Basketball and WWI

Collections Spotlight
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Modern photograph of a green and yellow basketball uniform in a glass display case.
Basketball uniform comprised of a wool sleeveless shirt with cotton shorts. Made by A.G. Spalding Bros.
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One of the stars of special exhibition Entertaining the Troops is this basketball uniform. It dates from the 1910s; the top is made of wool and the shorts are made of cotton; and the tag is for A.G. Spalding Bros. But what else is there to know about basketball and World War I (besides that the uniforms were probably a bit itchy to wear)?

At the start of WWI in 1914, basketball was still a young sport. Canadian-American Dr. James Naismith invented it in 1891 when he was a physical education teacher at the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) International Training School in Springfield, Massachusetts. The new game spread quickly in the U.S. in the early 20th century, notably in Indigenous communities and residential schools. It proved popular with youth organizations and schools since it was thought to promote both physical and moral health – and could be played indoors in the winter.

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Print of a drawing of schoolgirls in school uniforms playing basketball. The girl in the center holds the ball high in both hands while several other girls guard against her throw or try to intercept her throw.
Drawing from The Youth’s Companion magazine of girls playing a game of basketball.
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YMCA educators coached by Naismith in the late 1890s introduced basketball to countries outside of the U.S. such as China, Brazil, Australia and more. Still, basketball wasn’t widely played outside the U.S. at the start of WWI – until after U.S. soldiers joined the fight in 1917, bringing their own leisure activities with them.

Naismith (who later founded the famed basketball program at the University of Kansas) helped personally spread basketball during the war. With prior experience as a chaplain with the Kansas National Guard during the Punitive Expedition to Mexico in 1916, he served as a volunteer chaplain with the YMCA in France.

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Colorized photograph of young white men in military uniform playing basketball on a grassy field between barracks.
Colorized postcard of American soldiers playing basketball at Camp Upton in New York.
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Black and white photograph of seven young white men posed for a group photograph (sitting and standing) dressed in shorts, tank tops, long socks and sneakers. One of the seated men is holding a basketball in his lap.
Team photo of an American Headquarters Company wearing their basketball uniforms.
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The YMCA and similar organizations provided entertainment for soldiers with various activities, including organized basketball games. Military authorities approved of these games to build teamwork and comradery amongst the soldiers, as well as to promote “clean” entertainment. After the war, basketball was used for rehabilitation for wounded soldiers, and it was also included as an event during the Inter-Allied Games of 1919.

Throughout the war, soldiers and civilians from many countries were exposed to basketball. Once they returned home, they brought the fun of basketball with them.

 

 

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Black and white photograph of eighteen young white men dressed in shorts, tank tops and sneakers posed in a V formation facing the viewer. Two are holding basketballs. Several more young men in military uniform sit on benches in the background of the gymnasium.
The 90th Division basketball team in Wehlen, Germany.
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Black and white photograph of a gymnasium hall with a basketball hoop at the far end. Several young men in military uniform are playing basketball.
Indoor basketball court for AEF soldiers in Wehlen, Germany.
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Want to find out more about sports and other forms of entertainment during WWI? Visit the special exhibition Entertaining the Troops at the Museum and Memorial to learn more.