The original 13 rules of basketball barely even resemble the game as it exists today.
A few days ago, the original copy of the rules of basketball, as dreamed up by Dr. James Naismith, sold at auction for $4.3 million.
I’d never read the original 13 rules before, but after seeing them sell for that price — $330k per rule, ya know — I figured they’d be worth checking out. And in a way, they’re fascinating. There’s really a world of difference between the game today — with all of its dunking, three-pointers, and cowardly players congregating together on teams because they’re afraid to compete against each other — and the game Naismith was picturing when he had those rules typed up.
Of the 13 rules, only two are really exactly the same as rules that still exist today — the first and last rules on the list.
1. The ball may be thrown in any direction with one or both hands.
13. The side making the most goals in that time shall be declared the winner.
The other 11 are either irrelevant, outdated or just completely different than the rules of the modern game. And here they are.
1 | “The ball may be batted in any direction with one or both hands, but never with the fist.”
Naismith seemed to picture this game taking on a volleyball feel. In the modern game, batting/fist bumping the ball isn’t really relevant — and definitely wouldn’t be relevant if the game had to be boiled down to 13 rules.
But this “no fisting” rule clearly mattered a lot to Naismith, as he brought it up more than once on the list. It’s like he plagiarized it from a list of rules posted on a trailer on the set of Hogan’s Heroes.
2 | “A player cannot run with the ball. The player must throw it from the spot on which he catches it, allowance to be made for a man running at good speed.”
The original rules don’t account for dribbling, you were just supposed to catch the ball and pass it. Kind of like ultimate Frisbee, just with fewer guys named Chad wearing knee-high argyle socks.
3 | “The ball must be held by the hands. The arms or body must not be used for holding it.”
Antiquated. Players hold the ball under their arm to slow down the pace, keep rebounds away from defenders, and tons of other reasons. Plus, I’ve seen the Globetrotters put the ball inside of their jerseys, their opponent’s jerseys, in a suitcase, inside a popcorn bucket and on top of a ladder. Are you telling me none of that is legal?
4 | “No shouldering, holding, pushing, striking or tripping in any way of an opponent.”
It continues: “The first infringement of this rule by any person shall count as a foul; the second shall disqualify him until the next goal is made or, if there was evident intent to injure the person, for the whole of the game. No substitution shall be allowed.”
While there are still rules about fouling (obviously), it would be a real game changer if, after two fouls, you had to sit out in some kind of penalty box until someone made a basket — and after a flagrant foul your team had to go four-on-five for the rest of the game. That’s what basketball needs, more power plays. Try to make basketball as much like hockey as possible, I say.
5 | “A foul is striking at the ball with the fist.”
Again, he goes back to the fist. Naismith really had beef with people punching balls. He must’ve had some horrible childhood tetherball experience or something.
6 | “If either side makes three consecutive fouls it shall count as a goal for the opponents (consecutive means without the opponents in the meantime making a foul).”
This is some kind of bizarro NBA Jam rule — if you can draw three straight fouls, you get two points. He’s heating up!
7 | “A goal shall be made when the ball is thrown or batted from the grounds into the basket and stays there, providing those defending the goal do no touch or disturb the goal. If the ball rests on the edges, and the opponent moves the basket, it shall count as a goal.”
Just make sure if you’re “batting” the ball into the goal from the ground you do it with an open palm. If you should dare do it with a fist, James Naismith will come out of the stands and swing at you like Ron Artest.
8 | “When the ball goes out of bounds, it shall be thrown into the field and played by the first person touching it. In case of dispute the umpire shall throw it straight into the field. The thrower-in is allowed five seconds. If he holds it longer, it shall go to the opponent. If any side persists in delaying the game, the umpire shall call a foul on them.”
I interpret this rule that when the ball goes out of bounds, everyone can run for it, and whoever gets there first gets to be the one who throws it in. That kind of reminds me of the XFL rule where, instead of a coin toss, two players would scramble for a ball and injure themselves. I miss the XFL.
9 | “The umpire shall be the judge of the men and shall note the fouls and notify the referee when three consecutive fouls have been made. He shall have power to disqualify men.”
Naismith set up some time establishing this umpire-referee dynamic, which doesn’t really exist anymore. Today, there’s no umpire, just three referees, and mostly, they just get screamed at and occasionally fix and gamble on the games they’re officiating.
10 | “The referee shall be judge of the ball and shall decide when the ball is in play, in bounds, to which side it belongs, and shall keep the time.”
At pretty much every level of basketball there’s now an official timekeeper. And thanks to the official timekeeper we have one of the strangest modern nuances of the game of basketball — the arbitrary determinations of what a human can do in different fractions of a second.
Someone with incredible, Spider-Man-esque (or, to a lesser extent, Wanted-esque) ability to slow down time With 0.7 seconds a human can catch and shoot, with 0.4 he has to catch and shoot in the same motion, and with less than 0.4 he can only tip it. Of course, all this is contingent on the timekeeper actually starting the time as soon as the ball makes contact with the player’s hand… you know, assuming it takes him less than 0.1 seconds to press a button. Somehow none of this made it into the original rules.
11 | “The time shall be two fifteen-minute halves, with five minutes rest between.”
Naismith really didn’t have faith that these games could last. Two 15-minute halves isn’t very much basketball. Even college’s 20-minute halves feel somewhat short. Naismith clearly wasn’t focused on maximizing ad revenue or making the game fan-tastic. I’m thinking he just figured that after 30 minutes people would get frustrated trying to throw a ball into a peach basket, especially when, due to the degree of difficulty, the entire enterprise felt… wait for it… fruitless.