionaries, the YMCA, and soldiers, many of whom were preparing for the Spanish-American War in 1898.
That same year, as detailed in New York Board of Education records, Brooklyn’s famed Boys High School began offering ‘basket-ball’ as part of its menu of team sports.
‘On Friday evening, 16, April, the Boy’s high school basket ball team played the Mixed high school team, at Dr. Savage’s gymnasium,’ read the April 26, 1898 issue of the High School Bulletin. ‘The presence of a large number of interested spectators from both schools, including several teaches, stimulated the players on both sides to their best efforts, the result being an excellent game.’
A Boys High School Bulletin in 1898 shows a picture of the Boys High School (Brooklyn) five-man basketball team. Years later, future NBA Hall of Famer Connie Hawkins would play at the school before moving on to play in both the ABA and NBA
After inventing basketball with a peach basket and 13 rules at a YMCA in Springfield, Massachusetts, Dr. James Naismith went on to teach and coach at the University of Kansas. (Right) Naismith is seen tossing the tip-off for two co-eds
The game’s spelling was disputed for its first few years of existence. Ultimately ‘basket ball’ and ‘basket-ball’ were forgotten
In this picture from 1899, boys can be seen playing basketball (or ‘basket ball) on a rooftop
An early (and unusually wide) backboard can be seen in this photograph from a Manhattan gym in 1908
The High School Bulletin became one of the earliest sources on all things basketball
The High School Bulletin made directions that now seem obvious, such as: ‘The referee shall call a foul by blowing a whistle’
In this 1930 picture from the Department of Public Charities Collection, a group of boys can be seen playing on Randall Island
In a later edition of the Bulletin, basketball was described as a safe alternative to football, which was dealing with its first concussion crisis at the time.
‘The [Boys’ High School] basket-ball team is the only senior team which has done anything to distinguish the school,’ read the June 1, 1898 Bulletin. ‘This team, however, took part in a series of exceedingly good games at Dr. Savage’s gymnasium, many of which were won by our school. The popularity of the game is due to the fact that it affords the same amount of excitement as football, without any of the brutal elements of that game.’
The YMCA offered ‘basket ball’ classes for students in 1899
By the following year, boys schools and co-ed institutions formed the Metropolitan Athletic League, while several girls schools also discovered the new sport.
A High School Bulletin from December of 1899 described a game between Manual Training High and Adelphia Academy – and credited the latter for playing like their male counterparts.
‘In point of size and weight, the advantage was decidedly with the Manual team, but the accurate passing and superior team play of the Adelphians quite offset this, the result being a very close an exciting contest,’ read the excerpt.
‘In the matter of roughness, there was a marked difference between this game and that played a couple of weeks ago…It is said, however, that the Adelphi girls are accustomed to practice with the boys, a fact which naturally accounts for their rougher style of play.’
Manual ultimately won, 6-4, which is the kind of laughably low score that could have only existed before the innovation of the shot clock.
In fact, Manual Training High School went on to become New York’s dominant girls basketball team, cruising to the 1900 championship with a 6-0 record, largely because coach William Powell was so demanding. According to one quote obtained by the New York City archives, there was, ‘no fooling, no coddling, no babyishness.’
But even if basketball offered some level of gender equality, girls teams were still saddled with cumbersome, impractical uniforms.
In 1900, before dribbling was invented, players with the ball were not permitted to move. Shooting styles varied at the time, but the underhand motion survived until the 1970s, when Wilt Chamberlain and Rick Barry used it for free throw shooting.
A 1900 article in the Bulletin argued that basketball’s rules gave the game ‘value in moral as well as in physical training’
‘The Jersey City girls created something of a sensation as they marched on the floor of the gymnasium, clad in bloomer costume, with sailor blouses, red trimmings, black stockings and black shoes, but even the staid Flushing folk said they were decidedly neat,’ read a Bulletin article from January, 1900. ‘The Flushing girls wore white shirt waists and cloth bicycle skirts to the ankles.’
By 1916, basketball was played at 125 local schools as part of inter-class competitions, according to the New York City archives.
That number would grow quickly.
Soon thousands of local schools carried boys and girls basketball teams, producing the likes of longtime Boston Celtics coach Red Auerbach (Brooklyn), New York Knicks forward Richie Guerin (the Bronx), and legendary Marquette coach Al McGuire (Queens).
