Idaho History: Basketball in the Gem State began as a game for girls



The first game of basketball ever played was on Jan. 20, 1892, at the YMCA training school in Springfield, Mass., later Springfield College. Less than five years later, the Idaho Statesman reported that plans were being made in Boise for the introduction of the game of basketball as “a school children’s exercise” and on Nov. 12, 1897, noted, “The interest in the game of basketball, which is being taken up by the young ladies of the high school, is increasing, and the greatest enthusiasm is being aroused. The young ladies are arranging for appropriate costumes and they play the game with as much vim and energy as their brothers ever displayed in football. The games for the present will be played in the basement of the Central School building, but as soon as the weather will permit, grounds will be laid out in the school yard.”

Canadian James Naismith, inventor of the game, was a professor of physical education at McGill University in Montreal before moving to Springfield in 1890. While there, he was asked to invent a game that could be played indoors during New England’s harsh winters. That first game was played with a soccer ball, with peach baskets nailed to the walls as goals. As first played by men used to playing football without helmets or much padding, it was a rough game, with frequent physical contact and occasional injuries.

In Boise in the 1890s, it was almost entirely a game for girls. In December 1897, the Statesman reported, “The interest in basketball is on the increase among the girls in the high school. The rules for the game have arrived and all the members of the teams are studying them with diligence. It is expected that arrangements will be made soon by which the public will have an opportunity of witnessing one of their exciting games.”

By the turn of the century, young men were also playing basketball in Idaho, first at Boise’s YMCA and then between high school teams. In May 1902, all baskets counted three each, but scores were low. A game played at the Y on April 30, 1902, ended 18-15, the winners scoring five field goals, the losers three. As players became more adept at passing and shooting, scores got a little higher, but not by much. A game played at the YMCA in February 1904, ended 25-19. In April 1906, a Y team was undefeated against area high school boys, but rivalries between towns were heating up. The Emmett Index reported on Dec. 20, 1906: “The Emmett basketball team defeated Parma Saturday night in a close game, the final score being 25 to 24. The Emmett boys drove to Parma in the afternoon through a cold snowstorm, arriving there at 7 o’clock chilled to the bone.” (Since there were only about a dozen automobiles in Southern Idaho at the time, the Emmett boys may have made the trip in an open vehicle pulled by horses, although the paper doesn’t say.) “The game was called at 9 o’clock. The first half of 20 minutes resulted in a tie, 10 to 10. The second half was also a tie, bringing the score to 23 to 23. The tie was played off, resulting in a score of 2 to 1 for Emmett.” The star of that game was Emmett center Orrie Crites, who would later become prominent as a Boise real estate man.

The Index reported on Dec. 27, 1906, that a double-header scheduled for Jan. 5, 1907, would feature Emmett’s boys and girls teams against the Parma boys and girls. It urged its readers to support the Emmett Athletic Club that had lost money in supporting the local teams. “They are doing good work and should be supported.” Evidently school budgets could not support travel expenses for out-of-town games, and outside help was needed.

Arthur Hart writes this column on Idaho history for the Idaho Statesman each Sunday. Email

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