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Our Plural History | Springfield, MA
Canadian immigrant James Naismith, seated in the second row on the right, created the first urban sport in the city of Springfield. Members of this first team included players from the United States, Canada, Germany, and Japan, all of whom were students at the YMCA school. These players would return to their countries of origin and help spread the sport across the globe.
Courtesy of Springfield College, Babson Library, Archives and Special Collections.

industrialization & immigration

The World of Basketball

Though versions of the game have been played throughout history, the sport of basketball today reflects the multiethnic, multiracial society of the United States. James Naismith, a Canadian born to Scottish immigrant parents, invented the modern form of the game in Springfield in 1891.

After earning degrees in physical education and religion in Montreal, Naismith took a position at the Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA) International Training School in Springfield. Soon after his arrival, Naismith was asked to design an indoor game that could be played during the harsh New England winter. His new sport was adapted from a Canadian game called "Duck on the Rock," and was an immediate success. The first game included players from the United States, Canada, Germany, and Japan, all of whom were students at the YMCA school. In January 1892, the rules of the game were published in the central YMCA newsletter, The Triangle , and basketball was immediately and enthusiastically adopted by YMCAs throughout the world. Naismith's students at the Springfield YMCA School (later renamed Springfield College) became emissaries for the game, and by the turn of the century basketball leagues had been established in countries as far flung as Egypt and China. In 1904 basketball made its debut at the Olympic Games, and Naismith was there to hand out the medals.

While popular internationally, basketball became the first true urban sport in the U.S. at a time when immigration and the growth of cities were remaking American culture and society. The game was adopted early on by high schools, colleges, and churches, and brought together players from different ethnicities and social classes. Settlement houses, which offered social services to the urban poor, began basketball leagues as early as 1900. The first Catholic league was formed in 1904 in New York City, and the first Knights of Columbus league was established in Philadelphia around 1920. The Young Men's Hebrew Association, the Jewish counterpart of the YMCA, also started teams or leagues in thirteen cities by 1915. Springfield's formidable Jewish teams were challenging traveling amateur and professional teams during the early 1930s. During the first few decades of the twentieth century, basketball became a fixture within many large factories. Games not only provided recreation for workers, but created bonds between departments, across industries, and within industrial neighborhoods. Requiring only a small amount of space, a basket and a ball, the game could be played almost anywhere.

Though basketball fostered connections between diverse urban groups, national leagues remained racially segregated well into the twentieth century. The National Basketball League (NBL) did not draft African-American players until the 1942-1943 season, after the outbreak of World War II had depleted the rosters of sports teams across the country. Basketball had been embraced early on by the black population, and the successful integration of these first players gave the NBL access to a large pool of talented players and a broader national audience.

Today, the National Basketball Association features American players of various racial and ethnic backgrounds, as well as players from many countries beyond the United States. Naismith's game, conceived as a diversion for an international student body during cold Springfield winters, has become an authentic national and global sport.

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