How basketball has transformed since its inception


David, center, and Chandler Booth look at Suzanne Deal Booth as they pose for a photo next to James Naismith's original rules of Basket Ball on display at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. (Ed Zurga/AP)

It doesn’t seem like just yesterday, at all.

On Dec. 21, 1891, Dr. James Naismith invented the game of “Basket Ball” in Springfield, Mass., as a remix to his own childhood game called “Duck on a Rock.”

The game involved placing a rock on a large stone, having one person stand in front of it effectively “protecting the rim (rock)” without goaltending rules, and people in front of him trying to knock off the rock by shooting their own rocks over or around him.

In the 127 years since, basketball has progressed — at least in the NBA — to a state-of-the-art, souped-up, dopamine-dispensing version of its original form.

Here’s a look at how some of the 13 rules the Almonte, Ont., native created have morphed over time — the hand-written version was sold at an auction for $4.3 million — and how his impact is still felt today.


In a fitting tribute, with 13 being the original number of rules that were introduced, the NBA has maintained that total to this day, just adding many subsections to each of the key rule topics.

Something Dr. Naismith likely never imagined, though, is that Rule #13 contains all the information pertaining to instant replay.

Travel much?

Rule No. 3 in Dr. Naismith’s “handbook” stated:

A player cannot run with the ball. The player must throw it from the spot on which he catches it, allowance to be made for a man who catches the ball when running at a good speed if he tries to stop.

Well, there’s been a few changes since.

Of course, dribbling is a thing, but even rules like carrying and travelling seem to be lightly enforced. Sports is all about entertainment now, and when you can make GIFs like these ones below, there’s no real need to be a stickler.

Playing by Dr. Naismith’s rules, Russell Westbrook technically wouldn’t have been punished for this egregious travel since he only walked and never ran with the ball.

Women play and officiate the sport, too

Rule #10 states:

The umpire shall be judge of the men and shall note the fouls and notify the referee when three consecutive fouls have been made. He shall have power to disqualify men according to Rule 5.

while Rule #11 states:

The referee shall be judge of the ball and shall decide when the ball is in play, in bounds, to which side it belongs, and shall keep the time. He shall decide when a goal has been made, and keep account of the goals with any other duties that are usually performed by a referee.

It was a much different time in 1891, but Dr. Naismith will surely be thrilled to know that the sport’s audience and participants have expanded. The WNBA has grown significantly in the past few years with professional options in Europe and Australia (where Kia Nurse plays) as well.

On the refereeing side of things, Ashley Moyer-Gleich and Natalie Sago joined Lauren Holtkamp this season as the three female referees in the NBA. Violet Palmer and Dee Kantner were the first to do so in 1997.

You can’t foul like you used to

The first-ever basketball game was played at Springfield College between two teams of nine and was, quite literally, a slugfest.

“The boys began tackling, kicking and punching in the clinches,” Dr. Naismith said during a 1939 radio interview. “They ended up in a free-for-all in the middle of the gym floor. Before I could pull them apart, one boy was knocked out, several of them had black eyes and one had a dislocated shoulder.”

He felt no choice but to make adjustments, and here we are now, in a time where the NBA has “Freedom of Movement” laws that have seen scoring and pace escalate to incredible highs. Make even the slightest error in judgment, and it can leave you holding your breath like Toronto’s OG Anunoby after slapping Indiana’s Bojan Bogdanovic on the wrist with the game on the line.


Dr. Naismith intended for the game to be played over two 15-minute halves, with five minutes’ rest in between. College rules come closest with two 20-minute halves, but the NBA, WNBA, leagues across Europe and even international competition all operate under four quarters of varying length.

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