Friday, February 6, 2015

Hoosier Hysteria and the History of Basketball

by Ramona K. Cecil

About this time of year, an odd malady strikes my state of Indiana. No, it’s not influenza, which is also prevalent now. I’m speaking of Hoosier Hysteria, the moniker attached to the fanatical excitement exhibited by crazed fans of basketball, especially high school basketball.

I must confess, while cheering for my favorite team I’ve never once mused about the origin of this excitement, or even the sport itself. But in a quieter moment I wondered, how did it all begin?

Actually, the ancient Aztecs in Mexico invented a game sometime before 1400BC that had some of the basics as our modern game of basketball. Called ollamalitzli, this sport was not a game for the faint of heart. Often brutal and even fatal, ollamalitzli resembled modern basketball only in that the object was to get a rubber ball through a metal ring at each end of a court. This was accomplished by basically a no-holds-barred free-for-all in which the loser might have to face a sacrificial dagger. Yikes! And we think the NBA can be rough!

Aztecs playing ollamalitzli

The invention of our modern game of basketball is credited to a man named James Naismith, who had never heard of the Aztecs game of ollamalitzli. 

In 1891, James Naismith was a young physical education instructor at the International Training Institution in Springfield, Massachusetts. The physical education department had been charged with developing some sort of physical game the students could play indoors. When the more senior PE teachers failed to come up with such a game, Naismith took a crack at the problem. 

James Naismith with soccer ball and peach basket
At first he envisioned some sort of indoor football, but nixed the idea fearing it would be too rough. He then considered a form of boxball, where players would pitch a football into boxes affixed to either end of the gymnasium. When he asked the janitor for boxes, all the man could produce were some peach baskets. After some trial and error, Naismith settled on baskets nailed ten feet above the floor at each end of the court and a round soccer ball instead of a football. He developed thirteen rules for the game, twelve of which are still in use.

Naismith's original 13 rules for the game of basketball

The next day he introduced the game to his eighteen student, dividing them into two teams of nine.

Naismith in center surrounded by 9 of his students

Basketball being played with basket in 1892
The game was an instant hit, though it remained plagued by some pesky problems. The peach baskets took a beating, so had to be replaced often. This problem was eventually remedied by replacing the baskets with sturdy metal rings to which nets made of cord were attached. But whether played with peach baskets or nets, another problem still remained. Each time a player made a “basket,” someone had to climb a ladder to retrieve the ball.  

                           Early nets that replaced peach baskets. Note the attached
                           string that opened the net to allow the basket to fall through.
Five years later, in 1896, an anonymous player on a semi-pro team got fed-up with this frustrating aspect of the game and simply cut a hole in the bottom of the net. A real game-changer!

But we’ll back up a bit. How, you ask, did basketball come to Indiana and become such a rage in the Hoosier state? Reverend Nicholas McKay, a Presbyterian minister who had been assigned to head the Crawfordsville, Indiana YMCA and had met Naismith and learned about his new game, brought basketball with him to Crawfordsville in 1894. Hungry for a game kids could play indoors during it's cold winters, Indiana was a fertile field for the game of basketball. Baseball and football had never caught on in the mainly rural state where youngsters’ summers and autumns were filled with farming chores. But winter brought more leisure time and basketball fit the bill perfectly.

James Naismith himself is quoted as saying "Basketball really had it origin in Indiana, which remains the center of the sport."

The first basketball game in Indiana was played in the Crawfordsville Terminal Building March 16,1894. In this perfect Hoosier environment, the game took root and grew like weeds in a fallow field until it has become a near religion in the state. 
Crawfordsville, Indiana men's basketball team Circa 1923

Decatur, Indiana girl's basketball team 1920 - 1921

It's hard to imagine anyone growing up in Indiana after 1894 and not having their life touched in some way by basketball. The 1986 movie Hoosiers in which a small rural team battles a much larger school for the 1954 state championship, expertly depicts how the game has woven itself into the fabric of Indiana.

So as Hoosier Hysteria breaks out across the state again, I pause my cheering for a moment to remember how it all began and to pay homage to James Naismith, Nicholas McKay, and yes, even the Aztecs although I’m glad that if my team loses, they won’t be required to pay with their lives.

Ramona K. Cecil is a poet and award-winning author of historical fiction for the Christian market. A proud Hoosier, she often sets her stories in her home state of Indiana.

Check out her website at


  1. I had heard of the some of the games the Aztecs played and the loser lost his life. Terrible. Never knew WHY the real game of basketball was created. Interesting post, Ramona. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Thanks, Debbie Lynne! I'd heard years ago that the game was called "basketball" because they originally used peach baskets, but that was about the extent of what I knew. I only recently learned of basketball's connection with the ancient Aztec game.

  2. That's interesting, Ramona. I've never heard the history of basketball before. We're college football fans.

    I've always wondered what a Hoosier is. Can you explain that?

    1. Thanks, Vickie. I loved your question about Hoosiers. :-) It's the nickname for anyone from Indiana. There is much speculation about the origin of the word. Here are a few: 1.) When someone came knocking at an early Indiana cabin door those within would holler "Who's 'ere." 2.) A boss overseeing the building of a canal in Indiana was named Hoosier, so his workers were called "Hoosier's men." 3.) Hoosier was a term of contempt in the upland South for someone considered a hick, roughneck, or country bumpkin. Number 3 is the most likely, but I'm still proud to be a Hoosier! LOL

  3. That's interesting, Ramona. I've never heard the history of basketball before. We're college football fans.

    I've always wondered what a Hoosier is. Can you explain that?

  4. We lived in my mother's home state of Indiana until I was 8 years old. My first recollection attending a sporting event was in the gymnasium of the local high school with my mom and her sister - avid fans of the game. My cousin evidently hit the winning basket in the State Tournament his senior year in high school as he threw a basket from half-court. It went in, and they won the State Championship. Loved reading about the origins of basketball. Thanks for the article.

    1. Hi, Golden! Glad to learn that you are a fellow Hoosier! Once a Hoosier, always a Hoosier, you know. LOL Huge kudos to your cousin for hitting that winning shot. How proud he must have made your family! Glad you enjoyed the post. Go Hoosiers! :-)

  5. How interesting! Thank you for sharing the history of this great game, Ramona!

    texaggs2000 at gmail dot com

  6. You're welcome, Britney! Glad you enjoyed the post!