Barnstorming: Roots of the NBA I. Introduction: Early November and Baseball is Done–Ice is Forming After Naismith, hoops embarked on a crusade of escalating and varying pro and amateur leagues. The hoop movement began in the Northeast and spread like wildfire throughout the United States. A game that began to keep a group of young men at bay turned into a real winner. Basketball became as addictive as Euchre is within the state of Wisconsin. Fans began to pay to watch schools and early pro teams. The magical rules of the game began to unfold with no national or international organizing body overruling. Medicine and soccer balls were rapidly phased out, and balls one could dribble entered the game.
were a century ago. Hoops became the sandwich sport between football and baseball. How perfect was the new game which had precipitated few injuries; was very inexpensive to support; and had enough scoring to maintain consistent fan interest. Modern basketball had arrived onto the United States sports scene and would never leave. It’s now considered the international game having morphed from the barnstorming TEAMS of the early and mid 20th Century.
Basketball became a pure sport of athleticism, coordination, teamwork, speed, endurance and coaching prowess. Offense, defense and transition began to unfold– though it would be a few years before John Wooden’s esteemed fast break offense was accepted. Rapidly the Early improved basketball game became a superb athletic showmanship of scoring. Early sharpshooters were faced with varying basket heights, ball pressures and sizes, rules and gymnasium sizes. Despite all the variations amongst leagues, fans came to watch prolific scorers with a soft touch. Many fans willing to pay were turned away after “standing room only” was reached. What else is there to do in Red Wing, Minnesota when the temperature is 35 below? Any true sports fan has the common sense to go to the local pro barnstorming basketball game.
Shooting touch became a true art within basketball. One either had “game” or you did not. Half the shots were banked off metal, wood, or glass (early 1900s Indiana glass backboard emergence). Many leagues had open baskets with no backboard–in large part eliminating the rebounding and tip in advantages presented with a backboard present. If you couldn’t drain, swish or bank a shot in, you were not worthy of being on the court–forget being a #2 shooting guard. Shooters emerged from all arenas. Specialization with rebounders, passers, and shooters hadn’t yet evolved. There were no “Mikans” walking around specializing in rebounding and post moves. All players had similar predictable skill sets: dribbling, set shot, layup, passing–the total game.
Fan interest in basketball blossomed. If it was a date, then it was two in attendance. Helicopter parents tripled the tally. A double date again doubled those numbers, and soon you had a full armory. This was a substantial family and social event also, with meals before and after games, discourse during halftime, and a real positive place to meet and enjoy the people of the community. Essentially the entire town attended. It was socially unacceptable to not be at these competitive early barnstorming basketball games. This truly was how things
The feelings amongst a TEAM held that players and fans watching and listening to a swish sound was beyond description. During the earliest basketball times the familiar warm sound was the wood clang at the bottom of a peach or wired bushel basket. Sports were a departure from an assembly line within a factory. Basketball print slowly migrated from the last page in sports sections to the middle, and then rapidly to the front pages. Basketball was a game for all, everywhere and at anytime–unlike hockey which required cold weather and
An early National Basketball League team
As a little guy I watched a black barnstorming hoop TEAM in the early 1960s play a white TEAM of All Stars in a tiny Wisconsin town. The barnstormers all played loose, smiled constantly, had zero fatigue, and were as sound fundamentally a hoop TEAM as I ever remember. I distinctly remember crisp “no look” passes, block outs, cross over dribbles and defensive double TEAMS. Out of bounds plays were well practiced and often utilized practiced deception. When is the last time in a meaningful game you witnessed a weak side pass off the glass? I told myself that was only a dream–but in reality it was a well executed designed play. The weak side hadn’t even been discussed back then, though it existed and was implicitly known and respected by great hoop players and coaches. I’ve rarely seen anything as creative as this weak side pass off the glass in modern basketball. This was a real game with pure athletic pride on the line, and not just money as one might think today.
frozen water on ponds or complicated indoor refrigeration techniques. Hoops was simple, inexpensive, could be practiced at home in the driveway and played year round indoors or out. Amidst the growing excitement of the game was a true American phenomenon–barnstorming.
