Basketball a popular, though slower, sport 100 years ago
While watching a college game on television, I got to thinking how much the sport has changed. It doesn’t resemble the game I attempted to play in high school, and it certainly doesn’t resemble Dr. Naismith’s recreation sport.
Today’s game is high speed and often played above the rim. When I was young it was a feat to be able to touch the rim. Now the game features slam dunks, “alley-oop” passes. Dunks were made popular initially by Wilt Chamberlain. Basketball players are so much faster and athletic than they were a half century ago, or for that matter, 25 years ago. It is a sport where fast-breaks and full-court presses are the norm. Fifty years ago they were relatively rare.
Players are much taller. If a high school team had a 6-foot-4 center he was a “really big man.” Now you need players in the 6-foot-7 range in high school and 6-foot-10 in college. One of the first giant centers I remember was Kansas University center Clyde Lovellette, who was 6-foot-9, which isn’t huge by today’s standards.
In those long ago days, guards slowly dribbled the ball up court and set up the offense. Against man-to-man defenses, almost all offenses featured screens. Zone defenses meant passing the ball around and hopefully getting an open shot. Pushing or even touching an opposing player was a foul, just as the rule book states. Old-timers would be shocked by the pushing and shoving today, because in the days of yore, basketball players were held in lower esteem than football players when it came to toughness.
Reading the old newspapers shows just how popular basketball was in that time period. Of course, games didn’t start until December and until the 1930s, there were no official state champions. One story pointed out that Bonner Springs’ residents trudged through snow and bitter cold to get to a high school game. They walked up a flight of stairs because the gym was on the second floor of a business building. Heat was provided by a pot-bellied coal stove in the corner. If you think about it, you can see why basketball was so popular. After all, there was no radio or TV for entertainment.
Scores were often low because of the rules. There was a center jump after every basket, which eliminated the popular run-and-gun play that came into vogue in the 1950s.
I found it interesting that The Chieftain often reported that teams traveled via the electric railroad to games. I suppose that fans also used the railroad to travel to away games. I didn’t read about cheerleaders or pep bands until the 1940s.
Adult or town teams were popular, too. In the 1920s, girls’ basketball was also a big sport. Of course, turn of the century basketball was a slower sport, as there was only one referee and there weren’t many fouls. You have to be an old-timer to remember when free throws were shot underhanded. Teams weren’t allowed to talk to coaches at timeout. They gathered under opposite baskets to talk among themselves.
Basketball fashion has changed, too. Not too many years ago players wore real shorts. However, the new longer pants have caught on, and a picture of a 1970s player wearing short shorts looks strange. At the turn of the century, girls teams wore bloomers that resembled an upside down mushroom. Some girls’, teams were even required to wear hose.
Yes, the game has changed and improved over the years, and there is no doubt about its popularity because there are televised games every night. However, there is no substitute for the atmosphere of attending a game in person, and I hope you will consider attending a few local high school games.