Beginnings of Basketball

Basketball was invented by James Naismith in 1891, in Springfield, Massachusetts. The sport was created to provide an athletic activity that could be played indoors in the snowy and cold New England winters. It was instantly popular. As early as 1895, the YMCA began organizing regional tournaments. The game moved quickly into high schools and colleges. Graduates sought to keep playing and this inspired the first professional league.

Organized in Philadelphia in 1898, this “National League” lasted only five years. Similar leagues, typically centered around one large city and its suburbs, sprung up and folded with dizzying quickness. With so much instability at the professional level, the sport gained the most traction, with players and audiences, at the college level.

The 1920s were dominated by independent professional barnstorming teams, such as the New York Renaissance, the Harlem Globetrotters, and the Original Celtics.

American Basketball League (1925/26-1930/31) was the first effort to reestablish organized professional league play in basketball, but it did not survive the onset of the Great Depression.  College basketball, however, flourished with the first championship of national scope, the National Invitational Tournament (NIT), founded in 1938, quickly followed in 1939 by the appearance of the NCAA Tournament.

Given the sport’s popularity, efforts were made to reestablish professional ball again, with the appearance of the National Basketball League in 1937. It was made up primarily of small-market teams in the Great Lakes region. Teams in Fort Wayne, Oshkosh, and Toledo dominated the early years. Significantly, the NBL broke the color line in professional sports, as several African-Americans were signed to play  over the course of the 1942-43 season,  among them former University of Toledo star Bill Jones. This was five years before Jackie Robinson would break the color line in major league baseball, and four years before the NFL would see its first black players, Kenny Washington and Woody Strode.