Like millions of Americans, I spent last weekend watching the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. The high level of play impressed me, as it does every year. Thinking about the history of the game led me, once again, to the collection of the Chicago History Museum.
Locked away in storage, I found a long-forgotten basketball from a game played on February 9, 1906, between the Universities of Chicago and Illinois. At the time, Amos Alonzo Stagg (1862–1965) served as the Chicago coach and his team won handily, 49–14. Stagg is famous as a football pioneer, but he also played a key role in developing modern basketball.
Stagg, born in New Jersey, attended Yale University as a divinity student; he also belonged to the secret Skull and Bones Society and played on the school’s football team. After graduating, Stagg worked as an instructor and coached football at the International YMCA Training School (now Springfield College) in Springfield, Massachusetts, where James Naismith developed a new game—known as basketball—in 1891. Naismith used peach baskets as hoops and organized nine players on each team. Needless to say, the games were slow, low-scoring affairs. Indeed, when the Y’s faculty and students played the first-ever public basketball game on March 11, 1892, the students won 5–1, with Stagg scoring the teachers’ only basket.
A few months later, Stagg became the athletic director at the University of Chicago, coaching football, baseball, and track. He also introduced basketball but adopted the practice of using five players instead of nine, making the game a faster and more fluid contest. On January 18, 1896, Stagg coached the first college basketball game with five-man teams; his efforts to popularize the game made him one of basketball’s true pioneers. So, as this year’s March Madness heads to New Orleans, impress your friends with a bit of history from Chicago!