The following article was written for my unpublished magazine, 219 Sycamore St. It is basically a historical piece, although I took the liberty (after confessing as much) of imagining what the “gymnasium” looked like and how the spectators and players interacted. The quotations are verbatim from a now defunct Kosciusko County, Indiana newspaper. Please comment.
The first competitive game of basket ball took place in the hall of the Mentone Athletic Club last Friday evening between the Mentone and Warsaw high schools. This popular game which has so rapidly been coming into favor among athletics within the past few years, was something of a novelty here and attracted considerable interest from those who had never seen it played. The boys of the home team have only been playing a short time but it appears that they made a fair record to begin with….
Tri-County Gazette, December 17, 1903
Have you ever wondered what one of those basketball games played in the early 1900’s might have looked like? Do you think that if you were to see a movie of one (which is not absurd because crude movies were being made by 1902, and the first major American film, The Great Train Robbery, was produced in 1903), you would be able to say for sure that what you were seeing was a basketball game?
Of course you would. But you would also recognize some profound differences in the game. I don’t happen to have any 1903 basketball films lying around the house, so let’s imagine for a moment that we have entered a time warp and suddenly find ourselves in the small, recently outfitted gymnasium above Mrs. Good’s restaurant in Mentone, Indiana on Friday evening, December 11, 1903. It’s just a few minutes before the historic game between Warsaw High School and Mentone High School. The game is historic for several reasons. It is the first boys’ basketball game played by Warsaw High school against an outside opponent. It is the first game played between Warsaw and Mentone. And it is, as far as is known, the first basketball game ever played between Kosciusko County high schools.
Of course, since we’re visiting from another time we’ll remain invisible and won’t disrupt the others in the audience with our unusual attire. We can say and do what we want, and no one will notice. Unfortunately, we are forced into some degree of speculation now. Some details of the game and the room in which it was played are lost to antiquity. But that won’t keep us from formulating a vivid mind picture. The article in Kosciusko County’s long ago newspaper, Tri-County Gazette, provides enough information to spark our imaginations.
The gym is very small. In fact, it doesn’t look like a gymnasium at all – it’s just a large room with basketball goals mounted on each end wall. The room has no ceiling and is open to the roof, except that beams and other wooden supports take up most of the open space. The lowest beams can’t be more than twelve feet above the floor, and seem to be even lower than that. The goals aren’t quite ten feet high. They couldn’t be and still have enough clearance overhead for balls to be thrown into them. The nets are closed at the bottom, since open-end baskets won’t be legalized until 1906. Every time the ball goes in, it will be removed with long sticks by boys stationed on either end of the floor.
We’re standing on the gym floor along with the dozens of other spectators squeezed into the tight quarters. We wonder where they’ll all go when the game gets underway, since there are no benches or bleachers or seats of any sort.
Laughter and plenty of interesting conversation fill the cool but quickly warming air. The folks are speculating about who’s going to win the game, and whether or not there’s anything about the sport of basketball that a spectator can enjoy. Most of them, apparently, have never witnessed a game. But lack of experience hasn’t affected the enthusiasm of some of the fans. The Mentone Young Ladies’ Athletic Club is conducting a meeting in one corner of the room, gearing up to unleash some soon-to-be-famous basketball “war-whoops.”
The Mentone boys are waiting for their opponents. They stand in a circle in one corner of the gym, discussing strategy and laughing nervously as they fidget and sway almost in unison. The basketball, a tightly laced, nearly new leather one, lies on the floor in the center of the circle of players.
The Warsaw boys finally enter the floor, walking up the stairway from the restaurant below, where they changed into their basketball clothing. They look frightened and uneasy, and squint in the glare of the unshaded electric lighting. Hoots and hollers erupt from the Warsaw fans in yet another corner of the room. The young men in that group, numbering perhaps ten and outfitted in their best suits and ties, have been quiet and serious until now. In unison and as if on cue, they join together in an ancient football chant to greet their team. Having little experience in the spectatorship of basketball, these early fans often borrow traditions of other sports.