These barnstorming guys slept somewhere, but not in barns. Martin Luther King Jr.’s civil rights efforts had effected great changes by then and competitive collegial play amongst all was prevalent. The most interesting phenomenon all sports fans enjoyed was the truly perfected gift of soft athletic hands with shooting touch second to none. Streaky shooters were a treat to watch during peak times. A fan never went home thinking he didn’t get his money’s worth. Guys came out of the woodwork with their “melted butter” soft hands well before the NBA and George Gervin (the NBA’s preeminent ICEMAN). These were the good old days of sport for sport–a golden time prior to the NCAA, NBA, D leagues and Olympic hoops. A player bragged with fundamental skills and the best skill of all was a
Camden Electrics, circa 1902
Barnstorming is an American frontier term originally applicable to theater companies that traveled to rural areas and had its actors sleep in barns. It became a stunt flyers term in the 1920s with notables like Charles Lindbergh. Reckless airplane crashes seemingly ended the very popular air show era. Negro baseball led the sports charge initially with barnstorming. TEAMS captivated audiences with superb skills of batting ( Josh Gibson’s purported 1500 homers in his career), or Satchel Page’s blinding fastball while pitching doubleheaders with no relievers. This era was marked by sports integration, as many superb Negro baseball athletes played versus white pro and amateur TEAMS. All Star Negro baseball TEAMS played such TEAMS as the AL Stars in 1946 (pitching matchup was Paige at age 55 with three scoreless innings versus Cleveland’s Lemon). Slowly basketball barnstorming came of age with the Harlem Globetrotters becoming the most famous of all barnstorming sports TEAMS. All players and sports fans appreciated the athletic gift and grace of a basketball player with real “Game.” Amidst all the excitement of a visiting TEAM, a player that devoted his entire existence to a contrived game recently invented was a new and appreciated phenomenon. A lot of onlookers watched jealously as these hoop athletes played for money, savoring the day when they could just play sports and not mine coal.
Early Globetrotters team 2
shooter’s touch, feel and rhythm. Guys with the golden hands were not dissimilar to Alpert on trumpet, Joplin on piano, Ruth’s or Josh Gibson’s patented swings with their superb eye and hand coordination; or the great Jim Thorpe’s legs and athletic prowess. Passing with superb court vision dominated the landscape and these fundamental skills acquired through hard practice (and coaching) seem to have left the game in part nowadays. The barnstormers really did not stare at an open player making a break to the hoop. The pass was expectedly received in rhythm for a lay in or open set shot. Simply said, the game of hoops during these early formative years was about TEAM play, rather than individual play and statistics.
millionaires; yet it still doesn’t matter when an NBA title is at stake. These pro hoop players are playing hard to win–forget everything else surrounding the event. This is for KEEPS. Remember the good old days of not-so-long-ago—those 90’s Bulls vs Knicks low scoring playoff games? Those were a combination of defense, low percentage shooting, free throw contests, bench strength, nice trash talking, superb blocking out underneath and hard fouls. Middle aged and older guys with cash purchased NBA TEAMS as a hobby. The owners wearing three piece suits in the private booths spent mega bucks and competed against each other nationally. There were many competitive trenches fighting including center height, guard speed, drafting early, screwy trades (the Buck’s Alcindor for the Laker TEAM), money deals with soft caps, coach stealing and even near bankruptcy (Omaha–KC). The game had swung to defense in that period, and 70 points might win an NBA playoff game; sometimes 65. Today with computers and instant statistics, guys are graded and paid based on stats, not always based on wins and losses. When was the last time you saw a second string pro or college QB get in the game short of injury to a first stringer? We are well beyond Zeke Bratkowski, Earl Morrell or George Blanda. We’re into stats, money, stats for money and money for stats. What does a 300 yard throwing game mean? If I throw for a buck 90 and win, that’s what counts. A 300 yard or even a 500 yard passing game essentially means soft defense: a five yard pass, missed tackle, and 75 yards later into the front door of the house. This doesn’t equate to a great QB. Bratkowski was a great QB in reserve who actually played
Oshkosh All Stars
It’s early November; and baseball, the national pastime, has been finished now for a couple weeks. We need a winter sports fix–and basketball is rapidly becoming accepted in the early 20th Century. Hoops are everywhere–not just in the “Y.” Ice is beginning to form on the streets, sidewalks, driveways and within a shooter’s hands. There are guys and a few gals that can flat out drain it from anywhere. Let’s look back at the little told history of these barnstorming hoop days–the real ICE AGE of sports and soft touch.
