Basketball is one of the world's greatest sports -- in style and grace, and, increasingly, in popularity. Basketball is played by two teams of five players on a side.
Basketball is that rare sport that was invented, largely from scratch and with rules close to its present ones, by one man. Dr. James Naismith, a Canadian invented basketball in 1891, at a Young Men's Christian Association YMCA in Springfield, Massachusetts. Dr. Naismith wanted a clean indoor game of vigor and grace to keep young men occupied during the long New England winters. Basketball was popular from the beginning and, within a year, was being played all over the United States.
People often call basketball "the city game" and it's accessible to poor urban children because the equipment is so minimal. But in rural Indiana and Wyoming, to name just two places, basketball has been almost a religion. City players tend to have more confidence and court savvy, but some of the greatest basketball players have been from small towns.
Basketball is played with a spherical pressurized ball that is 9" (22.86 cm) in diameter. It is larger and heavier than a soccer ball, and designed to bounce well on a hard, artificial floor. Basketball is played on a flat court 50 feet wide and 94 (professional) or 84 (college) feet long, with a basket (an 18" (45.72 cm) in diameter circular steel ring mounted parallel to the ground and a string net below, with a hole to allow the ball to fall through) mounted ten feet (about 3 metres) above the ground at each end. A popular social variant ("half-court") is played with just one basket.
The game is very accessible to fans. Whereas football is played outside, often in the rain or cold, by 22 players on a side, basketball is played indoors, with just ten players on the court. Where football and hockey are played by heavily padded and helmeted players, in basketball the uniforms are minimal, so it's easy to see the players' faces and bodies. Where a hockey puck is small, fast-moving and hard to follow, the basketball is large and easy to follow.
Players score two points for putting the ball in the basket, three points for certain long-range shots, and one point for foul shots. From the long, lovely arc of the three-point shot to the grace of the flying reverse lay-up to the savage poetry of the slam dunk, there's a great variety of ways to score.
Naturally, it's easier to score a basket when close to the basket than when farther away; but, unlike football, offensive players in basketball may not cradle the ball under their arm as they advance. Instead, they must constantly bounce ("dribble") the ball as they advance to the basket; every dribble represents a chance for the ball to be mishandled or stolen.
To be sure, defensive players may not tackle an offensive player, and those who push, shove or impede their opponents risk getting called for a foul. Players who are fouled get either the ball or -- if they're in the act of shooting -- "free throw" shots from a line 15 feet from the basket for one point each. This was important to Dr. Naismith, who disliked the brutal blocking and tackling of football. He wanted his game to be good clean exercise.
But savvy defensive players use a wide array of legal and extra-legal techniques to hamper and frustrate the players they guard. Officiating basketball well is quite an art, as too many calls break the flow of the game but too few calls inhibit the players' artistry and invite thuggery.
If a player commits five fouls in one game (six in the professional league, the National Basketball Association) he is disqualified from the rest of the game, and a bench player must take his place.
Arguing with a referee, fighting with another player, or interfering with a ball after it falls through the basket are grounds for a technical foul. Any player or coach with two technical fouls is disqualified from the game.
Being tall is a clear advantage in basketball. Very few professional players stand less than six feet. Forwards and centers in the men's professional leagues are almost all 6'6" or taller; many are over 7 feet. But as many oafish giants have learned to their chagrin, basketball rewards quickness, grace, hand-eye coordination, court savvy, and mental toughness more than size.
Though only five players on each side can play at any one time, the "sixth man" has an important place in winning basketball. A sixth man is the first substitute in the game, and a good one can instantly change the tempo of the game, by speeding up the scoring of his own team, or clamping down on the scoring of the opponent. He needs that special "feel" for the game that is as much mental as physical.
If basketball's origins are Scottish-Calvinist and Presbyterian, its greatest players and innovators have been from distinctly different backgrounds. Hank Luisetti introduced the running one-handed shot; George Mikan pioneered the dominant inside play at the center position; Bob Cousy revolutionized the point guard position with his remarkable dribbling and passing. All three were the children of immigrants.
And then there is the dominant influence of Black culture. Most of the greatest basketball players have been African-American, including Bill Russell, Michael Jordan, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson.
Basketball reminds many spectators of jazz, and both art forms have been heavily influenced by African-American rhythms. Both require a series of fundamental skills but are improvisatory; each has about five players, playing together, with frequent solos by the star players.
The African-American tradition of "the dozens" has been adapted to basketball as well, with opponents "trash-talking" at each other in a tone that veers from brutally hostile to broadly comic. Ugly-looking shots are called "bricks" and the looks and sexual habits of players' mothers, girlfriends and sisters are frankly discussed.