By Dave Caldwell for The Guardian
Practically everything about basketball – including the ball itself – has changed since that first game at Springfield, Massachusetts, in December 1891. James Naismith, in his first year as a graduate instructor at what was then the International Young Men’s Christian Association Training School, thought it would work best to use a soccer ball for his new indoor sport.
The gymnasium in the five-year-old Christian Workers Building, now the site of a McDonald’s, had a 49ft x 41ft floor and had been equipped with all kinds of gymnastics equipment – parallel bars and flying rings, plus dumbbells and climbing ropes, according to a 2009 study of the building by Springfield College, which the school became known as in 1954.
And not insignificantly, the gymnasium also had a floor of hard, or rock, maple. From about the mid-1800s onward, maple flooring was popular because the wood was plentiful, so it was also inexpensive, but it was also durable and more stable. Maple flooring is harder than red oak, black walnut or cherry flooring, and its tight grain made it easier to clean and maintain.
Naismith attached two peach baskets to the balcony that encircled the gymnasium floor, devised a list of 13 rules for the new game and split his students into two nine-man teams – three forwards, three centers and three backs. Naismith stipulated: “No shouldering, holding, pushing, tripping, or striking in any way the person of an opponent.”
The first “basket ball” match, as Naismith called his game, was almost like a free-for-all, with one player knocked unconscious. The first match included lots of passing, but dribbling the ball on the floor was still six years away, when the team at Yale University did it. The maple floor also turned out to be the perfect surface for dribbling a basketball.
Gymnasium floors, and indoor basketball courts as an extension, have continued to be made of hard maple. In fact, the NCAA said the official courts for both the men’s and women’s Final Fours this past week were made of 500 trees of northern maple carefully harvested from the Two-Hearted River Forest Reserve in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
According to the Butcher Block Co blog, the courts of all but one NBA team are composed of hard maple; the Boston Celtics, who play on a red-oak parquet floor, are the exceptions. Hard maple offers the most consistent playing surface, but it also provides “bounce-back,” or shock resistance, to lessen fatigue on players’ knees and ankles.
Naismith was given 14 days by Nathan Gulick, his boss, to devise an indoor game that would be active enough to prevent students at the school from going stir-crazy during rough New England winters, and he delivered with the structure of a game that gained popularity.
In 1894, Naismith moved into East Gymnasium, which still stands in Springfield, and then, in 1898, Naismith became the chapel director and physical education instructor at the University of Kansas, officially starting a basketball team there. By 1904, basketball was a demonstration sport at the Summer Olympics in St Louis (intriguingly, one of the categories was for elementary schools, raising the prospect of seven-year-old Olympians).
In a document supplied by Jeffrey Monseau, the archivist at Springfield College, Naismith had written in his 1892 manual Rules for Basket Ball that the new sport could be played on “any kind of ground – in a gymnasium, a large room, a small lot, a large field, whether these had uneven or smooth surface.”
Basketball was played outside as early as 1892, – the football coach at the International YMCA training school, another legend-in-the-making named Amos Alonzo Stagg, would later show his students a photo of players attempting to shoot a ball into a large peach basket mounted on a pole outside.
But basketball largely remained an indoor game, played in gymnasiums, often by football players to stay fit over the winter months. Then along came the Great Depression in 1929, and American indoor arenas like Madison Square Garden began looking for sporting events to fill their depleted schedules.
The courts of all but one NBA team are composed of hard maple; the Boston Celtics are the exceptions
On 31 December 1931, a “college basketball show” was scheduled at the Garden under the auspices of the New York mayor’s committee on unemployment relief, featuring an exhibition including four local college teams. The double-header drew a good crowd, but the games were played on canvas that had been stretched out on the Garden’s composite stone floor.
The New York Times reported that the canvas floor had “many disadvantages. The canvas frequently sagged, tripped players, interfered with their dribbling and disrupted passing.”
So, before the first official college double-header at the Garden on 29 December 1934 – which featured Westminster (Pennsylvania), St John’s, Notre Dame and New York University – a 29-year-old newspaperman by the name of Ned Irish, who was moonlighting as the Garden’s director of basketball, brought in a gymnasium-style hardwood floor and laid it over the stone floor.
The double-header drew 16,138 and was such a success that Irish began scheduling regular college double-headers. In 1946, Irish founded the 11-team Basketball Association of America and became the owner of the New York franchise, the Knickerbockers. The BAA became the NBA, and the Knickerbockers the Knicks.
Plastic basketball courts were developed in the early 1970s, with interlocking tiles later becoming available, and the grassroots of the sport, so to speak, include thousands of outdoor pickup games played on blacktop, a much more unforgiving surface on the knees (and elbows). But the most important games are still played on a hard-maple court, like Naismith first used.
Further, hard maple is a light color, making it easier to watch the orange-brown basketball being dribbled, passed and shot. It was also Irish’s idea to install glass backboards at the Garden, meaning that he could sell seats behind the baskets because those fans would be able to see the action.
The most recent NCAA Final Four courts probably won’t last anywhere as long as they used to. The winners will be offered a chance to purchase the courts, at which point they can be displayed in their basketball museums and/or be cut into little pieces in order to give (or sell) to fans. But basketball on a hard maple court will probably bounce around for years.
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