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The perceived dominance of African Americans in basketball has been taken as proof of the natural athleticism of blacks (defined as any people of African origin). However, the history of sport quickly dismisses this notion.

Basketball was invented by the Canadian-born James Naismith in December 1891. Naismith, a physical education teacher at the School for Christian Workers (now Springfield College) in Springfield, Massachusetts, was charged with inventing a game to entertain the school’s athletes during the winter. The original game used a soccer ball, two peach baskets attached to the railing of gym balcony, two nine-player teams, and thirteen rules. Between 1906 and 1916 a series of rules changes were implemented, including opening the net to allow the ball to fall through after a goal. Players fouled out after committing five fouls, and foul shots were awarded depending on the severity of the infraction. In 1916 dribbling followed by a shot was allowed. (Prior to this players could not move after the ball was passed to them.)

Many of the early basketball games were played in gymnasiums with floor to ceiling netting separating the crowd from the players. This is where the term “cager” originated, though the practice was discontinued in 1929.

In 1892, Senda Berenson Abbot, a Lithuanian-born physical education teacher at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, twenty miles north of Springfield, developed a modified game for women because it was believed that the men’s game was too physically demanding for the “fairer” sex. The court was divided into three equal sections, with players required to stay in an assigned area; players were prohibited from snatching or batting the ball from the hands of another player; and they were prohibited from holding the ball for longer than three seconds and from dribbling the ball more than three times.

The spread of basketball in the United States and abroad was facilitated by the Young Men’s Christian Associations (YMCAs), the armed forces, and colleges. Factors that helped it grow in popularity were the simple equipment requirements, indoor play, competitiveness, and easily understood rules. These were also the same attributes that would make it well-suited for the urban African-American neighborhoods that would spring up across America after World War II.

The first intercollegiate league, the New England Inter-collegiate Basketball League, was formed in May 1901. It included teams from Yale and Harvard Universities and Trinity, Holy Cross, Amherst, and Williams Colleges. It is highly unlikely that any African Americans played in this first league. Indeed only eight African Americans are recorded as having played for European American collegiate teams from 1904 to 1919 (see Table 1).

African-American athletes were not allowed to play basketball for predominantly European American institutions in the Jim Crow South until after the 1950s. Colored YMCAs and YWCAs throughout the nation formed the first African-American teams. This effort was hampered in the South however, due to poor gymnasiums, a lack of equipment, few coaches, and year-round warm weather. YMCA college student associations played a major role in introducing African-Americans’ colleges to basketball.


In 1950, Chuck Cooper became the first African-American player drafted by the fledgling National Basketball Association (NBA). By the 1960s, African-American participation at both the college and professional level had drastically increased, so much so that the Boston Celtics had an all–African-American starting line-up in 1964. The percentage of African Americans playing in the collegiate and professional ranks continued to increase in the 1970s.

The increase in African-American dominance of professional basketball during the latter decades of the twentieth century was such that a survey of NBA all-franchise players in 1994, covering the league from its beginnings, showed that out of 124 players, 86 were African Americans, 35 were European Americans, 1 was African, 1 was European, and 1 was an Iranian American. The NBA named its fifty greatest players from its first fifty years in 1996. Of these, thirty-one were African Americans and eighteen were European American. In 2001, the Basketball Hall of Fame included 34 African Americans and 77 European Americans. James Naismith and the Nigerian-born Hakeem Olajuwon were the only non–American-born inductees.

However, this increase in African-American participation coincided with a decline in the popularity of the professional game. By the end of the 1970s, the NBA (which had merged with the American Basketball Association, or ABA, in 1977) was the only one of the three major spectator sports without a national television contract. In 1981, sixteen of the twenty-three teams were losing money, and there was serious talk of folding the small-city franchises and downsizing to a twelve-team league. Earvin Magic Johnson (an African American from East Lansing, Michigan) and Larry Bird (a European American from French Lick, Indiana) helped to change all of that. Their rivalry began in the 1979 NCAA tournament and continued on into the NBA. Magic Johnson was one of the most versatile players the game had ever known, while Larry Bird was one of the game’s greatest pure shooters and competitors. Johnson’s Lakers and Bird’s Celtics faced each other in the NBA finals three times in the 1980s, and one of their teams captured the title eight out of ten years in that decade. This stimulated the rebirth of the NBA and set the stage for the emergence of the one of the greatest athletes the world has ever known, Michael Jordan of the Chicago Bulls.

Jordan is of African-American descent, and he played his college basketball under NCAA legend Dean Smith at North Carolina. Smith’s coaching style did not allow Jordan to showcase his formidable talents, and few expected him to be the superstar he became in the NBA. Jordan’s Bulls won six titles in the 1990s and he became the center of one of the greatest sports merchandising franchises of all time. Before signing Michael Jordan in 1987, annual sales of the athletic-shoe company Nike were only $900 million. Ten years later, based on the impact of their “Air Jordan” line, Nike annual sales were $9.19 billion, an increase of more than 1,000 percent. The popularity of basketball had changed so much in fifty years that Michael Jordan was still earning $33 million per year in endorsements two years after his retirement.