II. The Early Ice Age, Philosophy, and Forgotten TEAMS A true sportsman would play for zero notoriety and little dough. Ask Abby Wambach or Adrian Peterson if they would juke a player and score for the thrill of sport. You bet they would. Money has contaminated much in our modern lives and sports are no different. It is easier to make a hedge fund deal than play 90 minutes of pro soccer or four quarters in the NFL. You have to love the sport. One can hate capitalism and still make the stock trade, but one cannot go through spring training or two a days if they don’t love their sport. Money for a sports guy or gal is nice, but it isn’t what it’s all about–really isn’t. If I don’t see a fight under the basket or a guy leaping over the scorer’s table in an NBA contest, something is definitely wrong. Many of these hoop pro players are multi-
Lew Alcindor aka Kareem Abdul Jabar
in Nebraska (D3) went on a hoop rampage in 2012 with a 93 county tour to improve their TEAM, have fun and live sports as youth should live it. The Doane coach made a dream come true. This is truly sport for sport–no different than an endless series of pickup games that some say don’t really count–but may count more in the long scheme of life. It’s fitting that Doane has remained competitive in D3 men’s hoops. Maybe the Coach of the Year honor belonged to a guy in Crete, Nebraska before the season started. The King and his court (Eddie Feigner) are still at it, barnstorming softball throughout the United States. Imagine a life of doubles, pick off plays, double steals, extra innings, and plays at the plate–not bad. Where has all this gone?
regularly; thus, when he came in he was game ready. Football and many other sports have changed from just wins to player fantasy leagues–where stats really count. This stat phenomenon goes all the way down to middle school and Pop Warner in football. And in hoops it is similar regarding AAU/MS/HS TEAMS. It’s not about winning the game–it’s about stats. Few guys in hoops get it, like Coach K, Larry Brown, Phil Jackson, Lebron, Bird, Magic, et al. The barnstormers actually got it. It was about the game. They didn’t need a scorer’s sheet or computer to tell them they were hot that night. The fans, players and girlfriends all winked with approval after the game. A free Pepsi or beer resulted from a good night. This “guy code” within sports has largely disappeared. Today someone is now a “10 and 10 guy” (10 points and 10 boards). I’m still looking for the barnstormer that threw that weak side pass off the glass–he can flat out play. Where is the microwave (Vinny Johnson of the Pistons)? Give me these early sport-for-the-sake-of-sport bank shot guys who shot lights out before they needed a 3 point line–a disgrace and shame to elder statesmen of the game. I want a 1990s Tiger Woods gut removal contest–a guy who really would sleep as a barnstormer in the caddy shack to have a chance to eagle #13 at Augusta. We want blood dripping going to the 14th tee. Blood was spilled at barnstormer contests repeatedly. These guys played for the game of basketball. Enough money to keep them going thankfully occurred. This was an era unsurpassed in sports and never to return again. Thus we’re going back, way back, so hang on!
The New York Celtics
The end of barnstorming coincided with the end of “pickup” games in America. While there is some of both still around, the backyard and neighborhood park hoop courts in most neighborhoods have clean cement not chipped by basketballs pounding the pavement. Ask a kid from the 60s to shoot 10 free throws, and he’ll easily make seven, even if he’s not on the middle or high school TEAM. Back then even the theater kid star was actually decent at hoops. Nowadays the only pickup left of measurable quality is in inner city neighborhoods where it is still quite good. Their forefathers were gutty and had “you know what” to head out with a few pennies in their pockets and dare play anyone anywhere at any time.
The Texas Cowgirls and The Harlem Globetrotters were the most famous barnstorming women’s and men’s hoop TEAMS respectively. The Globetrotters are still going strong. They habitually play the Washington Generals, a group of under achievers who never measure up to the Globetrotters but who still qualify as decent players. Beginning in 1949, the Texas Cowgirls made it all the way to 1977 as a sporting enterprise. The year of their founding was the same year the Globe Trotters (barnstormers) beat George Mikan’s Lakers 61-59, after the Lakers had won the NBA title. There are not many TEAMS left that can afford to follow a similar pattern in sports as the barnstormers. Doane College 4
The Original NY Celtics (not Boston), Philadelphia SPHAs, Buffalo Germans, and NY Rens had their roots barnstorming in the early 1900s. Others included the Renaissance Five and Trojans of NY. The Buffalo Germans had a 111 game consecutive win streak (792-86 from 1895-1929). The Troy Trojans won 35 straight on a barnstorming tour in 1935. This TEAM invented the bounce pass by most accounts. All these great barnstorming TEAMS are enshrined in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. Barnstorming was an offshoot of multiple pro leagues that had begun in the late 1800s including the Philadelphia Basketball League, Eastern Basketball League,
NBA games (two per night counting the NBA contest). Howland and his wife, Florence, had seven road babies. Florence Howland had to have loved hoops for Dempsey to even think about life in a van for years. These days are long gone, a strong part of hoop lore and the game’s great players and coaches all owe a measure of gratitude to these great players.
