Mar 21, 2023 | Blog

The History of Basketball: How it All Began

Basketball is one of the world’s most popular sports. Wold wide, more than 450 million people enjoy participating in the sport, from Timbuktu to Toronto. That means more people play basketball than live in the United States and Canada combined. 

No doubt you hear about basketball every day, whether it’s amazing games in March Madness or the latest exploits of your favorite NBA player. But how much do you know about basketball history? The story of how basketball went from a humble school game to a major global sport is a fascinating one. 

If you want to learn more about the history of basketball, you’ve come to the right place. Our quick guide to the history of the sport will have you bouncing up and down! Read on to learn more about the twists and turns of this sport’s history.

Humble Beginnings

In the winter of 1891 in Spingfield, basketball was born. Physical education teacher James Naismith wanted a game that his students could play indoors. In Massachusetts, deep snow often covered the fields outside, making it difficult to play other sports. 

That’s right! Although basketball seems like a very modern sport, it predates inventions like plastic and the radio.

Naismith worked hard to hammer out the rules. Early versions of the rules were missing familiar features like bouncing. The first ball used was a soccer ball, and the targets were peach baskets. 

The baskets were closed with no hole in the bottom, so every time a basket was scored, someone had to climb up and manually retrieve the ball! 

The first public game of basketball was played only a few months after the sport was invented. Two teams of students played against each other in front of a small crowd of parents.

Soon after, more and more schools adopted the sport for their own physical education classes. Students enjoyed the simple yet challenging rules. Teachers enjoyed the opportunity to see students get good exercise all year round. 

College Ball

After this early success in high schools, basketball soon spread to colleges. Today American college basketball games are some of the most viewed sporting events of the year. But early college ball saw a handful of teams playing exhibition matches.
The popularity of college basketball helped the USA to dominate in early editions of the Olympic games. Competitors needed amateur status to compete. The large number of high-quality college basketball players gave the US national team ample choice for their roster.
The National Collegiate Athletic Association took over the running of college basketball in 1909. They helped to refine the rules and encourage more participation. This paved the way for the beginning of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament in 1939.

The Early Professional Era

It didn’t take long for basketball to go professional. In 1898, only seven years after the sport was invented, the first professional leagues were formed. 

The original National Basketball League was formed with six teams all based on the east coast. Although it planned to have multiple conferences for different geographical regions, the league never expanded to this point.

Early games were played in front of just a few hundred fans. But some games attracted much larger crowds and teams had to look around for bigger venues. 

Sadly the league folded in 1904. But it paved the way for future professional leagues and demonstrated the hunger among the public for professional basketball games. 

More professional leagues sprang up soon after. Competitions like the American Basketball League and the Metropolitan Basketball League kept the flag flying for professional basketball.

Some future NBA team even got their start in these early leagues. The Sacramento Kings are one example, having been founded in 1923. Originally playing in Rochester, New York, they looked quite different to the world-famous team we know today.

Early International Spread

The game of basketball did not stay confined to the United States for too long. Two separate organizations were instrumental in the global spread of basketball: the YMCA and the US Army.

James Naismith was a YMCA teacher, and the school where he invented the game was a YMCA training school. Observing the popularity of the game among his students, Naismith passed on the rules to others within the organization. Soon basketball was being played in YMCA schools and other facilities across the USA and beyond.

The US joined World War I in 1917, and troops deployed all across the world brought the game with them. From France to Yugoslavia, American soldiers took time to cool off and have fun with a game of basketball. In turn, they introduced the game to allied troops, who brought the sport to their own countries when they returned home.

This contributed to the international spread of the game. Unlike the other big three US sports, baseball, hockey, and football, basketball requires minimal equipment and can be played almost anywhere.
Today, basketball is wildly popular in many different parts of the world. In Eastern Europe and parts of Africa and Asia, basketball is one of the most popular sports in the country. And the sport is expanding in other markets too, with growing leagues in countries like the UK and Australia.

The NBA, basketball’s biggest league worldwide, continues to reach out to teams and players across the globe. Most NBA teams have players with overseas experience, and NBA teams occasionally play exhibition games against teams from other countries.

Birth of the Globetrotters

It was in 1926 that one of the world’s most famous basketball teams came into being. The Harlem Globetrotters were formed in Harlem, New York, originally to play exhibition games before ballroom dances. 

The team soon began touring the US and beyond, choosing only the most skillful and entertaining players for their roster. Although the tricks and turns of the Globetrotters were often seen as a simple way of entertaining crowds, these techniques had a major impact on the way basketball was played. Today, every professional has a few Globetrotter-style techniques in their arsenal. 

