With March Madness here and the NBA playoffs just over the horizon, we thought it was about time that serious and seasonal fans alike learn a thing or two or nine about the humble list of rules that started it all. But since basketball creator James Naismith is long dead, we found the next best things: Neil Fine and Gary Belsky, authors of the forthcoming On the Origins of Sports: The Early History and Original Rules of Everybody’s Favorite Games (Artisan). The ex-ESPN editors provided us with their favorite takeaways from Naismith’s 13 original 1891 laws of the game. Whether you reward them by buying their book is entirely up to you. —Editors
1. THE FIRST BASKETBALL WASN'T.
It was a soccer ball.
2. THE MORE THE MERRIER.
Nowhere in the original rules is the number of players per side specified. Naismith, who had been asked to invent an indoor winter activity by his boss at a YMCA in Springfield, Massachusetts, wanted a game adaptable enough to include whoever wanted to play. For a while the crowd on the court was a default 18, nine per side, because that’s how many showed up for the first game. In 1897, though, the starting five was formalized, and substitutions allowed. But it wasn’t until 1920 that a replaced starter could return to a game—just once—and not until 1945 that unlimited substitutions became the rule.
3. NO DRIBBLING ALLOWED.
In the beginning, a player could not advance the ball himself. Rather, he had to throw it from wherever he caught it. The first team credited with advancing the ball by dribbling it played at Yale in 1897. (The same Yale that made this year’s NCAA Tournament, for the first time since 1962.) Leave it to Ivy Leaguers to re-interpret the passing rule to include a bounce pass to a player himself. Official allowances for the dribble—just one per possession initially—were adopted four years later.
4. NO HARM, NO FOUL.
Shouldering, holding, pushing, tripping, or otherwise striking an opponent was never OK. But such offenses weren’t recorded as personal fouls until 1910, with the advent of a rule disqualifying a player for committing four of them. That total was raised to five in 1946, in the inaugural rules of the Basketball Association of America (the original name of the National Basketball Association), and to six the next year.
5. "BASKET BALL" WAS NOT A EUPHEMISM.
The original description of what constituted a goal—“when the ball is thrown or batted from the grounds into the basket and stays there”—held until 1913, when open-ended nets replaced closed, woven cast-iron rims (which had replaced peach baskets in the mid-1890s).
6. IT WAS ALMOST TACKLE BASKETBALL.
When the ball landed out of bounds, possession was determined by throwing it down court and seeing which team touched it first. That’s one wrinkle Naismith didn’t quite think through; scrambles to be first to the ball resulted in seriously injurious confrontations. Thus, the rule change in 1913, giving the ball to whichever team hadn’t touched it last.
7. EARLY REFEREES NEEDED WATCHES.
That’s because one of the official duties of early refs was timekeeping. Then again, there wasn’t that much time to keep: the 24-second shot clock wasn’t instituted until 1954, to combat stalling tactics NBA teams had begun to employ.
8. THE ORIGINAL GAME WAS BRIEF.
Naismith envisioned two 15-minute halves, with five minutes’ rest between. When the BAA was formed in 1946, the two halves were rejiggered as four quarters of 12 minutes each to give fans more ball for their buck.
9. NOW THAT'S AN IDEA: OVERTIME BY CONSENSUS!
In the case of a tie, Naismith stipulated that the game could be continued “by agreement of the captains” until one more goal was made.
It wasn’t until the 1960s that such sudden death gave way to a five-minute overtime period.
On the Origins of Sports: The Early History and Original Rules of Everybody’s Favorite Games (Artisan) comes out April 19th.