It wasn’t just schools that played. In this 1920 photo from Kings County Hospital, the nurse’s basketball team can be seen
In this picture from March of 1922, a local girls basketball can be seen standing with coaches on a Manhattan rooftop
Basketball wasn’t as brutal as football, which was seen as unladylike, so it could be played by anyone, male or female
This picture from 1922 shows one girls high school team at the Municipal Building, located in downtown Manhattan
But even if basketball offered some level of gender equality, girls teams were still saddled with cumbersome, impractical uniforms: ‘The Jersey City girls created something of a sensation as they marched on the floor of the gymnasium, clad in bloomer costume, with sailor blouses, red trimmings, black stockings and black shoes, but even the staid Flushing folk said they were decidedly neat. The Flushing girls wore white shirt waists and cloth bicycle skirts to the ankles’ – The Bulletin, 1900
This photo from March of 1945 shows a girls team that competed in a tournament at the McCarren Park Playground
Over the decades to come, New York became a haven for top college basketball players at schools like St. John’s, NYU, and the City College of New York (CCNY), all three of which have reached a pair of NCAA Final Fours.
Ultimately CCNY was caught in a gambling scandal in 1951 before dropping down to Division III.
That program was followed by NYU’s in 1971, by which point the Violets were struggling to stay competitive.
Thankfully for New Yorkers, it was at this time that the hometown Knicks were ascending to the top of the NBA, winning titles in 1970 and 1973 with the help of guard Walt ‘Clyde’ Frazier and center Willis Reed under the guidance of coach Red Holzman, a Brooklyn native.
The ABA’s New Jersey Nets would follow, winning titles of their own in 1974 and 1976 with Julius Erving (Dr. J), before merging into the NBA in 1976-77.
Over the last 25 years the Knicks and Nets have had varying degrees of success, both dropping a pair of NBA Finals series before the latter moved from Newark to Brooklyn in 2012.
In addition to a pair of NBA teams, the city also boasts the WNBA’s New York Liberty and hosts an array of top-level college basketball events such as the Big East Tournament.
Children play basketball in a Catholic Youth Organization (CYO) game in 1942
The playground at Abraham Lincoln High School in Coney Island, seen in 1941. Years later, the school would produce NBA players such as Stephon Marbury, Sebastian Telfair, and Lance Stephenson as well as legendary NBA announcer Marv Albert
New York’s police athletic league has been a major influence on basketball in New York. This picture from 1939 depicts police playing a game at the Metropolitan Life Insurance gym
A boys team pictured in 1945 at the Betsy Head courts in the East Flatbush neighborhood in Brooklyn
However, New York’s proud high school tradition has noticeably suffered in recent years.
‘I firmly believe that there are more top players developed in Toronto than in New York City,’ legendary St. Anthony High School (Jersey City) coach Bob Hurley Sr. told The Wall Street Journal in 2015.
The city city currently claims fewer than 10 active NBA players from a talent pool that has historically included the likes of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bernard King, Dolph Schayes, Connie Hawkins, Kenny Anderson, Chris Mullin, Lenny Wilkens, Bob Cousy, Tiny Archibald, Lamar Odom, Billy Cunningham, Stephon Marbury, Ron Artest (Metta World Peace), Rod Strickland, Vinnie ‘The Microwave’ Johnson, and Sam Perkins, not to mention women’s basketball legends like Sue Bird, Chamique Holdsclaw, and Nancy Lieberman. (Michael Jordan and Carmelo Anthony were both born in Brooklyn but moved away as young children)
The New York Knicks first began playing in the third incarnation of Madison Square Garden (pictured)
Nowadays the Knicks play at the fourth Madison Square Garden, which was finished in 1968
Julius Randle, the Knicks’ highly publicized free agent acquisition, is seen going up for a dunk at Madison Square Garden
But even with diminishing success at the high school level, local college teams struggling to keep pace with NCAA elites like Duke and Kentucky, and the Knicks’ decade-long slide, the sport remains part of the city’s DNA.
Currently New York claims 541 public basketball courts over the five boroughs, not to mention countless high school, intramural, youth, and adult league teams. The Catholic High School Athletic Association (CHSAA) still stands as one of the most competitive high school conferences in the country, and those famous playgrounds such as Rucker Park and ‘The Cage’ at West Fourth Street remain near-holy sites for basketball enthusiasts.
The sport was invented in Springfield and has since traveled around the world, but to many, New York will always be the home of basketball – first homegrown game of the United States.
New York became a haven for top college players at schools like St. John’s, NYU, and the City College of New York (CCNY). Ultimately CCNY (pictured) was caught in a gambling scandal in 1951 before dropping down to Division III. That program was followed by NYU’s in 1971, by which point the Violets were struggling to stay competitive
New York’s famous playgrounds such as Rucker Park (right) and ‘The Cage’ (below) remain holy sites for basketball fans
Harlem’s Rucker Park has been graced by many basketball legends, such as Julius Erving and even Kobe Bryant