Hudson River League, NY State League, and Interstate Basketball League. The first professional African American player, Bucky Lew, played in a game between Marlboro versus Lowell in the New England Basketball League. The original Celtics (NYC) were the very first on record to have individual player contracts. They also developed pivot and post moves for the game itself. The Celtics were the first TEAM on record to switch between man and zone defense. Early barnstorming TEAMS made more money from traveling than joining a league.
House of David barnstorming team
III. Pre-NBA: the Golden Era of Hoop Barnstorming Things in life do take time. Hoops had such an impact on the sports world that capitalism had to step in and take advantage of this phenomenon. In 1937 Goodyear, Firestone, and General Electric formed the NBL (National Basketball League). This led to the NBA in the mid 40s. This league was mainly in the Midwest and formed from already existing barnstormers and guys in industrial leagues.
1922 Philadelphia SPHAs
Today basketball has players all throughout the globe professionally, usually in leagues with big contracts. If you don’t have the “Game” for an NBA TEAM, there is the D league and multiple other professional venues across the globe. These international professional leagues pay much more than a touring TEAM of barnstormers. Our society is way over board regarding sports organization in the quest to be #1. Few players even consider playing outside the box. It did however, immensely assist Brandon Jennings of the Bucks playing offshore, Kurt Warner with NFL Europe and VJ Singh’s barnstorming Asia before he could compete on the PGA level. Wilt Chamberlain, The Big Dipper, played for the Harlem Globetrotters before he went into the NBA. Undoubtedly Wilt grew from his Globetrotter days playing with such superb hoop stars. The Big Dipper played loosely without being intimidated and thus, could improve his patented inside game.
Since Naismith’s invention the game of basketball rapidly escalated into a game of speed, finesse, fitness, energy and skill. No longer could one just show up and play. Practice became a part of the game and it was truly sport for sport. Few coaches or players made any serious money, but they made enough to support their addiction to hoops. Notable rule changes adopted in 1923 by most leagues did away with the designated free throw shooter. Ten players had been the standard for many years (1897) and was strictly enforced. The game escalated when the center jump after each scored basket was eliminated in 1936. The flow of the game really did progress, leading to the excitement of quick inbounding and transition. Hoops from elementary school to the professionals all began to see speed emerge with great fan approval. Six-ten George Mikan caused the offensive lane 3 second rule violation. Now TEAMS had to actually plan offensive plays around perimeter players who could screen, block out, utilize the weak side, pass and mesh that with large stiffs underneath–moving in and out of the lane. Basketball was truly coming of age. Amidst all of this were the true barnstormers.
Atlantic Coast Conference TEAMS Duke, NC, and NC State have a summer barnstorming tour of seniors yearly so that North Carolina small town folk can see these guys. Everyone wins as I did as a kid watching a “lights out” Barnstorming TEAM kill with superb hoop skill a TEAM consisting of super stars. Dempsey Howland, an early sports entrepreneur, founded the House of David Barnstorming TEAM of the 1930’s and 1940s. The New York Harlem Queens (Dempsey Howland owner) and Texas Cowgirls played NFL TEAMS in the off season. Howland’s TEAMS played in preliminary
Only by sitting around with true basketball junkies would one learn that tiny Herkimer, New York, just may have seen the primordial (post Christmas 1890) origin of Hoops. Mul5
ester (in front of the Mayo Brothers), Pine River, Chaska, Bemidji, St. Joseph and Two Harbor. Muscatine, Iowa was a hot spot that held many pro hoop tourneys that Basloe attended and often won. Indiana had many hot spots including Indianapolis and Fort Wayne as well. Illinois had Chicago, Rockford, and Carbondale stops. Ohio held many challenges for Basloe’s Globe Trotters including Columbus, Lima, Akron, Toledo and Cleveland.
tiple accounts purport to suggest that through collaboration with Naismith and incorporating independent features of a version of basketball other than Naismith’s, some were playing a game much akin to Naismith’s Duck on a Rock abridged version in advance of Naismith’s 1892 Springfield YMCA indoor game.
