When James Naismith invented basketball back in 1891, it was a completely different game from what it is today. In fact, the first game of “basket ball” ever played had nine players – not five – and used a soccer ball, not a ball designed specifically for the game like we have today. Yes, the famous peach baskets were really there, but the original 13 rules that Naismith set out for the game would make it hard to recognize today. To start with, the ball could only be moved up the court by passing – dribbling wasn’t allowed – and every basket was followed by a jump-off at center court. It’s amazing how far things have come from that first game at Springfield College.
One of the biggest forces for change in basketball has been technology. For instance, think about just how different the game is today now that we have the instant replay. While some purists still struggle with this, the truth is that it makes for a fairer game that is determined by the skill of the players, rather than the referee’s ability to see the play. This is a relatively recent innovation – the instant replay only came in for the 2002/2003 season after what happened in the Western Conference finals the previous season. Anyone who remembers the number of wrong calls that were made in Game 6 of the series between the Lakers and the Kings – and the allegations of corruption that followed – will know exactly how important the instant replay is for the game.
Another perfect example of how technology has made basketball immeasurably better is the breakaway rim. Back in the early 1980s, it seemed that the backboard was being shattered every second game. Not only was this dangerous, it led to long delays and some games were even canceled. Of course, it is spectacular when a backboard shatters, but when the fans have been sitting there for an hour waiting for the backboard to be replaced, it’s not so much fun anymore. When the breakaway rim was introduced in 1983, this put a stop to the madness. Rather than the backboard shattering every time a player grabbed the rim, now the rim simply bent and snapped back into place when it was released. It’s pretty rare to see a shattered backboard nowadays, and the game is much better because of it.
Of course, these are only a couple of examples – there are many more, such as the shot clock. What is interesting is to speculate what might come next. For example, while NBA games are still played on hardwood surfaces, there is an increasing interest in basketball courts made of synthetic materials. These offer a number of real advantages, such as far better grip. While this may seem a bit far-fetched to some people, former greats such as Scottie Pippen have come out in favor of these types of surfaces. If you are still skeptical, think back to the time when all players wore canvas sneakers – and then remember how Michael Jordan and Nike revolutionized basketball footwear. Jordan might have had to pay a $5000 fine every game to do it, but now we would be amazed if someone showed up in an old pair of Converses at an NBA game.