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The Yin and Yang of Basketball

In 1891, a physical education teacher in Springfield, Massachusetts invented the game we would come to know as basketball. In setting the height of the baskets, he inadvertently created a design problem that would not be resolved for decades to come.

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James Naismith, inventor of basketball

As James Naismith tacked up a pair of peach baskets at either end of the school gym, he did not give much thought to how high. He simply nailed them up 10 feet above the ground, split the students into teams, gave them an old soccer ball, and told the kids to try and score points by getting the ball in the opposing team’s basket.

As the game became more popular, super-tall players began to dominate the sport. In the 1940s and 1950s, dunking was still rare, but critics were already concerned that it was too easy to score.

Basketball player George Mikan in 1945 via The Sporting News Archives

Basketball player George Mikan in 1945 from The Sporting News Archives viaWikipedia

Then, in the 1960s, slam dunks started to take off. They were a captivating shot that reinforced the role of the so-called “big man” on the courts.

There was a political dimension to all of this as well. The dunk was becoming popular at a turbulent time in the country. The Black Panthers were organizing and arming themselves in Oakland and some white Americans were worried a revolution was about to take place. The rise of dunking was seen by some racist critics as a literal manifestation of “Black Power,” embodied in masters of the dunk like Lew Alcindor, who would later change his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Under pressure from critics of the dunk, the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) made a decision to ban the dunk in 1967. The NBA (National Basketball Association) did not ban the dunk, but still faced criticism about the slowness of play in the league.

Michael Jordan at Boston Garden by Lipofski

Michael Jordan at Boston Garden byLipofski, used with permission

That’s because, with or without the dunk, the game was just too jammed up around the net. Players would huddle around the basket and hand the ball to their “big man” teammates to score. Everyone involved seemed to share the sense that something needed to change.

People suggested a lot of fixes to make the game more dynamic: no backboard, a convex backboard, a smaller basket, a bigger ball, a smaller ball, a no scoring zone around the basket, and even a height cap, which would work like a sports team salary cap but using a player’s height instead of wages.

bear wrestling aba

Victor the wrestling bear publicity photos via Remember the ABA

None of those changes caught on, but a rival professional basketball league, new to the scene, came along aiming to shake things up with some other fresh approaches. The ABA (American Basketball Association) had many crazy ideas, including half-time shows with bear wrestling. Most of their ideas didn’t stick. Except for one: the three-point shot.

recommended changes

Recommended changes via the NCAA

Originally, shots from the field were worth two points. But the ABA’s innovation was to draw an arced line, about 22 feet from the basket.  Any shot made from behind that line was now worth three points.

Fans loved the three-point shot. It was impressive, but it was also something fans could practice at home. It was a shot they could aspire to.

The three-point shot also critically changed the dynamic on the court, rewarding attempts from further out and breaking up the cluster around the net. In turn, this reduced reliance on taller players, giving others players change to shine.

In 1976, the NBA and the ABA merged. Two years later, they added the three-point shot. Instead of designing the beautiful, powerful dunk out of the game, they designed a counterbalance. And now the game is more inclusive than it ever has been. There is room for little guys as well as big guys, and the latter are even shooting three-pointers now. Players are having to evolve just like basketball has evolved.

Some traditionalists still see the three-point shot as a problem (and they still don’t like the dunk, for that matter) but a lot of things that have had to change since James Naismith tacked those peach baskets to the gym wall. And to think: all of this started with a more-or-less accidental decision by a PE teacher just trying to keep kids quiet, entertained, and out of trouble.

CREDITS

PRODUCTION

Joe Sykes reported and produced this story for us and for ESPN, with help from Ryan Nantell, Emma Morgenstern, Delena Turman, Joe Fuentes, and Kevin Wildes. Special thanks to Jody Avirgan.

This episode featured the voices of Cari Champion; writer and journalistAndrew Heisel; Matt Andrews, teacher of American History at UNC Chapel Hill; former ABA and NBA basketball player Jerry Harkness; and Ramona Shelburne, senior writer for ESPN.com.

This piece is part of a podcast mini series ESPN is launching later this spring called “Dunkumentaries.” It’s a collection of stories all related to basketball’s slam dunk. The feed is live and you can subscribe to it on the ESPN mobile app or iTunes.

MUSIC

Reversing – Four Tet; This Unfolds – Four Tet; Circling – Four Tet; The Horse – Cliff Nobles & Co; Chop Your Hands – Onra; L’ Automne A Barbes Rochechouar – Jean-Claude Vannier; Stop Parching Yourself – Kelpe; Assinator – Copy; Choices (Yup) – Warriors Version, – E40

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