The state of New York was red hot for basketball shows with traveling TEAMS and local challenges. Towns included Delgaville, Buffalo, Syracuse, Amsterdam, Mohawk, Fort Plain, Massina, Cohes, Gloversville, Elmira, Shelton, Utica, Glens Falls, Ilion, New York City and Albany. Detroit hosted Basloe’s TEAM multiple times as did towns within Pennsylvania including Philadelphia, Wilkes-Barre and Erie. The entire state of New York and the northeast embraced hoops and the barnstormers. Netting and frames (Volk) came from the Herkimer area. Court sizes varied until the modern day 94 x 50 feet was ultimately adopted in pro and college hoops, with 84 feet x 50 established as the high school court size. Teams were raging in the Twenties, Thirties and Forties. Sellout crowds with cheap entertainment was the rule. Pro leagues such as the Eastern League formed with Grestoke, DeNeri, Reading, Camden, Jasper and Trenton fielding teams. Contracts with their disputes over much smaller dollar amounts became commonplace. The size of balls, their bounce and standard characteristics were adopted by 1930. Finally there was a basektball players could consistently dribble, pass and shoot. Scores began to escalate with the consistent ball design (currently 29.5 inches circumference). This equates to a 22 ounce size 7 ball for men. Women utilize the size 6 ball (slightly smaller in circumference and weight). The ribs of the ball, inside bladders, pressure, grip, orange color (Hinkle/Butler), bounce of 50 inches from a 6 foot drop and composite material standards are now consistent with only subtle differences between manufacturers.
A turn of century Herkimer Gym team
Lambert Will, Herkimer’s YMCA director, had received pamphlets from Naismith regarding the game according to some. Will then apparently proceeded on his own to play 9 on a side with a 2.5 lb. medicine ball. Using cabbages to practice shooting into peach baskets had already been done in Herkimer. The ball was rolled between players before formal passing. Wire around the court for fan protection and wire around the peach basket to sustain it for a game led to the term “cagers.” By the time the first Herkimer game had passed, the hole on the bottom of the peach basket was competed thereby allowing the game to continue. With no sports historians present (and no one realizing the degree that basketball would dominate a future sports culture), little was written down about the game in Herkimer in 1890. Too bad for Mr. Will. Within a few years the Basloe Globe Trotters would travel 94,000 miles on barnstorming journeys. Some trips were 350 miles overnight between games. Basloe’s TEAM was New York’s Oswego Indians, which curiously enough, was organized in the same Herkimer gym used earlier by Lambert Will. These barnstorming guys really had great game and played in front of crowds as large as the Fond du Lac Coliseum (3500 patrons). Serious cash for these players periodically flowed between professional TEAMS and promoters. Because of the insatiable appetite for sports that existed at the time, Basloe’s Globe Trotters hit the Midwest hard. Wisconsin proved to be fertile ground for this truly great barnstorming hoop TEAM. Cities played against on record included Oshkosh, Appleton, Green Bay, Duluth, Milwaukee, Port Washington, Ripon, New London, Portage, Tomah, Two Rivers, Janesville, Plymouth, Neenah, Menasha and Madison. Basloe traveled to Minnesota and played Red Wing, Roch-
A game that needed exposure and energy following its birth in the 1890s received it from the barnstorming years. Though barnstorming still exists today (Harlem Globetrot6
football or baseball, many athletes during the barnstorming years were playing Hoops. Today lacrosse is being chosen by many young athletes over the more familiar sports of baseball, basketball and football. The Philly, Boston, and New York corridors were amply populated with athletes wanting to play a sport for a living. Baseball as a pro sport was still struggling in the early 1900s with many players forced to drive beer trucks in the off season. Few superstars had emerged within any sport which allowed them to avoid work in the off season.
ters organized by Abe Saperstein in 1926 in South Chicago), the appeal of hoops was a measure of rugby style play, akin to hockey-rugby-wrestling-football, etc. Before agreed rules were accepted among organizations, the Herkimer Armory was the classic example of a community buzzing with the excitement of pro basketball that continued for over half a century. Profits were split between the home and visiting TEAMS. The owner of the arena kept up to 50% of the revenue. New immigrants settling in the area viewed basketball as a sport they could practice and come to play well. All minority groups and white populations loved hoops for the opportunity not only to view as a fan, but to actually play the sport themselves.
