Basketball may be 125 years old, but game just keeps on growing up

Sport has come a long way from its humble beginnings in 1891

Fran Blinebury

Fran Blinebury NBA.com

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Dec 20, 2016 11:37 AM ET

In NBA arenas and all around the world, fans and players have basked in the growth of basketball at large.

It is the chirp-chirp-chirping of sneakers on a hardwood floor, the ching-a-ling of a rusty chain net on a cement schoolyard. It’s 7-foot-6 Yao Ming with his head high in the sky and the 5-foot-7 Spud Webb built so close to the ground.

It’s "Earl the Pearl", "Dean the Dream", "Clyde the Glide", "Chet the Jet" and "Wilt the Stilt". It’s the "Big O" and the "Big E", "Dr. J' and "Rudy T". It’s pump up and air out.

It’s Russell and Havlicek, West and Baylor, Bird and McHale, Jordan and Pippen, Shaq and Kobe, Durant and Westbrook, Garnett with Pierce and Allen, LeBron with D-Wade and Bosh, Tim with Manu and Tony. It’s Showtime and the Splash Brothers. It’s the memories of Auerbach’s cigar and Rodman’s bleach-blonde hair.

It’s set shots to jumpers, give-and-go to pick-and-roll. It’s a skyhook and a 360. It’s Kareem and Hakeem, the Wizard of Westwood and a 6-foot-9 point guard named Magic.

It’s basketball. It’s 125 years old this week and it’s come a long way, baby.

It was Dec. 21, 1891 when Dr. James Naismith posted his original 13 rules the wall of the YMCA Training School at Sherman and State streets in Springfield, Mass., and he had no earthly idea what he was starting.

Ian Naismith, grandson of James Naismith, holds the two original documents outlining the rules of basketball.

What Naismith was looking to do -- under the specific orders of Dr. Luther Halsey Gulick, head of the physical education department -- was come up with an indoor diversion, a game to lighten the doldrums of the winter months for the athletes that were accustomed to the more rough-and-tumble pursuits of rugby and football.

The rules were written in about one hour, and the peach baskets -- used when building maintenance men could not find the boxes Naismith had requested -- were hung from the lower balcony in the gym, which just happened to be 10 feet off the floor.

They played that day with nine men on a side, and the first -- and only -- basket scored was by a student named William Chase on a deep, 25-foot bomb, proving that even back then there was a place in the game for Stephen Curry.

Just look where it’s gone since then -- from Rochester and Ft. Wayne and Syracuse to and Boston and Philly and L.A. to Spain and Argentina and Lithuania and Nigeria and Beijing. From New York to New Zealand.

It’s the glitz that began with the shimmy-shaking of the Laker Girls to the celebrity-crammed weekend of glamor-filled excess that is NBA All-Star Weekend, where 5-foot-9 Nate Robinson leaps over 6-foot-11 Dwight Howard, who is wearing a Superman cape.

It’s Philly vs. Boston, Lakers vs. Celtics. It’s Go Spurs Go! and Beat L.A.! It’s Rip City and the Grind House. It’s Warrrrrr-iorrrrrs! and DEE-troit BAAAAAAsketball! It’s taking your talents to South Beach and coming back home to win for Cleveland. It’s 1-on-1 and crossover dribbles, Euro-steps and triple-doubles. It’s the stripped-down basic of shirts vs. skins and the kaleidoscope dazzle of Craig Sager’s wardrobe. It’s L’il Penny and the Big Fundamental.

A Canadian by birth who had grown up in rural Ontario, what Naismith gave us was the quintessential American game that reflects both our frenzied lifestyle and desire for improvisation.

It’s a big man’s game for those named Chamberlain and O’Neal and Gobert and it’s a little man’s game for those named Cousy and Murphy and Bogues. Truth is, it’s Everyman’s game all around the world.  

It’s a sport that’s been a siren’s call to impoverished kids in the rotting cores of big cities and a way of life for Midwestern farm boys who learn to square up perfectly for jumpers with the entire small town looking on.

It is 10 men in motion, but each keeping time to his own beat. Baseball is a tinkling song on a piano and football is overbearing banging on the kettle drums.

But the game of Naismith hops and skips and jumps like hot jazz. It is the late Marvin Gaye styling the most soulful rendition of the national anthem before the1983 All-Star Game at The Forum in L.A. and then some of the best that ever played taking the ball into their hands and stretching those sweet notes to the very limit.

“Every time you go out there, whether it’s in an NBA arena in front of thousands of fans or in an empty gym all by yourself, it’s a blank piece of the canvas,” the immortal Julius “Dr. J” Erving once said. “The beauty is that the rules are very basic and very few and the only real constraints are your own. Whether it’s bland or it’s colorful is up to the individual. That’s what makes the game special. You can dare to be great.”

