From Recreation Management Magazine:
By Dave Ramont
The first YMCA in America opened in Boston in 1851—seven years after the organization’s founding in London—with one of their original tenets being physical fitness. In 1891, Canadian James Naismith went to Springfield, Mass., to become the physical education teacher at the YMCA International Training School there. That winter, his boss—Dr. Luther Gulick—tasked him with creating an indoor game to provide an athletic distraction for his rowdy class that was confined indoors due to the harsh winter. Gulick wanted to keep his track athletes in shape, and instructed Naismith to “make it fair for all players and not too rough.”
Naismith considered the popular games of the time—soccer, football, rugby, lacrosse, hockey and baseball. He decided a big, soft ball was safest, and that a focus on passing the ball would minimize physical contact. He also thought that making the goals un-guardable would reduce body contact. So he hung a peach basket at each end of the gym, about 10 feet off the floor. He christened his game “Basket Ball,” posted his original 13 basic rules on a bulletin board, and in December 1891 the first game was played, with a nine-versus-nine player format.
The first game featured a lot of punching, tackling and kicking—resulting in black eyes, a separated shoulder and one player being knocked unconscious. Naismith tweaked some of the rules—particularly that there could now be no running with the ball—which dramatically decreased the tackling and punching, making the sport much safer. Dribbling the ball wasn’t introduced until later.
By 1892 the game had become very popular on campus, and other Ys started to incorporate it, with the game being introduced internationally by the YMCA movement in 1893. The Trenton, N.J., YMCA team claimed to be National Champs in 1896 after beating other Y and college teams. That same year the Trenton team charged admission for a game at a Masonic Temple, keeping the proceeds and giving birth to professional basketball. Naismith took a job at the University of Kansas in 1898, starting a basketball program there. By the turn of the century, there were enough college teams in the East that the first official intercollegiate games could be played. Basketball was a demonstration sport at the 1904 Summer Olympics, and was officially introduced into the Olympic program at the 1936 Berlin games, with a 74-year old Naismith in attendance.
Kevin Washington, president and CEO of YMCA of the USA, believes that Dr. Naismith would be amazed at what his simple game has become 125 years later. “Thanks to his imagination, what started with two peach baskets has evolved into one of the most popular games in the world. The Y is proud to be part of basketball’s living legacy,” Washington said.
There are 2,700 YMCAs across the United States, with most locations still offering basketball and other sports programs in their gymnasiums.