While basketball rules were generally respected, they were subject to change between games and communities. Naismith’s and Lambert Will’s original rules became abridged to fit the game. Some viewed the early barnstorming rules as merely “instructions.” A simple acknowledged rule today
The Northeast was populated by endless numbers of leagues and TEAMS. St. Johnsbury, Gloucester, Troy, Bristol, Millville, Wilmington, Trenton, Kensington, and Brattleboro had TEAMS which were highly competitive. Utica, Syracuse, Oneonta, Richfield Springs, Watertown, Nanticoke and many other small and medium size market TEAMS welcomed challenges from All Star TEAMS and pro-amateur community TEAMS. Many players played full time in season and were considered true “Barnstormers.” Pay per game was the usual remuneration and typical pay was $3-$10 per game in the early 1900s. Depending on the opposition, the player with better quality may sit at home because it was too expensive for that player to compete based on the overall economics (crowd, records, gym rental, lodging, food, etc.). True barnstormers slept occasionally in barns (akin to the 1800s with theater actors). The usual course however, was a sleep over in the opposition’s hometown, typically in a Masonic halls, YMCA, hotel, school, church or rental property of some kind. Meals were typically included with a challenge or a visiting TEAM’s arrival. This was true sportsmanship at its best for a fledgling sport competing against more widely accepted sports like football, rugby, hockey or baseball. A modern comparison would be the growth of lacrosse among youth in high school, colleges and club teams. Instead of playing
is the last player to touch a ball before it goes out of bounds loses possession. Not so in earlier times when the rule was the opposite. Players in many leagues struggled to touch the ball prior to its exit outside the cage or “ropes.” The cage of wire or ropes generally kept the ball in play. The entire court was utilized for “spread” offenses, passing, keep-away and stalling. There was no confinement rule to half court (over-and-back violation). This rule was put in place to speed up the game 7
developed and with these, the iconic “swish” sound entered coaches, players–and especially fans–lexicons. And over time, many attempts to formalize the “instructions” governing play into actual rules for the barnstormers took hold. From Camden, New Jersey, to Germantown, Pennsylvania, the public and media, along with players and coaches, began demanding rule books applicable to all.
and prevent superb dribblers from utilizing the full court to escape defenders. Once the offense crossed half court within the required time allotted, a violation occurred if the ball went into the back court (barring a defender’s ball deflection or possession). Today some hoop critics feel the over-and-back rule should be eliminated because of the 8 and 10 second (NBA and lower league) restrictive rules requiring the ball to pass the half court line with change of possession. The court, however, remains divided and most likely, the over-and-back rule will continue in force.
Thanks to the era of barnstormers, follow on leagues like the Hudson River League and National Basketball League emerged and became pre-eminent opportunities for professional basketball. Though records are sparse, we do know that the play, speed, agility and fan interest steadily grew to a point where the National Collegiate Athletic Association, National Basketball Association, and state high school basketball associations were subsequently formed. These entities have stuck for over three-fourths of a century due in no small part to the efforts of the “Barnstormers” of the early 20th century. The emergence of these very first “Globetrotters”changed the game forever. These “cagers” could flat out drain shots from anywhere. That’s all these shooters did in life: drain shots, hear the crowd and do it all over again, night after night. Fans came to hear the “swish,” attend a dance afterwards, and still have the energy for a hamburger with fries afterwards. No one worried about obesity–it didn’t exist! What’s happened?
The growth of hoops went from the northeast to the Midwest as far as Fond Du Lac, Wisconsin, and Red Wing, Minnesota. TEAMS there were quite active and vibrant with accepted challenges, league play and travel the norm. Though officials had whistles, loose play was allowed. The popularity then of rugby, football and boxing along with baseball and its bench clearing brawls, influenced basketball tremendously as players were “allowed to play.” Compared to the modern game with three officials on court, replay, and shot clock timers, the barnstorming game was much more loose and unrestricted. I still cringe when a foul is called today involving incidental contact having nothing to do with the actual play itself. The typical modern offensive “bailout whistle” as a result of incidental or potential contact didn’t exist in early Hoops. Today’s constant battle between an offensive or defensive foul with contact just didn’t exist until we developed the idea of blame e.g., contact shouldn’t happen short of someone being out of position or unable to control their body or hands. These were “no calls” in the barnstorming era barring a definitive collision. Players then did not “make a living” at the free throw line. Physical contact was accepted in basketball’s early years and short of a tackle, the players liberally could defend, screen, block out, and rebound, etc., with impunity. Referees’ whistles occurred with a scrum, not with a hand check.
