Pro Basketball's Early Years

By Robert W. Peterson

Oxford. 224 pp. $19.95

"Baseball may be the national pastime and football the national mania," Robert W. Peterson writes, "but basketball is the national game." This may seem a surprising assertion in light of the first two sports' long and storied histories, but quite certainly it is true. Americans of all ages in all places, of both sexes and all races, of all economic and social groups -- Americans play basketball all the time. It requires only a ball and a basket, and you can make do with only a single player; small wonder that in the 99 years of its existence, the game has quite literally swept the country.

It was invented by a YMCA physical director named James Naismith in the fall of 1891. He was working in the Massachusetts city of Springfield, where the participants in an adult-education class found themselves restless during the long, cold winter months; to keep them active and happy, Naismith invented an indoor game that would be, he said, "interesting, easy to learn, and easy to play in the winter and by artificial light." The rest is history.

Except that it's history we know surprisingly little about. We assume that basketball at all levels, most particularly the professional, is a child of the postwar era -- that before the coming of George Mikan and Bob Cousy and Bill Russell there was a long Dark Ages in which nobody played basketball and the game stayed barely alive through some mysterious process presumably known only to the gods of basketball.

The truth, as Peterson demonstrates in "Cages to Jump Shots," is another matter altogether. Peterson is something of a specialist in uncovering the hidden corners of sports history -- one of his previous books is "Only the Ball Was White," an estimable and pioneering account of black baseball -- and here he shows us that contrary to the conventional wisdom, basketball was popular from the outset, so popular that people were willing to pay to watch it even in its earliest days.

The first pro game seems to have been played in Trenton, N.J., only five years after the game's invention -- so early in its life that rules and playing conditions bore only a casual relationship to the game as we know it now. To wit: Why do sportswriters call basketball players "cagers"? Because in Trenton, as in most other places in that time, the court was surrounded by a 12-foot-high wire-mesh fence that separated the players from the spectators and kept the ball more or less continuously in play.

The game was slow, rough and, at least by our standards, dull. There was a center jump after each score; the ball had a thick seam that made accurate dribbling nearly impossible, and in any event the ball quickly lost its shape; shooting was either by layup or set shot, the jump shot being unheard of; though accurate passing was at a premium, the ball was often advanced by players who simply shoved their way through the opposition more in the manner of rugby than that of today's precise teamwork.

Naismith, who presided over the game as its founding genius until his death in 1939, didn't like this rough, clumsy play one bit. He told a successful Schenectady pro team in 1905: "You play the game of basketball as it was intended to be played, by passing the ball from one player to another until a player reaches an advantageous position to make a try for the basket." In time that was how all of the best teams played, but it took a number of rule changes before the game was opened up enough to make Naismith's ideal a reality.

It wasn't an easy process. The game was popular and grew ever more so over the years, but the early pro teams faced all the growing pains familiar to those in other sports, among them competition among owners and leagues, unmet payrolls, indifference and even hostility from the press, and obedience to the prevailing racial attitudes of the day. Progress toward the huge success that the National Basketball Association eventually became was halting and slow -- as recently as a decade ago the NBA seemed to many an iffy proposition -- but hindsight shows us that it was sure.

Peterson tells this story in great detail, indeed at times too great as he recites old scores and old league alignments, and from time to time he turns it over to the words of the men who played the game. These are the best parts; they are old men now, but they speak with the enthusiasm of youth as they recall the glory of their times.