The Globetrotters formed their own team of traveling opponents, The Washington Generals. Despite their status as the whipping boys of basketball, the Generals have managed to pull off a few surprise wins over the years. They beat the Globetrotters on three occasions and won international exhibition games.

Today, the Globetrotters continue to play exhibition games all over the world, bringing basketball to new fans with a blend of athleticism and showmanship. Their honorary members have included various popes, Nelson Mandela, and Whoopi Goldberg. 

Olympic Recognition and International Growth

1936 saw basketball gain a major piece of international recognition when it was included as an Olympic sport for the first time. The sport was played alongside track and field, soccer, and other major sports, giving it a kind of gravitas it had never enjoyed before. 

The fact the sport had spread internationally allowed it to feature at Olympic level. One of the criteria for sports to be included in the Olympics is for them to have high levels of participation all over the world. 

Kansas Jayhawks coach Phog Allen was instrumental in getting the sport Olympic recognition. He petitioned the Olympic Committee to include basketball, noting the sport’s growing popularity around the world. 

This initial tournament was quite different from the modern Olympic basketball tournaments. Games were played outdoors on converted tennis courts. It rained heavily and conditions were muddy!

The gold medalists were the United States, with Canada taking silver and Mexico taking third place. The medals from the tournament were presented by Dr. James Naismith himself, a fine honor for the man who had invented the sport. 

Today, basketball is still played at Olympic level, with the most recent tournament taking place in Beijing in 2021 for the delayed 2020 Olympics. These games marked the introduction of a new form of the sport, with 3 vs 3 basketball being played. 

And the Olympics aren’t the only international competition for basketball. Competitions like the Basketball World Cup allow national teams to compete for the title of best in the world.

The USA is fairly dominant on the international stage, with multiple Olympic and World Cup wins in both the men’s and women’s games. In recent years, China, Spain, and Germany have all provided good competition.

Dawn of the NBA

Although professional basketball in the USA had started many decades before, it wasn’t until June of 1946 that the NBA came into being.

This new league began life when the Toronto Huskies and New York Knickerbockers met at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto. The game was played in front of a large crowd and attracted plenty of media attention. 

Unlike many previous professional basketball leagues, the NBA aimed to take the sport to a new level. It featured teams from major cities playing in large arenas.

Early teams in cities like New York, Baltimore, Toronto, and Minneapolis gave the league a strong base. Many of these markets continue to host NBA teams today. 

The NBA faced many challenges in its early days as it struggled to establish itself as the premier basketball competition in the United States. In these early days, many teams chose to switch to other leagues

Breaking the Color Barrier

Sadly, the early NBA was a segregated league, featuring only white players. But the color barrier was broken for the first time just a year after the league’s establishment when Japanese-American Wat Misaka played for the New York Knicks. The point guard only played three games in the NBA, but he was a trailblazer in knocking down walls in professional sports.

In the 1950s, the first black players began to play in the league, knocking down more barriers and allowing people of any race to make a career in basketball. Today, the NBA is a diverse league with players from all backgrounds competing.


In 1996, the NBA board of governors approved the creation of a new league, the Women’s National Basketball Association. Following the success of women in basketball, both at college and international level, there was an increasing demand for this league.

The league is now one of the biggest women’s sports leagues globally. Stars like Brittney Griner and Diana Taurasi are some of the best-known names in sport. And the success of the WNBA has contributed to more gold medals for Team USA at the Olympics!

Michael Jordan and Space Jam

With the NBA more popular than ever, it may have seemed like there was no room for growth. But the late 1990s saw the sport enjoy a new level of popularity.

Players like Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal, Charles Barkley, and Muggsy Bogues gave basketball fans a new generation of star players to admire. 

The movie Space Jam also featured many of these players, helping to bring basketball to a new generation of fans. The movie was popular in Europe and Asia too, regions where basketball is traditionally not the most popular of sports. This helped to increase the popularity of basketball across the globe, raising participation numbers and interest in the NBA.

Learn More About the History of Basketball at the Illinois Museum of Basketball

The history of basketball is long and fascinating. But reading about the sport is one matter. Getting up close and personal with so many artifacts and exhibits documenting the history of this amazing sport is a great way to learn more.

The Illinois Museum of Basketball offers tours and a wide range of changing exhibits, so there’s always something new every time you visit. Plan your visit today and you could be enjoying the basketball experience of a lifetime before you know it.

Related Articles