Spaulding sold a pair of wire goals for $3.95 in 1898. It wasn’t long before nets made from nylon, rope or string were
IV. Rule Changes: Less Contact Allowed, Escalating Scores, Foul Shots and More Swishes. Plus $$ Formalizing the rules of basketball from Naismith’s original 13 Rules has led to fan interest worldwide. Gone are the early scrums, akin to kids’ soccer bunch ball. Rapidly the rules changed allowing less contact, more free throws, higher scores, more balls through the nets, players fouling out and space for shooters—all permitting fans to get their money’s worth prior to the dance and burger. The true “game” a player had went from a rugby style of play to finesse. Players spent endless hours practicing at schools, work, home courts and even in their sleep. Male prowess among one’s peers could be derived within the sport of basketball. Avoidance of being picked last, getting decent playing time–even making a TEAM–promoted social acceptance. One could only accomplish this with a shooter’s touch, accomplished through endless hours of practice. For example, the University of Cincinnati coach’s rule of thumb required recruiters look at the driveway of a recruit before knocking on the door. If there weren’t chips in the cement from the ball, snow shovel or ice pick, then recruiting appointments were kept very short.
As the basketball itself became standardized with the nice feel of a formed bladder and ribs composed of composite, a player could drain shots from anywhere for hours blindfolded, including the parking lot. The typical square up, triple threat position (elbow in, cock and release with reverse spin) all occurred without even being discussed. Barnstormers and
upon. The only stat that counted was the final score; how refreshing instead of hearing an expected 20 and 10 (points and rebounds). Contracts among these early Barnstormers revealed people simply knowing who could put up points. Unspoken terms allowed hoops to carry the mentality of shooting a basketball not being an equal opportunity. Some things are better just not said–your contract carried your weight regarding shooting prowess. The more you practiced and scored, the more you collected: that simple. Today it is widely understood: if you are a stiff and away from the hoop more than 6 feet, you don’t shoot and your contract is generally much, much less–barring superb defensive or rebounding talent.
great players of the early and mid 19th Century developed shooter’s touch themselves. Shooting a basketball for Barnstormers was no different than walking–you rarely fell. Off balance shots were the norm. If the media of today had existed then, many players from Herkimer to Muscatine would have their numbers retired–to the point of no more numbers being issued. The hoops skills of rebounding, passing and tipping were perfected during endless hours of practice by the great basketball players of the early 20th Century.
Tonawanga, Patterson, Schenectady, and Brooklyn all played in fiercely competitive leagues including the Hudson Valley and Mohawk Leagues. Within a short period of time the Midwest became populated with TEAMS like Muscatine, Iowa–a bona fide hot spot of hoops in the early 20th Century. Essentially these great amateurs became pros by collecting a paycheck (a fiercely contested aspect of the Olympics for a hundred years). It was not uncommon for an office or factory worker to walk around spinning a basketball or tossing whatever he could into a bin, trash can, office drawer or receptacle of any kind. Today, the ability to text in the context of multi-tasking, or play video games with unconscious ease is a similar skill. It’s probable however, that we are witnessing a ton of turnovers in today’s game because video-game-trained hands have not developed the strength and coordination of the basketball-trained hands of yesteryears. The melted-butter-hands of shooters were a thing of absolute beauty. Fans watched many guys showing off hours of practice. Larry Bird’s private gym in Terre Haute was preceded by a frosty clearing of a foot of snow, double gloves, frozen sweat and budding stars foregoing meals to perfect their game.
New York Rens, 1925
This little covered hoops era–other than a touch of radio and newspaper–is worthy of historical context similar to the pre World Wars game. Acclaim for events surround people in the moment, not realizing that years of formative history preceded the actual historical event of note. The players’ uniforms in the early 1900s looked nothing short of prison chain gang uniforms. While their sleeveless shirts would be considered ugly by today’s taste standards, the shorts worn by many TEAMS rival today’s stylish lengthy pants. Photographs of Oswego and Buffalo TEAMS from the past suggest very strong TEAM unity. Balanced scoring was the norm and all players were expected to obtain equal touches and make their shots when called
African American players caught onto the game with alacrity and numerous shooters emerged with pure “game.” While the U.S. had not yet reached the point where sports were viewed as a “way out” for Blacks until Jackie Robinson’s broke into Major League Baseball in 1947, we were inching closer. Again, things require time–way too much time–but the endless years of toil for African American players was heralded by a much improved media; players such as Oscar Robertson and Wilt Chamberlain; and the country’s changing consciousness.
