On December 21, 1891, in a gym in Springfield, Massachusetts, a Canadian physical education instructor by the name of James Naismith nailed a couple of peach baskets to the walls, rolled out a soccer ball, and created the most “I probably don’t need to tell you what you’re supposed to do” simplicity-itself moment in the history of sports.
Indeed, other than soccer itself—a ball, two goals at opposite ends of a pitch, and a self-evident implied instruction as to what one is supposed to do that is so simple that a five-year-old child can easily play the ensuing game—there is no simpler sport than basketball.
Naismith’s original basketball game was governed by just 13 rules. Compare that with today’s NBA rule book, whose 2016-17 edition obtained from the website of the league itself via a quick Google search contains 68 full pages and devotes seven pages to its index alone, and you’ll see just how far the game has come in 129 years.
Taking it a step further, there’s also the FIBA rule book that governs international play, the rule book the NCAA uses for college games, another 51 different books governing high school ball in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, and countless other variations on the game that have come up since that day in Springfield.
But the simple fact remains that until 1979 in the NBA and 1985 in college, “throw this ball through that hoop and you get two points” was the only rule that ultimately mattered.
Sure, there’s free throws, and over the last 35 or 40 years or so there have been three-point shots (the 3-pointer’s genesis goes all the way back to 1967 when the ABA used it, so it’s 53 years old in total as a major tool of the sport), but “throw ball into hoop more times than the other team does so” remains the game’s overall guiding principle.
And the NBA’s complicated set of rules is not because it wants the game to be needlessly complex but because in the interest of fairness and as testament to the cleverness of players and coaches who have an Air Bud “ain’t no rule that says” ethos—all that is not prohibited is allowed—the league has had to patch the game like a video game developer closing loopholes and patching out exploits.
Then again, that sort of foolery makes all of sports more fun. Bob Sura intentionally missed a shot on a breakaway just to grab his own rebound and secure a triple-double in 2004. Ricky Davis infamously tried to do so on the other team’s basket in 2003 for the same reason; both relics of the Dark Ages have thankfully been retroactively purged from the rolls like a rejiggered Steam achievement.
The Davis disgrace, however, did give rise to one of the best bits of retribution in basketball history; for his crime against sportsmanship and the integrity of the game, Davis, playing for a Cleveland Cavaliers team that was up 25 with six seconds left, got clobbered with an intentional foul by Utah’s DeShawn Stevenson and even Jerry Sloan, Stevenson’s coach, said outright to the media that “I would’ve knocked him on his ass.”
But that’s all an aside. Naismith had just 13 rules by which the game was governed because 13 was all he needed.
The fact that anyone who watches the sport of basketball can easily go on a diversion over the smallest thing and end up down a rabbit hole—Davis played for the 2003 Cavaliers, who were terrible in part because they had people like Ricky Davis playing for them, so they stunk, so they won the 2003 draft lottery and got LeBron James, who brought the city its first sports championship in 52 years in 2016 and is similar to Ricky Davis only insofar as both he and Davis are black American men, something something and that’s six degrees of Kevin Bacon—speaks to just how much of an impact basketball has had since Naismith invented it.
Which is all the more glorious since basketball is a relative newcomer to the sporting scene.
The first game of baseball that would be reasonably familiar to the modern viewer was played in 1846 in a park in Hoboken, New Jersey. 25 years later, in 1871, the National Association of Base Ball Players founded the precursor to today’s big leagues, and the National League—yes, THAT National League, the one we know today as half of Major League Baseball—came along in 1876.
Walter Camp is credited with inventing American football, and the first game of the new rugby offshoot that would spawn a pro league celebrating its 100th anniversary this year was played between Rutgers and Princeton—another sport that started in New Jersey!—on November 6, 1869.
According to the International Ice Hockey Federation, the first game of Canada’s pastime was played on March 3, 1875 in Montreal, which is not in New Jersey, and the Stanley Cup was first awarded in 1893.
So basketball is the youngest of the four major sports by 16 years and, with MLB having started in 1876, the NHL coming along in 1917, and the NFL showing up in 1920, the NBA (in the form of the Basketball Association of America), founded in 1946, is by 26 years the youngest major professional sport.
Even if you want to consider only sports that matured into the sport we know and love today rather than being regarded as ancient history, the NBA is still the youngest sport.
Baseball’s modern era is disputed, but for most baseball historians, the “modern game” started either in 1920 (the live-ball era) or 1947 (the integration era, after Jackie Robinson came on the scene.)
Hockey’s modern era is considered to have started in 1967, when the Original Six teams were joined by six new expansion teams to set the league on the path it followed to today.
Every pro football record is widely prefaced by “since the merger”, referring to the merger of the NFL with the rival American Football League before the 1970 season.
Basketball’s modern era? Again, disputed, but it’s either the 1976-77 season (the first after the NBA absorbed the ABA) or “the 3-point era”, meaning the 1979-80 season. Anything before that is for the most part ancient history, making basketball not only the youngest pro sport, but the one with the most recent date applied to “the sport as we know it today.”
But just look at all the rich history we’ve managed to pack into just 40 years of “modern” basketball.
The 1979-80 season was the rookie year for Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, kicking off the “Showtime Lakers era” (sorry, Celtics fans, but 8 Finals and five titles in 12 seasons means Magic gets to define the period of history in which he played.)
We got the 1991 Finals to pass the torch from the Lakers to the Chicago Bulls, forever imprinting the ’90s on the public consciousness as the “Michael Jordan Era”.
And after the Dark Ages (between Jordan’s second retirement in 1998 and when Mike D’Antoni discovered fun in a supply closet in Phoenix in 2005, blew the dust off it, and made basketball watchable for the first time in seven years), the 2003 draft class came of age and we got the LeBron James Era.
That’s enough history in 40 years to put basketball in a position where it has the best modern history of any sport.
Heck, backdate the revival of basketball three years to the ABA merger and what you’ve got is a dead even third of the sport’s history packed into the very best time to be a basketball fan.
In some sense, that’s fitting. Divide basketball history into thirds and you get three distinct eras each defined by their own place in the lore of the game, from the early days of Naismith traveling the country and giving rise to the college game—Naismith is the reason the University of Kansas is a powerhouse to this day, as he was the school’s first-ever basketball head coach—to the peak of the college game and the early eras of pro ball between 1934 and 1977 to the era of legends and high-flying athleticism of the greats of the game that anyone born in the last 50 years knows in some form or fashion.
What happens between now and 2063? Because in 2063, 43 years of basketball will be not a third but a quarter of the sport’s history. Whatever happens, it’s only fitting that this new era of the game tips off tomorrow as the NBA returns.
Happy birthday, basketball. Here’s to 129 years of the greatest game in the world.