In a period of fifty years, professional basketball in America went from 100 percent to 16 percent European American. In the 2000-2001 season, African Americans dominated NBA rosters. European Americans, or “whites,” are persons whose genetic ancestry can be traced to some area in Europe and who have no detectable African ancestry. African Americans, or “blacks,” have genes that originated among Western Africans, Europeans, and American Indians. The average percentage of non-African genes in African Americans has been estimated to vary from as low as 6 percent to as high as 40 percent. Many of the early twenty-first century’s successful black athletes are the children of men who were athletically or socially successful in the last generation and who married European-American wives. Racial theories of basketball performance rely on the idea that there is something genetically “African” that predisposes an individual to be a better basketball player.

To test this assertion, however, it would be best to compare the number of Africans versus the number of Europeans in the NBA. African Americans are, in fact, not appropriate in this regard because a substantial fraction of their genes originated in Europeans and American Indians. In 2000, there were three Western Africans, nine Europeans, and one Australian in the NBA. An examination of the NBA 2002 rosters showed twenty-one Europeans, one East Asian, and nine Africans in the league. In that same season, Yao Ming, formerly of the Shanghai Sharks, made a particularly dramatic entry into the NBA, finishing second in Rookie of the Year voting. Thus, in a direct comparison of individuals who have “purely” African or European genes, there are more of those with European genes than African. This is directly opposite to the racial theory of basketball participation.


Basketball was introduced to the Summer Olympic Games in 1936. Since then, the United States has pretty much dominated the competition. The 1972 victory of the Soviet Union has always been attributed to dubious officiating. In 1988, however, the Soviet Union won the gold, Yugoslavia the silver, and the United States settled for the bronze medal. Americans criticized this defeat as due to the essentially “professional” character of the European basketball programs. This criticism led to a changing of International Olympic Committee rules, and by 1992 professional athletes could compete in the Olympic Games. The 1992 Barcelona Olympics featured the U.S. “Dream Team,” consisting of eight players of African-American ancestry and four players of European-American descent. The Dream Team easily won the gold medal, but their victory also helped to spread the popularity of basketball to such an extent that the dominance of the United States, and of African Americans, in basketball may soon be a thing of the past.

Indeed, the 2002 U.S. men’s international basketball team, which was predominantly African American, was eliminated by Yugoslavia in the quarterfinals and lost to Spain in the consolation game of the World Championships. The USA finished seventh, while the only African nation in the competition finished in an abysmal eleventh place. At the men’s competition in the 2004 Olympic Games, Argentina won the gold, Italy the Silver, and the United States the bronze. In the women’s competition, the United States won the Gold, Australia the Silver, and Russia the Bronze. No African nations qualified for the medal rounds at these Olympics. Of the 177 players drafted by the NBA from 2003 to 2005, 28 were Europeans, 2 were East Asians, 1 was from East Africa, 22 from West Africa, and 4 were from Latin America. Finally, the 2005 NBA championship was won by the San Antonio Spurs, who featured five international players on their twelve-man roster. Two of their three most important players, Tim Duncan and Tony Parker, have some detectable African ancestry. These results indicate that the “black” dominance of professional and international basketball is fading.

Basketball ability, just like any other human behavior, is determined by a complex interplay between individual genetic ability, personality, culture, and society. African Americans, who currently dominate the game, represent a genetically and culturally unique population, one that is not equivalent to any particular Western African population, either in genes or in culture. Success at the modern game of basketball is facilitated by speed, endurance, agility, strength, height, hand-eye coordination, and leaping ability, among other athletic traits. There is no reason to suppose that these traits are found disproportionately among people of African descent in the United States, nor is there any scientific way of separating the genetic, environmental, or cultural effects that determine athletic predisposition. Thus, any claims of African genes providing superior athletic performance are at best speculation, and at worse racist ideology. The difference between the ethnic composition of the participants of American basketball and volleyball illustrates the social construction of sports performance. Both games require similar athletic skills, yet basketball is currently dominated by African-American athletes, while volleyball is dominated by European-American athletes.

When Michael Jordan retired from professional basketball, he was asked once again by reporters why he thought black players dominated the sport. “Okay, I’ll tell you,” he said. As reporters leaned forward, pencils poised, he whispered into the microphone, “We practice.”


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over 4 years ago

I am writing a book, "Bradley Basketball 1950-1960, The Golden Era," and would like to cite excerpts from your (3-24-13) article, Basketball and the Birth of The National Association...
Please reply.


William O'Malley

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about 5 years ago

hi my name is duray anderson i can play basketball but want some experience in achieving my goals can you arrange for me to train at a basketball club

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almost 7 years ago

Awesome article it gave me enough info to get a A++ on my project extra credit for extra info


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about 5 years ago

I Hate that people think that they can do stuff with out asking jesh...

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about 5 years ago

Hi, I am interested in the history of basketball in south-east queensland, australia.
In the late 1970's there was a competition with two american imports allowed per team. Players such as cal bruton, awdi matthews, leroy loggins?, tom bender played in the league. The crowds coming to the games were low and the league failed, the imported players entered into the new national basketball league. The teams in the Australian and American Basketball League (AAABL) were Lang Park, Northern Districts, West Michelton, Toowoomba, Gold Coast, Generals, Ipswich, Everton Park, and one other. If anyone knows the list of players brought out and about the contracts they signed (apparently some if not all contracts were unable to be honoured due to poor crowd attendence) this information would be good.

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almost 2 years ago


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over 4 years ago

I am waiting for a reply regarding copyright permission to quote from your article, Integration And The Birth Of The National Association... page 1, paragraph 8,
page 2 paragraph 4, and page 3 paragraph 3.

William O'Malley
Naperville, IL.