Photo: Buildings YMCA Old Central Building 1900s, Photo courtesy of the WRHS Archives.
By John J. Grabowski, Ph.D., Historian/Senior Vice President for Research and Publications, Western Reserve Historical Society
The NBA All Star Game’s arrival in Cleveland in February provides a good reason for looking at the history of basketball – and, that history is remarkable. Today the game is played around the world. Its global reach is reflected in the NBA. Currently, 39 countries are represented by 109 players. With 30 teams and a roster limit of 15 for each team, there are 450 – so the international representation is just a bit over 24%
That’s pretty amazing for a sport that was invented in the United States by James Naismith (1861-1939) who, by the way, was born in Canada. Many, if not most people, know the story of Naismith using a peach basket and a soccer ball to create the game. His thirteen original rules for the game still, in most ways, echo on today’s courts although the style and speed of the game are far different from what he envisioned. However, the place (the YMCA) where he created the game is central to the internationalization of basketball.
Educated at McGill University (where he played football, lacrosse, soccer, and rugby – and also was a gymnast) he moved to the United States in 1890 to study at the YMCA International Training School in Springfield, Massachusetts. It was there that he invented basketball. The impetus for its creation was the need to provide bored and boisterous young men with a vigorous indoor athletic activity during the winter months. The first game was played on March 12, 1892.
Perhaps at this point it is important to emphasize that the YMCA is the Young Men’s Christian Association. The YMCA movement began in the mid-1840s in London and quickly spread well beyond England. Cleveland’s branch of the movement began in 1854. The common thread that bound all the early Y’s together was helping the many young men coming into cities lead a good, pure Christian life and thus avoid the temptations – bars, brothels, and bad company – that characterized growing urban areas. The Cleveland YMCA stated its purpose as to prevent “the ruin, physical and spiritual, which overtakes so large a proportion of the multitude of young men constantly arriving in our city.”
It did not take long for the organization to realize that the best way to attract young men to membership and participation was through vigorous physical activity – it built teamwork, fellowship and also burned off energies that could have been directed to the dissipations of city life. It was the leader in the national movement known as “Muscular Christianity” which ran against older notions that physical exercise, and sport where antithetical to a good religious life. By the 1880s “muscular Christianity’ helped power a burgeoning sports culture in the United States. It provided a good basis for what would become gym programs in schools, it buttressed a growing collegiate sports movement, and fit neatly into the life and politics of men such as Theodore Roosevelt.
That’s why basketball’s birth was in the confines of a Christian organization. Indeed, by the late nineteenth century, the YMCA was one of the pre-eminent sports “powers” in the United States. It fielded its own football team, captained by Amos Alonzo Stagg. The team was known as “Stagg’s Stubby Christians”. Of course the Y inherited a developing football culture, but it also invented another sport – volleyball. And as a Christian, global organization linked to a strong missionary movement the sports the “Y” created reached a wide audience.
Within a decade of basketball’s invention, it was not only being played at the YMCA but at public schools, colleges, and social settlements. Cleveland’s Hiram House Settlement was fielding basketball teams in the early 1900s and those teams reflected the immigrant communities that Hiram House served – some teams were largely Jewish and others Italian – and their battles on the court sometimes moved out into the street.
The game also quickly attracted women and also resulted in restrictive women’s rules for many collegiate women. Interestingly the rules were written by a woman, Senda Berenson, who oversaw the physical education program at Smith College. Yet, women, including the multi-sport star Babe Didrikson, would play by the general rules or some other modification of them.
Basketball also moved quickly beyond Protestant Christianity. Played in the settlement houses of New York City it became “the” game of the children of Jewish immigrants and at one time was known as the “Jewish” game. Soon, traveling teams of adult players were attracting audiences. Among them were the Philadelphia SPHAs (South Philadelphia Hebrew Association) which dominated the game at the exhibition, semi-pro, and pro level. Cleveland’s first basketball “impresario” in the 1920s was Max Rosenblum who also promoted amateur baseball, soccer, football, and bowling.
Basketball’s origins were in an increasingly segregated societyand that too was reflected in the YMCA. The first Black YMCA was established in Washington D.C. in 1853, and other branches followed. In Cleveland, the Cedar Avenue Branch became the Black YMCA, although there was contention in the community about accepting a segregated facility. Eventually, in 1946, the YMCA established a policy to end segregation.
It was in this and other milieus that the sport spread into the African American community. Indeed, even in settlement houses, such as Hiram House, there were Black teams and ethnic white teams. The sport spread throughout the playgrounds in Black areas of the cities and also in schools, which even though not “officially” segregated, became predominantly Black. The East Tech “Scarabs” in Cleveland became one of the city’s basketball powerhouses during the 1930s. Nationally, Black teams, such as the New York Renaissance (the“Rens”) played and beat many of the best white teams. One of the best early basketball players to come out of Cleveland, “Wee” Willie Smith, (who started playing at Hiram House) played for the Rens and is now a member of the NBA Hall of Fame. Professional basketball, however, remained segregated until 1950 when the NBA would break the color barrier.
It took some time for professional basketball to evolve into the “mega” sport it is today. The real base of the game for many years was in high school, college, and company teams. In Cleveland amateur basketball predominated until the founding of the Cavaliers, Cleveland’s first NBA team in 1970. Prior to that, the city had fielded several pro teams, including the Rosenblums, the Allman Transfers, the Cleveland Rebels, and the Cleveland Pipers. The Pipers made history by hiring the first Black coach in pro-basketball, John McLendon in 1962.
Yet, to focus only on the pro-game is to ignore what began at the YMCA 130 years ago. Today, hoops abound – on urban playgrounds, in backyards, on suburban garages, and on barns in the countryside.
An estimated 450 million people participate in basketball around the globe which ranks it fifth among all sports, and its global audience ranks third with an estimated 2.2 billion fans! Given this, it should come as no surprise that the NBA’s roster reflects the world. So, on February 20th, Cleveland will, in essence, host the world — thanks in large part to the YMCA!