The First-Ever Basketball Game Was a Complete Brawl

When you watch a modern basketball game, it can seem like the players glide around the court. While contact exists, the best players swerve and dip away from defenders in a display of agility as they move toward the hoop.

Those graceful feats of athleticism (with the occasional foul and flop thrown into the mix) are a far cry from what you would see if you went back in time to watch the first-ever game.

There, you’d see something closer to a wrestling battle royale than you would a game of basketball. A “basketbrawl” game, if you will. Let’s discover the story of that historic first game.

A Concept Comes to Life

The year was 1891, and a 31-year-old graduate student names James Naismith was teaching physical education at the International YMCA Training School. With football season already over, there was a limit to the activities Naismith could get his students to do, with the calisthenics and marching circuits he had being uncompetitive and, frankly, boring compared to the high-energy sports of football and lacrosse.

Naismith’s boys were growing restless, not aided by a harsh New England storm that kept them shuttered in the gymnasium for days at a time. So, Naismith struck upon the idea of creating a new game. That game would have to be something that his students could play indoors, as well as featuring both the complexity and competitive element needed to keep players engaged. The game also needed a softer touch than the likes of football or soccer. Both of those games were a lot of fun, there was no doubt about it, but their contact-heavy nature seemingly led to as many injuries as points scored.

The concept for the game that would become basketball started forming and Naismith came up with the idea of having a pair of square goals that players could throw balls into in order to score points. Naismith asked the facility’s janitor if he had anything that fit the bill. That janitor returned with a pair of peach baskets, which Naismith nailed to a balcony rail 10 feet in the air, and the first primitive basketball hoop was in place.

From there, coming up with a few rules was simple – players controlled the ball with their hands and scored points if they successfully shot it into the opposing team’s peach basket. With his new game ready to go, Naismith organized his students into teams, and the first basketball game got underway.

Basketball Becomes “Basketbrawl”

In his mind, Naismith imagined a game where players would elegantly pass the ball from teammate to teammate, moving closer to their basketball hoop until they were in the position to score a point. The reality was much different, as Naismith himself recalled in a 1939 radio interview:

“The boys began tackling, kicking, and punching in the crunches, they ended up in a free for all in the middle of the gym floor before I could pull them apart.”

Black eyes abounded (more than a few players sported shiners after taking punches or elbows to their faces), and one of the players was hit so hard that he was knocked unconscious. Another suffered a dislocated shoulder. It was clear that the few rules Naismith had weren’t enough to keep players in line, and the game of basketball may never have gotten off the ground were it not for an astonishing fact:

Despite being battered and bruised, Naismith’s students wanted to play again.

Naismith felt hesitant, as he had a near-bloodbath on his hands at the first game. But interestingly, the first basketball match mirrored the unrefined versions of soccer and football that had become more codified by the late 19th century. The earliest games of football in England were akin to what he’d just watched, with teams battling against each other across fields and roads, with punches and kicks to both ball and opponent par for the course. Yet, to watch soccer, it was clear that adding more rules to the mix made the game more palatable.

So, rules were what Naismith created.

The First 13

Knowing that his nascent game needed more structure if it was to be played again, Naismith created the first 13 rules of basketball. Those rules codified the game, setting standards for contact that would ensure another brawl wouldn’t ensue when his players took to game number two.

Among those rules were definitions of fouls, such as striking the ball with a fist. Naismith also barred most physical contact, with striking, pushing, shouldering, tripping, and holding all cause for a penalty to the opposing team and potential disqualification from the game if the act carried intent.

Other rules were tweaks designed to discourage the rough and tumble of that first game. For instance, Naismith’s original rules stated that the first player to reach the ball after it went out of bounds would gain control of the ball for their team. That only incentivized pushing and shoving as players jostled to get their hands on the ball first, necessitating a tweak to say that the ball would instead go to the team opposing that which touched the ball last before it went out of bounds.

With his new rules in place, Naismith’s students could play a more civilized version of the game. A year later (March 1892), the International YMCA Training School hosted its first public game, with Naismith’s team of teachers losing 5-1 to his students, and basketball was off to the races as a new favorite national pastime.

Drive to the Basketball Hoop

At Hoop Dream Studios, we’re as inspired by the ruggedness of the first basketball game (violence notwithstanding) as we are by the elegance of Naismith’s solutions. Our custom basketball hoop designs wouldn’t be possible without these early innovators. Let one of our hoops inspire you to chase your hoop dream. Shop all.