Happy Birthday, Basketball

The storyline is familiar to many of us: the first-ever basketball match was played on December 21, 1891, in Springfield, Massachusetts. It was a game invented by YMCA educator James Naismith as a means to keep his students – many of them young men – occupied during the more snow-bound months of winter. But less familiar is how the sport quickly spread around the world.

Melvin B. Rideout, Springfield College Digital Collections.

France was the first country outside North America to receive the game. Melvin Rideout, one of Naismith’s students and original basketball disciple, went to Paris to help set-up the YMCA’s new center at 14, rue de Trévise in 1893. The 22-year old from Illinois introduced basketball to the group’s teachers in the building’s new gymnasium, today the world’s oldest original basketball court.

Basketball was part of an era where the United States and its culture began to hold greater sway internationally. Improvements in transportation made it easier and quicker to travel, while new inventions and technology facilitated global communications. The result was greater movement of people, goods, and ideas from one part of the world to another.

The United States also wielded greater power and influence on the world’s stage. In recognition of its growing political and economic status, the U.S. Government began to upgrade its diplomatic representation abroad from ministers to ambassadors. In May 1893, James Biddle Eustis presented his credentials as the first U.S. Ambassador to France.

Basketball was part of the era’s embrace of sport as a way to build character and morality. It was far less violent than rugby, association football (soccer), and American football, and could be played indoors during inclement weather.

The new, upstart American invention was thus perhaps ideally suited as an export during the 1890s and early 1900s. The first hoops match on European soil was held on the rue de Trévise on December 27, 1893. In attendance was none other than Baron Pierre de Coubertin.[1] Over the next few decades, the sport would blanket the world, although it took two world wars to jumpstart the game’s cultural cool capital.

[1] Fédération Française de Basket-Ball (FFBB). “100 ans de Basket,” Basket-Ball, 16-17.