Rucker Park in New York City was formed in response to a 1950 tournament to assist youth into college, avoid social
have thrown in the towel in most areas of the country regarding basketball goals in driveways or along street curbs. The game is “in,” and all because of the early Barnstormers of the late 1800s and early 1900s. The peach basket with ladder ball removal went completely out in 1906. As iron nets gave way to nylon or cotton nets, the addicting sound of “swish” from a ball going through was what the public wanted and demanded. The early Barnstormers–with ice in their veins–really did allow a culture of hoops to emerge based on shooting. Nothing sounded better in any sport because players, fans and coaches could hear the sound of a swish often. As opposed to a homer or hard hit (double) occurring maybe five times (or fewer) in a three hour baseball game, a swish happened on average every minute or more frequent during a two hour basketball contest. Football had no comparable sounds other than tackles; hockey and soccer had infrequent scoring; and boxing generally had only the final knockout punch, heard only by those at ringside.
trouble, and improve their socioeconomic plight. We aren’t quite there yet, but the bravado, cross over dribbles, slams and game that basketball needed to advance onto the front page was displayed on many NYC courts in the early part of the 20th Century. Legends such as Earl “The Goat” Manigault may have been the very best hoop player of all time. Earl would probably instruct you that his forefathers on these NYC courts had game beyond description. Rucker Park is where NBA and college greats go to perfect their game in the off season or summer (i.e. Kobe Bryant). This gem of a court is essentially “ground zero” for modern basketball’s emergence.
These early formative years of professional barnstorming basketball were golden in so many ways. As I watch retired player numbers, post season awards and TEAM pennants launch at halftime, I envision the imperfect world of early pro basketball with the Barnstormers and pre NBA pro players— guys like John Wooden. The players that formed this sport and would later force organizational matters were the actual cause and total reason for everything from Hoosier Hysteria, Boston Celtic dynasty, and the empires of the NCAA, NBA and the former NAIA.
Kobe Bryant works with youth at Rucker Park in NYC
It did not take long for the marketing aspect of Hoops to enter the game. Sporting good companies sold endless amounts of clothing and equipment. A great early player from Columbus, Ohio, Chuck Taylor, aligned with a shoe known as The All Star (1917). Chuck Taylor shoes (1923) are still sold today. From 1925 to the mid-1980’s, you were considered less fashionably acceptable–in basketball style terms–if you didn’t wear Chuck Taylor All Stars. Chuck Taylor legends became a sign of the counter culture that swept through the world in the 1960s and 1970s (Mash, Kurt Cobain). Rock legends, players, revolting students and even Hollywood had to wear these “in demand” shoes. Taylor’s shoes began as high tops, and then evolved to the classic low tops worn by many professionals for years (Bird for instance). Unfortunately the company became bankrupt and was eventually purchased by Nike (2003) as the Converse brand. Nike has continued the brand and there are no signs Chuck Taylor shoes, which began with Barnstorming, will ever stop being produced. Basketball courts emerged everywhere in large and small cities. Courts were placed near churches, schools, malls, private and public parks, and in backyards and driveways. Home owners associations finally
Trenton’s TEAM didn’t last, nor did Herkimer’s. However, we cannot discount the effect of change in the burgeoning business of sport because Kansas City, Omaha, Baltimore, Rochester, Davenport, multiple Philly and DC TEAMS, Providence, St. Louis, Fort Wayne and many other cities lost their professional TEAMs. The free market causes such hot spots as OKC to host a great NBA TEAM in today’s world. Tomorrow it could be Tampa. The underlying fact in the sport of basketball, however, was that success came from the Barnstormers’ “Nothing but Net” attitude. When a TEAM doesn’t get the ball into the net more than the opposition, fans, players and coaches eventually depart due to market forces. The only thing that kept the Herkimer Armory open was the frequent sound of “swish” coming from a shooter’s hand waving at the basket. The “knowing it was in” feeling upon release had to happen more frequently than the opposition to maintain a Barnstorming TEAM. A big “Thanks” goes out to the heroes of yesteryear who actually played the sport of hoops for the sport itself: the early 20th Century Barnstorming pros within the ICE AGE itself.