Basketball invented in Mass., ‘made for Indiana’

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The state McCay settled in was ripe for a new amusement. Baseball had never boomed. As for another sport quickly growing in stature nationwide . “Football is all but dead in Indiana,” declared Isaac Neff, secretary of the Indiana High School Athletic Association, in 1912. “Only 20 of our 250 schools had teams on the field for interscholastic games.”

Football was a hard sell, after all. At the turn of the century, Indiana was little more than a rural expanse dotted with hundreds of small hamlets spread across its endless plains. The state lacked the heavily-populated industrial cities nearby Ohio, Michigan and Illinois had. Schools were alarmingly small. For most, fielding a football team was out of the question.

Basketball, on the other hand, met all the necessary criteria. Since it could be played indoors in the winter, it didn’t interfere with harvest season in the fall or planting season in the spring. And best of all: It was cheap. Even the smallest schools had no trouble scraping together five-man teams.

Though invented in Massachusetts, it was Indiana that provided fertile ground for the sport to flourish.

“It all boils down to the fact that Indiana was a fundamentally agricultural state,” says Dale Ogden, a basketball historian and curator at the Indiana State Museum. “It was all spread out, and consolidation in the schools came late. All you had were kids living on farms miles from each other.”

And so, in the winter of 1893, in the YMCA gymnasium inside the Terminal Building at 100 West Main Street in Crawfordsville, McCay introduced Naismith’s game to Indiana. He did so with one amendment: Instead of peach baskets, he had a local blacksmith fashion two metal rings. Nailed to the wall, they served as rims while burlap coffee sacks dangled beneath.

The first organized game came a few months later, a 45-21 victory for Crawfordsville. Yet the final score is not what J.B. Griffith, a player on the winning team, recalled decades later. It was his bruised knuckles.

“Being just about the tallest and slimmest kid on the floor, it became my job right off to jump each time a goal was made and knock the ball out of the sack,” he told the Journal-Review in 1944.

The March 23, 1894, edition of The Crawfordsville Star noted as many as 300 fans paid admission to witness that first game, “crowding into the gallery to look down on the gladiatorial scene below.”

Revisions to Naismith’s original rules quickly came. Slits were cut into the bottom of the coffee sacks so the ball would slide through (and spare Griffith’s knuckles). Free throws were awarded for fouls. Teams were trimmed from nine to five, and in 1898, dribbling was first allowed.

Farm boys statewide fell hard and fell quick for the new game, and the fire that had been first lit by McCay and the town of Crawfordsville swiftly spread. They played on the skating rink in Madison, on dirt fields in Martinsville, on the driveway of a lumberyard in Carmel. There are accounts of others pushing church pews against the wall and dragging desks from schoolhouses into the snow.

“If you grew up in Indiana, the most important thing was figuring out where the nearest basket was,” says Les Habegger, raised in Berne, Ind., in the 1930s. “When our family moved, the first thing my brothers and I did at our new house was look for a spot we could put our backboard up. That’s all you did, you just played ball.”

In a dark and lonely winter, the gym was a warm, noisy and well-lit place. Basketball was a godsend.

Habegger, now 89, recalls his seventh-grade team traveling to nearby Decatur for a county tournament despite the fact that they only had five boys on the team - and seven in the entire grade. No matter. They left as Adams County champs. It was the first time any of them had played basketball indoors.

The game became an epidemic because it was so easily accessible. A boy didn’t need 10 friends, or five, or three. He didn’t even need one. Fathers would swipe slabs of wood from the nearby lumberyard and nail makeshift baskets to barns, trees and outhouses. All a boy needed was a ball.

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