The members of both teams are wearing long-sleeved shirts and full-length trousers. The only distinguishing marks on either team’s uniforms are the “M”s and “W”s that have been hastily stitched onto their shirts. Several of those letters will fall to the floor before the end of the game. Some of the young men are wearing athletic style shoes, with dozens of eyelets and long laces, but others are wearing street shoes.
There are only five players on each team. We wonder where the substitutes are, but then remember that substituting is not a common practice. It won’t be until 1944 that players will be allowed to re-enter a game after leaving it. Subs in 1903 are used rarely, and then mainly for the replacement of injured players. If one of the fellows in this game is injured, his team will either play with four men or will call for a volunteer from the audience.
The teams are ready for battle, and the crowd shuffles off the floor, each person taking a place along the wall. In a room that can’t be more than twenty-five feet wide and fifty feet long, there isn’t a lot of wall space to choose from. The bodies of the spectators now define the limits of the playing area. You and I, of course, being invisible, take up no space at all.
Fred Vanator, the young coach of the Warsaw team, has the job of referee for the first half. S.L. Blue, Mentone High School principal and basketball coach, will officiate the second half. The practice of officiating by coaches whose teams are playing is common in 1903 and will be for years afterward, since the coaches are often the only non-players familiar enough with the rules to call a game.
Will Coleman of Warsaw and Frank Jennings of Mentone jump at center to open the game. Those two are destined to face off against each other many times during the evening, since the center jump is used not only to begin the game and the second half, but also to put the ball in play after each successful goal and every shooting foul, as well as to decide possession after a held ball. Most of those jumps will not be eliminated until 1937, when the ball will finally be thrown in at end-court after each field goal and free throw. In 1981, the “alternate possession” rule will finally put an end to the jump rule on held balls.
Teams with high leaping, tall and powerful centers hold a great advantage over teams that don’t, even more so than in our time. They can retain possession of the ball for most of the game, only giving up ownership of it on successful defensive maneuvers by their struggling opponents. Not only do the centers hold an advantage at center court, but also under the baskets. The three-second rule won’t come into being until 1941, so Coleman and Jennings, as well as anyone else near the basket, can stand right under it on defense for as long as they wish.
In our game tonight, there’s obviously some confusion on the part of the players as to position and strategy. After the initial jump, many of the young men bump into each other trying to find their proper places on the small floor. When someone receives the ball, either accidentally or with intent, he hesitates before deciding what to do with it. These fellows, we can see, have a lot of practice ahead of them if they are to look like basketball players.
But they’re trying very hard, and they all understand the basic strategy of moving the ball toward the basket. When Coleman of Warsaw controls the tip, he slaps the ball into the hands of Arthur Holman, the left forward. Coleman runs to Mentone’s goal. John Wilcox, the other forward, moves into position at right forward. The shorter of Warsaw’s guards, let’s say Bram Ayers, was assigned the duty of “running guard.” He takes position near the center of the floor, shifting from the offensive end to the defensive end as the situation demands.
The taller guard, in our case Earl Gibson, is the “back guard” or defensive guard. He remains on the defensive end of the floor for nearly the entire game, guarding his team’s goal against the Mentone forwards and center – Emmet Dunlap, Earl Baker, and Jennings.
As the Mentone team sets up its defense, Holman attempts to move the ball, preferably toward Mentone’s basket and hopefully to a man that is not tightly defended. He can pass the ball in any direction and can dribble if he wants to, but he isn’t very good at dribbling. Most dribbling in these days amounts to little more than one or two bounces and that many steps, mainly as efforts to maneuver away from defenders in order to take a quick shot or to get free to pass. A player can dribble and stop as many times as he wants, since the double-dribble will not be prohibited until 1908. But even the players that have mastered the dribble have problems when the ball bounces on its lacing – the ball can take off at odd angles and go just about anywhere. Molded, laceless balls won’t be made mandatory until 1949.
The teams can keep the ball in the backcourt as long as they want, because the ten-second rule won’t be adopted until 1932. If Mentone’s defense doesn’t loosen up, Gibson can stand and hold the ball indefinitely. If Holman or Wilcox get boxed in by Dunlap and Baker in the fore court, they can always lob a pass back to Gibson in the back court. “Over-and-back” means nothing in 1903. There are no half-court lines dividing the playing floor into two equal pieces.
