While many of the sports we enjoy today—football, baseball, golf, track and field, etc. etc.—have been around for a very long time, basketball is a relative newcomer. Born in the 1890s, basketball has come into its own as a truly 20th century sport.
In 1891, Dr. James Naismith worked at a YMCA in Massachusetts. He needed a physical activity the men could engage in during the long New England winters. With two peach baskets nailed on opposite walls and a set of 13 rules, the game of basket ball (yes, in the early days it was often two words) began.
In and of itself, the history of basket ball is interesting. But even more interesting is the fact that women picked up on the game almost immediately after its inception. The first woman’s game was organized by Senda Berenson at Smith College in 1892. She adapted Dr. Naismith’s rules to emphasize the cooperative aspect of the team sport as well as to accommodate the prevailing wisdom concerning women and strenuous physical activities.
Berenson divided the court into 3 zones occupied by 2 players from each team. Yes, six girls against six girls. The interesting thing about the zones is that they were completely static. If you were placed under your own basket, on defense, you were not allowed to cross the line into the center zone. If you were positioned in the center zone, your job being to feed the ball from the defense to the offense, you could not cross the line into either basket’s territory. Likewise, if you were placed in a position to shoot the ball toward the basket, that was your only job and you stayed within the lines of that zone.
In 1901 Spalding edited and published Berenson’s rules, but those weren’t the only rules by which girls played basket ball. Some teams used Baer’s rules while others played the same game the boys played. By the early years of the 20th century, several women's colleges had set up teams. (It is interesting to note that other colleges banned women’s basket ball!)
Bloomers appeared as the accepted basket ball costume in 1896. The first high school girls game on record happened in Chicago in 1896 as well. And yet people still weren’t convinced this was an appropriate game for women to play. Especially in public. But the popularity of the sport continued to grow.
If you look at high school yearbooks from small towns in the 1910s and 1920s, you often find a girls basket ball team included. And while the sport remained “modified” from the boys’ game even into the 1970s, basket ball as a sport for girls, especially at the high school level, has enjoyed a lifespan of over a hundred years.
Tell me what fascinated you most about this short history of women and basketball and I’ll enter you to win a copy of my newest release, Playing by Heart, where Lula has an unexpected encounter with the sport.
Anne Mateer loves bringing history to life through fiction. She is the author of four historical novels, all set in the years of or just before World War I. Anne and her husband live in Texas. To discover more about Anne, visit her website at www.annemateer.com.