Everybody knows that the game of basketball was invented by Canadian physical education instructor James Naismith in 1891 in Springfield, Massachusetts as an indoor sport. Everybody knows, too, that basketball was first played officially in the Olympics in 1936 in Berlin.
Not everybody knows, though that 32 years before the Berlin Games, the shoot- and-dribble game was included as a demonstration sport the very first time the summer spectacle came to the U.S shore in 1904 in St. Louis, Missouri.
Originally scheduled in Chicago, that third edition of the of what was supposed to be “The Greatest Sports Show on Earth” was held in St. Louis in conjunction with the Louisiana Purchase Exhibition.
An “Anthropological Days” highlighted by demonstrations that saw African Pygmies, Philippine Moros, Igorots and Aetas and other indigenous people compete in mud fights, pole climbing and other native games.
Thanks to the spirited plays in basketball matchups, that edition of the summer conclave was saved from sinking to grotesque lows and complete flop. The basketball competition, in fact, provided a respite from negative aspects of Olympics and gave rise to belief that the Olympic should never again be held in connection with the World’s Fair.
And more significantly, the basketball games offered hopes that someday, the new sport will soon become a craze world wide like baseball and football, for instance, as it is today.
Three American college teams competed in the one-day, single round-robin format – Hiram College of Ohio, which eventually won the gold medal, Wheaton College of Illinois and the Latter Day Saints University of Salt Lake City.
Understandably, the sport hadn’t been taken hold all over the U.S., which explains the absence of foreign team competing.
The opening game between Hiram and Wheaton was played on the clay field outside the Physical Culture Building due to heavy rains that fell the night before. The outdoor venue gave an unusual feeling to media men, particularly Jack McCallum of Sports Illustrated, especially considering that Naismith invented the game to precisely provide his students with indoor activities during winter months.
“From time to time, the ball had to be dried off after it fell into one of the puddles hat had collected near the sidelines,” McCallum reported. “Wheaton players though solved the problem by wearing heavy cleats to combat sloppy footing.”
Hiram won that game, 25-20. McCallum later observed that for basketball to flourish, it must become primarily an indoor sport as Naismith originally envisioned. “Field conditions should not be factor in a game with such a vertical element to it.”
Later in the afternoon, Wheaton upended the Latter Day Saint University side, 40-35. With the summer sun finally appearing in the sky and drying the field, Hram had little trouble disposing off the Saints, 25-18 to bring home the gold medal.
After the tournament, McCallum noted that with way the games were played, particularly by the fast and graceful Hiram squad, basketball could become “a real pulse-raiser for fans.”
“I couldn’t help but feel that I had witnessed something important, and it was splendid to have been here, in the first frame, so to speak, of a film that I suspect will continue to unreel throughout the century,” he wrote in an article in written in the Sports Illustrated issue of November 29, 1999 20th Century Celebration.