Not So Trivial Pursuits

Updated: Aug 29, 2019

Tinkering with a ball and two peach baskets on what is now the Springfield College Campus in Springfield, MA, Canadian theologian and educator Dr. James Naismith fine tunes his concept for a new game he calls “basketball.”

Although the debate rages on about the chicken and the egg, historical research has firmly established that when Dr. James Naismith invented the game of basketball in the Springfield, MA., Y.M.C.A. in 1891, the basketball itself had not yet been invented. What type of ball was used in the first basketball game?

Dr. James Naismith with peach basket and the ball used in the first basketball game - a soccer ball.

In the winter of 1891, on what is now the Springfield College Campus, Dr. James Naismith oversaw the first competition of his newly invented game of “basketball.” The inaugural match was played with a soccer ball, and the nine players on each team tried to throw the ball into a peach basket nailed at a height of ten feet to the balconies at either end of the court.

The first basketball court in Springfield, MA

In 1894, Dr. Naismith recruited the Spalding Company to design and manufacture the first basketball which featured the laces also sported by soccer balls and American footballs of the day. In the ensuing years, additional innovations to the basketball were implemented.

The first basketball manufactured by the Spalding Company in 1894

Because of their their laces and their inability to maintain their shape, these early brown leather basketballs were hard to dribble. In 1929 basketballs were re-designed for more bounce and with concealed laces which eliminated erratic bounces. The balls were bigger, lighter and easier to handle.

Named after the same player featured on Converse’s famous basketball shoes,in the late 1930’s, Wilson featured a Chuck Taylor basketball without laces.

In 1937, Spalding eliminated the laces on its basketballs altogether. In 1942 molded basketballs that maintained a constant shape and size replaced the stitched balls. In 1948, Rawlings introduced its ground breaking seam-sealed basketball, and although laced basketballs were still on the market at this time, they were declining in popularity.

1948 style Rawlings basketball featured leather panels cemented to a spherically molded fabric surrounding an air-tight rubber lining

A rule change in 1949 sounded the death knell for the laced basketball. The new rule required that the ball have a leather cover of the molded type in which the leather panels were not stitched together, but rather "cemented to a spherically molded fabric surrounding an air-tight rubber lining." In essence, the new rules prohibited the use of a laced ball.

Tony Hinkle posing in the Butler University Field House which bears his name with the iconic orange basketball that he introduced to the game.

The first balls made specifically for basketball were brown, and it was only in the late 1950s that Tony Hinkle, searching for a ball that would be more visible to players and spectators alike, introduced the orange ball that is now commonly used.

The American Basketball Association’s red, white, and blue ball

In 1967, the upstart American Basketball Association introduced red, white, and blue basketballs to the game, and in 1970, the N.B.A. switched from the traditional four panel ball, and adopted the eight panel leather ball as its official ball. When the two leagues merged in 1976, the N.B.A. adopted the A.B.A.’s three point shot, but passed on the red, white, and blue ball. Finally, in 1983, the N.B.A. named Spalding’s full-grain leather ball as its official ball.

For those readers who are interested in basketball history, above is the only recording of Dr. James Naismith, a 1939 C.B.S. Radio interview. For those who are basketball history fanatics, below is a H.B.O. Sports documentary about the A.B.A., the league that introduced the red, white, and blue basketball and ultimately integrated its teams and the three point shot into the N.B.A.