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Could Be the Start Of Something Big
Jack McCallum
November 29, 1999
JULY 13, 1904: THE FIRST OLYMPIC BASKETBALL TOURNAMENT
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November 29, 1999

Could Be The Start Of Something Big

JULY 13, 1904: THE FIRST OLYMPIC BASKETBALL TOURNAMENT

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DEAR MOTHER AND FATHER,

I am writing from St. Louis, where I have discovered something called basket ball, a relatively new sport that was played here this week in the Olympic Games for the first time, as a demonstration sport. It seems fitting that this basket ball was introduced at the first Olympics ever held within our national borders, as the game was apparently invented a few years ago by an imaginative chap in Massachusetts named Naismith. I'm quite sure that Americans can become adept at this sport, as evidenced here by the spirited play of Hiram College of Ohio, which won the gold medal in the collegiate division by beating Wheaton College of Illinois, and then Latter Day Saints University of Salt Lake City. The game has not yet taken hold all over the country—much less outside the United States, which explains why there were no foreign teams competing here—but I can foresee a day when college teams engage in regular interstate competitions, provided, of course, that travel does not exact too much time from academic pursuits.

The basket ball competition offered a splendid respite from the negative aspects of the goings-on in St. Louis these past few weeks, which in my opinion demonstrate that an Olympics should never again be held in conjunction with a World's Fair. Superior athletic endeavors were sometimes lost amid the dreadful social science experiments ordered up by a gentleman with the lofty title of Chief of the Department of Physical Culture. It was his addle-brained idea of staging Anthropology Days, the nadir of which was reached—I am not making this up—with a mudslinging fight among African pygmies. I suspect that as the century progresses America will have a much more enlightened view of sport and that shameless promoters who do not have in mind the best interests of athletics will be kept far from the fray.

At any rate, I was on my way to watch this basket ball when I met a delightful gentleman from Hiram who regaled me with tales of his team's state championship and slapped his leg in delight at the mere mention of the team from Salt Lake City. "I look forward to the game with these Mormon lads," he said. "It will be this century's first grudge match!" It seems that one Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, was tarred and feathered and run out of Hiram in 1831 because the citizens were concerned that the religion granted far too much power to Mr. Smith. My own suspicion was that the athletes themselves would pay scant attention to this subplot, which was mostly fodder for pregame conversation, and I was proven correct in that assumption.

Despite heavy rains that had fallen the night before, the Hiram-Wheaton game was played on the clay field outside of the Physical Culture Building, rather than in the gymnasium. This struck me as unusual, considering that this Naismith fellow, a physical education teacher, had invented basket ball to provide his charges with a challenging indoor activity during the winter months. From time to time the ball had to be dried off after it fell into one of the puddles that had collected near the side lines, and, in fact, Wheaton had a distinct advantage in the early going because its players wore heavy cleats to combat the sloppy footing. If this basket ball is to flourish, it surely must become primarily an indoor sport, as field conditions should not be a factor in a game with such a vertical element to it. At any rate, the superior speed and quickness of the Hiram College athletes won the day, and Wheaton was dispatched by the score of 25 to 20.

Later in the afternoon, Wheaton bested the Latter Day Saints squad by 40 to 35, so a victory in the third and final game over L.D.S.U. would assure the Hiram lads of the gold medal. The summer sun had dried the field by then, and Hiram had little trouble vanquishing the Saints by 25 to 18. As I watched the game unfold, I sensed that this basket ball, particularly as it was played by the fast and graceful Hiram quintet, could become a real pulse-raiser for fans, though one would not have known it by watching this particular tournament. Olympic rules barred any noise from the side lines, and, except for some muted cheering by several female basketball players from the Government Indian School, all was silence. Still, I couldn't help but feel that I had witnessed something important, and it was splendid to have been there, in the first frame, so to speak, of a film that I suspect will continue to unreel throughout the century.

I was surprised to find my new friend from Hiram sitting by himself after the game with hands folded under his chin. "I am pleased with the win," he said, "but I wonder how long it will be that small schools like Hiram will be able to achieve great things in this game. I can see the day coming when the large universities will search from coast to coast to find and secure the best players. You only need a few of them, remember, to make a successful squad."

I had no answer for that but told him to be thankful that the physical culture chief had kept his nose out of basket ball. "Otherwise," I said, "he might well have imported a tribe of giants from some far-off continent and had them simply reach up and lay the ball into the basket, while the smaller lads watched helplessly from below!"

We shared a good laugh at that absurd image, and I thanked him for introducing me to this promising game.

Sincerely,

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