Fouling is usually abundant. Our game this evening is relatively clean and void of excessive roughness, but many participants of the men’s version have been steeped in football strategy and the use of body contact. Referees generally call only the most blatant of personal fouls. Head butting, running body blocks, blind-siding, and tripping are not uncommon. Even when fouls are called, the violating players have little to worry about since the rule disqualifying players with four fouls won’t be adopted until 1910, with the five-foul rule following in 1944. Occasionally, though, a player is ejected by a referee for “roughness” or “unsportsmanlike conduct.” Many games are hotly contested because of the inconsistent use of the referee’s prerogative. “Technical fouls” – violations against rules rather than other players (such as running with the ball) – cause the violating team to give up the ball to its opponent.
Much excitement is provided when one team cracks the defense of another and manages to take an open shot. The feverish and seemingly endless attempts at moving a defense out of the way provides major suspense for the fans. Scoring, something rare and almost mystical in nature, causes understandably uproarious reactions. In our game, the Mentone fans are cheering louder and more often than the rooters from Warsaw. The teen-aged girls in attendance are amply demonstrating their school spirit, and have taken to a painful, high-pitched group scream whenever things heat up on the court.
When the young men do manage a shot, they shoot with techniques never seen in the 21st century. There is no jump shot and no slam-dunk. Shooting is done mainly from a set position with both feet on the floor, body squared and facing the goal. Most of the players use a version of the “underhand loop shot.” With both hands on the ball the shooter pushes it toward the basket from about belt level, his hands on top of the ball as he pushes it away from his body and upward. When the ball is released, at about chest level, it spins backward and slowly arches toward the goal. Most shots, however, are blocked before the ball is released. In the game tonight, only several players come close to a successful completion of one. Many attempts at shooting more resemble off-balance throws of desperation. Each one, crude as it is, is greeted by the fans’ held breaths and then is usually followed by groans as most of the shots are blocked or fall far from the goal.
The Mentone-Warsaw game of 1903 ends with Mentone winning, 9 to 6. S.L. Blue is very proud of his young men when the final gun sounds. The victory for the local team is a big one for its fans. They shake the hands and slap the backs of their youthful heroes. We watch as the Warsaw lads walk slowly off the floor and into the door leading downstairs. Their loyal contingent, all of them disheartened now that their team has been vanquished, shuffle downstairs after them.
With the hometown fans applauding loudly and the high school girls still letting loose with blood-curdling shrieks and screams, we’re awed by the emotions generated by the modest exhibition of athletics we’ve just witnessed.
The sympathetic enthusiasm of the young ladies athletic club, when the final score was announced, broke out in such pandemoniac war-whoops that we wouldn’t be surprised if the dreams of the Warsaw boys would be disturbed for weeks to come. It may be some consolation to them to learn that the girls finally quit hollering when they thought the visitors were out of hearing, and we are told that some of the young ladies expressed regrets when it was suggested to them that they had probably frightened the visitors so badly that they might never come back again….
Tri-County Gazette, December 17, 1903
It isn’t a flawless effort that’s being celebrated, but rather the special effort by the team and its loyal supporters, that carried the home team to victory. Basketball is, early in its history, a game driven by emotion.
Our visit is finished, and we must go home. We look around for a way out. The heat generated by the players and the crowd prompted several fans to open windows, and we slip out through one, albeit on the second floor. But we are in a time warp, and exist as weightless, invisible spirits. We enter the cold, black night and, though nothing more than ether, we reel against the freezing, wintry wind. But our discomfort doesn’t last long. In a few seconds we’re back home. It’s now more than 100 years later. We reflect on where we’ve been and what we’ve seen. Yes, things were different at that place, and different substantially. But the players strained for victory, the fans cheered and clapped and groaned, the girls screamed so loud it hurt our ears, and the home crowd helped lift the local team to victory. It wasn’t, after all, as different as we had expected.