Basketball in its early days was different from the game we know today. The rules, the equipment, the strategies, the playing styles, the court, the venues, and even the reasons for playing at all, evolved over time.

Basketball was spelled basket ball until well into the 1920s. It was legal for a player to pick up his or her dribble and then keep dribbling. Until 1915, it was illegal for a player to shoot the ball if they had already dribbled. Possession of a ball that went out of bounds was awarded to the team that got to it first.

Many early courts were enclosed in a wire mesh cage to protect spectators from players going after such loose balls, and to protect players from over-eager fans. That is why early hoopsters were often called cagers.


Y.M.C.A., Springfield, Mass., the birthplace of basketball
Postmarked Oct 5, 1911 | Postcard


George T. Hepbron | How To Play Basket Ball (Spalding’s Athletic Library) | New York: American Sports Publishing Co., 1904

In 1891, James Naismith, a physical education instructor, invented the game of basketball at the YMCA in Springfield, Massachusetts. The game soon spread around the world. It was first introduced to African Americans on a wide scale, organized basis in 1904, the year the first basketball how-to book was published by A.G. Spalding & Bros., then the leading supplier of athletic equipment.


Aristo Import Co., New York | The New All American Aristo Football and Basketball Stop Clock No. 135 with Time Out | Ca. 1920s
Metal, glass, plastic


Laced leather basketball | Ca. 1920s
Leather with rubber bladder interior

Closed-bottom basketball basket.

Advertisement for closed-bottom basketball basket | Ca. 1905

A typical early game included a timekeeper, one or two referees, a laced leather basketball, and closed-bottom baskets. After a made basket the referee used a broomstick or a drawstring to tip the hoop so that basketball could roll out. This meant each score required a jump ball at center court. Early basketballs had to be unlaced, inflated, re-laced, and then bounce tested again and again, until the air pressure was just right.


Basketball shoes, hand constructed | Ca. 1910s
Leather, canvas

Early basketball shoes were hand-stitched and included uppers made of kangaroo leather, considered the strongest yet softest and most flexible material available. Midsoles had not yet been introduced, and early basketball outsoles were of standard shoe leather. Later, basketball shoemakers combined leather with canvas, a textile that had similar performance qualities, and also introduced rubberized outsoles.

The Well Dressed Player

Johnson, P[ittsbur]gh. Pa. | Cumberland Posey, Jr. posing in a Homestead Grays basketball team uniform | 1925 | Reproduction

Uniform tops were made of wool or cotton manufactured on knitting looms set up to loop the threads in a certain way, allowing the fabric to breath and stretch. This particular knit, defined as a “jersey” knit, gave basketball tops their name. Kneepads prevented severe injuries from protruding nails, splinters, uneven planking, and other flooring defects. Shorts had buckles to securely fasten them over jerseys with button-crotch construction, used to keep them tucked in during games.


A.G. Spalding & Bros. | Jersey knit basketball top | Ca. 1910
Knitted cotton


A.G. Spalding & Bros. | Flannel basketball shorts | Ca. 1910
Flannel, metal buckle


Set of White Knee Pads | Ca. 1920s
Leather, sheepskin wool, metal fastener, cord


Spectators watching basketball game from running track of a school gymnasium | 1906 | Reproduction | Courtesy of the Chicago History Museum/Chicago Daily News, Inc. SDN-005179

Early basketball venues were often gas lit, stove-heated ballrooms, armories, church basements, and meeting halls. The basket is ten feet above the court today because the game’s inventor, James Naismith, originally nailed a peach basket onto the Springfield YMCA running track, which was approximately ten feet above the gymnasium floor.

Diagram of a basketball court with "screen" to indicate edge of cage surrounding court, pre-1951 key-shaped free throw lane area (the key), and center jump area Ca. 1910s Reproduction

Diagram of a basketball court with “screen” to indicate edge of cage surrounding court, pre-1951 key-shaped free throw lane area (the key), and center jump area | Ca. 1910s | Reproduction

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