It’s the pioneers simply-named George Mikan and Paul Arizin and Bobby Wanzer and Slater Martin. It’s pop culture icons known as "Air Jordan", the "Human Highlight Film", "The Human Eraser", "Zeke from Cabin Creek", the "Greek Freak", "Downtown Freddie Brown", "Shaq Fu", "Jellybean", "Black Mamba", "The Mailman", "The Beard", "The Answer", "Manimal" and "Sir Charles".

 

Relive the top 10 playoff plays from Michael Jordan's storied career.

It’s movies like "Hoosiers" and "He Got Game" and "Heaven Is A Playground" and "Blue Chips" and "White Men Can’t Jump" and "Above the Rim" and "Space Jam" and even "The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh".

It’s the Harlem Globetrotters and, of course, the Washington Generals.  It’s the coin flip, the draft lottery and The Process.

It’s Jamaal “Silk” Wilkes letting fly with his jump shot so soft that coach Paul Westhead once likened it to a snowflake falling off a bamboo leaf.  It’s Moses Malone bruising for rebounds and bluntly describing the path through the playoffs as simply: “Fo! Fo! Fo!”

In the beginning they called it “Y ball” and “Springfield ball” and “Triangle ball.” There was even a movement to name it “Naismithball,” but the inventor squelched that.

Today the abstract artwork that is basketball is like an explosion in a paint factory with little splotches raining down all over the globe. There are national federations in 213 countries. There were 113 international players representing 41 nations on the opening-night NBA rosters for the 2016-17 season; it is the fastest-growing sport on the planet.

It is a mania in Italy and Spain and Greece and Argentina and the Philippines and 765 million people in China watched at least one NBA game last season. The league stretched its wings to open the 1990-91 season with two games in Tokyo and now, a quarter century later, regularly plays in every corner of the globe, setting up academies in Australia and running development programs in India and Africa.

The game has grown from the days of Drazen Petrovic and Hakeem Olajuwon and Sarunas Marciulionis as trailblazers to Dirk Nowitzki as a gangly young German import and question mark into a no-doubt-about-it first-ballot Hall of Famer. Tony Parker is from France, Goran Dragic from Slovenia, Joel Embiid from Cameroon, Ben Simmons from Australia, Andrew Wiggins from Canada, Clint Capela from Switzerland. And, of course, it is Darryl Dawkins as an alien from the planet Lovetron.

It’s the wagging finger of Dikembe Mutombo Mpolondo Mukamba Jean-Jacques Wamutombo.

 

Some of the best blocks from Dikembe Mutombo's storied career.

It’s high-topped Chuck Taylors, the kind that Tommy Heinsohn used to wear, the floppy sweat socks on a kid named “Pistol Pete” and the gap in his smile where a deep-in-the-weeds legend named Edgar Jones lost his front teeth when he banged them on the rim while soaring in for a slam dunk.

It’s Chocolate Thunder-flyin’-Robinzine-Cryin’-Teeth-Shakin’-Glass-Breakin’-Rump-Roastin’-Bun-Toastin’-Wham-Bam-Glass-Breaker-I-Am-Jam.

“First I heard the crack and it was like a shower of diamonds,” said Dawkins of that memorable night in Kansas City’s creaky old Municipal Auditorium. “Then I realized the whole thing was coming down and I knew it was time to get the hell out of there.”

The backboard was introduced when spectators at the YMCA began to hang over the balcony and swat shots away from the basket. Because fans became so involved in the action, using hands, feet, umbrellas, hat pins, even baseball bats to impede the opposition, chicken wire enclosures were erected around the courts, which is why basketball players for generations were known as cagers.

It’s the history that hangs in the air of Madison Square Garden and the Hollywood stars that hang out in the front row seats at Staples Center.

It’s "'Melo" and "Z-Bo", a Bird who could not fly and a frenzy of arms and legs incongruously known as "The Worm". It’s "The Microwave" and "El Contusion" and "Helicopter Hentz" and "Pop-A-Shot".  It’s Jerry West’s 60-foot shot that sent an NBA Finals game into overtime in 1970 and Ray Allen’s amazing 3-pointer out of the right corner in Game 6 that eventually brought down the Spurs in The 2013 Finals. It’s Michael Jordan over Craig Ehlo in 1989 that presaged a Chicago dynasty and broke more Cleveland hearts.

“The more I watch the game, the more I realize that, while easy to understand and simple to demonstrate, it is nevertheless a challenge to skill,” wrote Naismith a short time before his death in 1939. “This challenge to perfection in the execution of the plays is, to my mind, one of the attractions of the game for the pure pleasure it brings to the players.”

It is a million kids dribbling down dusty dirt paths and across trash-strewn asphalt playgrounds, who shoot imaginary hoops at graffiti-stained buildings or pristine red barn walls and who leap in high-five joy over a game-winning 3-pointer.

It’s the small joy of winning a game of H-O-R-S-E or the career-culminating thrill of accomplishment that comes from winning a championship.  All is takes is a ball and a hoop and 125 years of history.

Yeah, I think I’ll go shoot a few before it gets dark.

Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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