Basketball’s Future Past

Time Machine
A fly time machine

The laziest disservice and view of basketball history, or any history, is to do a straight-up transportation of one person to another era and issue blithe commentary.

For example: “Any NBA player in 2014 could mop the floor with a player from 1954.”

Another example in reverse: “The Founding Fathers who lived without knowledge of germ theory or combustion engines have all the answers to problems in 2014.”

Whoops, political opinion. Back to basketball…

The first problem with this unfortunate logic is to assume that “any NBA player in 2014” could exist in 1954. Yes, J.R. Smith’s moves are ostensibly more impressive than Paul Seymour’s, but transporting J.R. Smith back to 1954 should strip away every advancement that was made to his benefit in the intervening 60 years.

Also, Paul Seymour hit a game-winning half-court shot in the 1954 NBA Finals and made the All-NBA 2nd Team twice. Dude could play.

Digressions aside, I can’t detail right now every single advancement in basketball’s long history. However it would be excellent for you – the reader – to ask yourself exactly what has changed in 123 years since basketball was first played.

After having done so myself, I’ve concluded there are three ways to view the changes in basketball: Social, Technological, and “Genetic”.


Imagine all basketball players the world over as the human species. We are 99.9% similar to each other the world over. The little differences in that 0.1% are what makes us appear so vastly different. Yeah, Isaac Newton and Martin Luther King were smart fellas, but they still had to eat, breath, and shit like the rest of us. We’re all operating pretty much the same, but that little percentage in difference creates a lot of variety.

In basketball, it is the same. Go to any court, any where and things are 99% the same but that 1% makes the players look vastly different. Yeah, LeBron James is going to be dunking with a ferocity you’ll never see on 99% of pickup courts, but on those pickup courts you see players dribbling, passing, shooting, driving, arguing, hi-fiving, etc. like NBA players. That 1% of LeBron dunking seems so different it makes us overlook that 99% of what’s similar.

But where does that 1% difference come from?

When basketball was created in 1891, its first players were all at least in their mid-20s. This was not a game people had grown up with and could apply their childhood imagination and instinct to. It was not intrinsic to them. They were constantly grafting their experiences with other sports onto basketball.

As the decades went by, we began having more and more people who never knew life without basketball. Their twists and turns and takes on the game can be considered the genetic mutations of the sport. These mutations often happened totally independent of one another, much like real genetic mutations do.

The jump shot is a great example of this.

Several players across the country in the 1930s and 1940s were doing jumpers with no knowledge of the others’ existence. They were just doing what felt natural to them. The jumper proved advantageous and slowly pushed aside older shots like the two-hand set shot, the one-hand set shot, and underhanded shots.

Other things we take for granted – bounce passes, dribbling, picks, etc. – all were “devised” the same way. Random people from random parts of the world just began doing the moves. What now seems essential and integral was once a mutation of basketball as it then stood.

Bob Cousy’s whimsical over-the-head passes in 1952? Basketball mutation.
Gus Johnson breaking a backboard cuz he dunked so hard in 1964? Basketball mutation.
J.R. Rider dunking between his legs in 1995? Basketball mutation.
Elgin Baylor gliding across the lane for scoop shots in 1958? Basketball mutation.
Kenny Sailors in the 1930s, at only 5’10”, in his backyard in Wyoming trying to shoot over his 6’5″ brother by jumping then shooting? Basketball mutation.

Bob Davies, the Rochester rocket taking the game airborn
Bob Davies mutating basketball

Like all “genetic” discussions, though, it’s futile – AND EXTREMELY DANGEROUS – to say one mutation is inherently better than the other though. It all depends on circumstances. The two-hand set shot seems archaic and “obviously” a stupid move. But considering the basketball environment it flourished in, it makes sense it took decades for the jumper to overtake it.


The technology of basketball – the environment we all play in – has an undervalued role in how successful players of any era are. The first “basketball” was actually a soccer ball. The first “basket” was actually a basket not an iron rim with a net. It took several years for shoes to be designed specifically for the sport.

These things are of no small consequence to how we play the game.

The first true basketballs were larger than the ones we use today, had huge protruding laces, and their leather material soaked up moisture becoming heavier as the game went on. The large, heavy, and unwieldy basketballs were better shot with a two-hand set shot and not the jumper. Indeed, re-introduce that old-time basketball today and players like Steph Curry wouldn’t be dribbling as easily as they do and then tossing up 25-foot bombs with ease.

Like players of yesteryear, they would put a higher premium on motion and screens without the ball. This lack of emphasis on dribbling didn’t mean players in the 1940s couldn’t dribble well, it meant they had to conduct themselves in an environment where A) an open set-shot required more off-ball movement and screens, B) the set-shot took longer to release due to the shot’s mechanics and the ball’s unfortunate physics and C) no shot clock meant you could weave and screen as long as it took to get someone open.

And don’t forget that the Currys of the world need a coach willing to let him shoot those bombs. When Kenny Sailors entered the pros his coach told him to lose the jumper¬† and stick to the set-shot.

Just another great GIF to enjoy. Look at that pass from Wilt to Elgin!
Just another great GIF to enjoy. Look at that pass from Wilt to Joe Caldwell!

Likewise, the three-point shot has been around since 1961, but the social orthodoxy of the NBA didn’t adopt it until 1979 and it took a while longer before NBA offenses figured out what to do with the damn thing. A player like Louie Dampier, who flourished in the ABA thanks in large part to the three-pointer, would not have been nearly as successful in the NBA.

Would that have made Dampier any less of a great player, though? Or just a talented victim of circumstance and orthodoxy?

These social constraints dictate a large degree of player success. What we oughta struggle with is how much of a player’s success is their talent and how much is the circumstance? And note my emphasis on struggle. We can never know that answer, but we should seriously consider what the answer could be.

And that “could be”¬† leads to the main, final, and most important point… Imagination.

Think, question, and imagine how players, equipment, and thought on basketball has changed over the last 123 years. The game we play and watch today is vastly different from what it was in 1891. When someone today has an innovation – mutation – it can now be quickly transferred and amplified thanks to the technology at our disposal. Imagine how quickly the jump shot might have spread with the communications and training network we have today? On the other hand, consider what groundbreaking moves are being scoffed at right now by the current basketball orthodoxy.

Every era has its innovators and naysayers, coat-tail riders and outside-the-box thinkers.

But above all, remember that with all these changes, all these restrictions, all these thoughts…the game is 99% the same as it was in 1891. Love, embrace, and sympathize with our basketball ancestors. In the end, we’re doing the same old thing they were: eating, breathing, shitting, and trying to put a ball in the basket.