Has the game really changed that much? That's a question you sometimes hear asked about baseball and football, and the answer is usually something like: "A little, but not much." When it comes to basketball, though, the changes have been relatively radical over the years, from the school grounds to the pros. If you look at the stars of the 1948 Bowman basketball set, for instance, you might be shocked to learn about the game they played in their youth.
Originally, basketball was conceived as "boxball," but when no boxes could be found to put the ball in, peach baskets were used instead. James Naismith, the founder of the game, soon tired of retrieving the ball from the peach basket after each score. Fortunately, someone figured out that cutting a hole in the bottom of the basket would solve that problem. As the game evolved, other changes were made. For instance, for years there was a jump ball at center court after each basket.
In the 1940s, Oklahoma A&M (now Oklahoma State) won two national championships with Bob Kurland at center. Kurland, who was over seven feet tall, would stand under the basket and swat the opponent's shot away. It took a tremendous effort on the part of Oklahoma University coach Bruce Drake to get the "goal tending" rule put into effect. Drake was able to get a referee to sit in a chair on top of the goal and observe the goal tending infractions.
In the 1930s, the high school game was nothing short of strange, at least at times. I made a call to a player from that era, a starting guard for the Apache, Oklahoma, Purple Pirates named Byron Amspacher, a.k.a. dad, pop, etc. "Actually, we didn't have guards and forwards back then," he pointed out, "there were just four guys and a center."
It turns out that the Apache gym had iron rafters hanging down that forced the player to shoot the ball over the rafters then down through the basket. Now I know why dad had such a high arc on his patented two-hand set shot in our back yard games.
When the Purple Pirates went on the road to Boone, they found a court with a wood-burning stove right in the middle of it. "You had to be careful of it, too," dad said. "It was HOT."
If you traveled to Dibble, Oklahoma, in the 1950s, you would have seen and/or played on a court that was only 64 feet long. At the top of the key there was a half-court line. At the top of the key on the other end of the floor was another half-court line.
In a number of the gyms the basketball court was on a stage, where it did double duty as the floor for high school plays and school assemblies. Not only was the floor covered with heavy scuffs, there were usually numerous dead boards. As the player brought the ball up the court, you would hear dribble, dribble, dribble, THUNK.
The stars of the 1948 Bowman basketball set were great players, of course, but they were mostly unknowns outside of NBA cities. George Mikan was famous almost everywhere by 1951, as he had won three NBA scoring titles in a row by that time, but he was the exception to the rule. There was no television in those days to speak of, the league hadn't begun play until 1947, and the big scoring star of 1948 had a name that was difficult to remember: Max Zaslofsky. Newspaper coverage of the NBA ranged from minimal to nonexistent in many areas of the country.
As players got bigger and faster and more athletic, the game was actually changed to slow it down. During the Bill Walton era at UCLA in the early 1970s, the dunk was outlawed. "The most exciting play in sports has been made illegal," one announcer lamented, and the puzzled fans could only agree.
Even more absurd was another rule around the same time where it was a technical foul if a ball was dunked while the clock was stopped. A player could not even dunk the ball during warm-ups! The culmination of this nonsense occurred in a high school game. After the game was over, a high school player celebrated his team's one-point victory by dunking the basketball. The referee called a technical foul, and the other team was allowed to shoot a free throw and tie the game. The coach pointed out that the rule couldn't possibly apply after the game was over, or no one on the team could ever dunk the ball again in his life without being called for a technical foul. The referee disagreed, pointing out that he hadn't signed the scorebook yet, so the game wasn't official. The coach refused to let his team on the floor for overtime, citing the incredible preposterousness of the referee's ruling. The referee then called the game a forfeit, and awarded to victory to the other team.
Abe Lemons, the legendary coach at Oklahoma City University, and later at Texas, coped with the ridiculous dead-ball dunking rule in another way. If the opposing team violated the rule Lemons would have his player shoot the technical with his back to the basket.
Today the game of basketball is a thing of beauty on all levels. Getting to this point, however, has been anything but a smooth road.