Basketball, game played between two teams of five players each on a rectangular court, usually indoors. Each team tries to score by tossing the ball through the opponent’s goal, an elevated horizontal hoop and net called a basket.
The only major sport strictly of U.S. origin, basketball was invented by James Naismith (1861–1939) on or about December 1, 1891, at the International Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) Training School (now Springfield College), Springfield, Massachusetts, where Naismith was an instructor in physical education.
For that first game of basketball in 1891, Naismith used as goals two half-bushel peach baskets, which gave the sport its name. The students were enthusiastic. After much running and shooting, William R. Chase made a midcourt shot—the only score in that historic contest. Word spread about the newly invented game, and numerous associations wrote Naismith for a copy of the rules, which were published in the January 15, 1892, issue of the Triangle, the YMCA Training School’s campus paper.
While basketball is competitively a winter sport, it is played on a 12-month basis—on summer playgrounds, in municipal, industrial, and church halls, in school yards and family driveways, and in summer camps—often on an informal basis between two or more contestants. Many grammar schools, youth groups, municipal recreation centres, churches, and other organizations conduct basketball programs for youngsters of less than high school age. Jay Archer, of Scranton, Pennsylvania, introduced “biddy” basketball in 1950 for boys and girls under 12 years of age, the court and equipment being adjusted for size.
The early years
In the early years the number of players on a team varied according to the number in the class and the size of the playing area. In 1894 teams began to play with five on a side when the playing area was less than 1,800 square feet (167.2 square metres); the number rose to seven when the gymnasium measured from 1,800 to 3,600 square feet (334.5 square metres) and up to nine when the playing area exceeded that. In 1895 the number was occasionally set at five by mutual consent; the rules stipulated five players two years later, and this number has remained ever since.
Since Naismith and five of his original players were Canadians, it is not surprising that Canada was the first country outside the United States to play the game. Basketball was introduced in France in 1893, in England in 1894, in Australia, China, and India soon thereafter, and in Japan in 1900.
While basketball helped swell the membership of YMCAs because of the availability of their gyms, within five years the game was outlawed by various associations because gyms that had been occupied by classes of 50 or 60 members were now monopolized by only 10 to 18 players. The banishment of the game induced many members to terminate their YMCA membership and to hire halls to play the game, thus paving the way to the professionalization of the sport.
Originally, players wore one of three styles of uniforms: knee-length football trousers; jersey tights, as commonly worn by wrestlers; or short padded pants, forerunners of today’s uniforms, plus knee guards. The courts often were of irregular shape with occasional obstructions such as pillars, stairways, or offices that interfered with play. In 1903 it was ruled that all boundary lines must be straight. In 1893 the Narragansett Machinery Co. of Providence, Rhode Island, marketed a hoop of iron with a hammock style of basket. Originally a ladder, then a pole, and finally a chain fastened to the bottom of the net was used to retrieve a ball after a goal had been scored. Nets open at the bottom were adopted in 1912–13. In 1895–96 the points for making a basket (goal, or field goal) were reduced from three to two, and the points for making a free throw (shot uncontested from a line in front of the basket after a foul had been committed) were reduced from three to one.
Baskets were frequently attached to balconies, making it easy for spectators behind a basket to lean over the railings and deflect the ball to favour one side and hinder the other; in 1895 teams were urged to provide a 4-by-6-foot (1.2-by-1.8-metre) screen for the purpose of eliminating interference. Soon after, wooden backboards proved more suitable. Glass backboards were legalized by the professionals in 1908–09 and by colleges in 1909–10. In 1920–21 the backboards were moved 2 feet (0.6 metre), and in 1939–40 4 feet, in from the end lines to reduce frequent stepping out-of-bounds. Fan-shaped backboards were made legal in 1940–41.
A soccer ball (football) was used for the first two years. In 1894 the first basketball was marketed. It was laced, measured close to 32 inches (81 cm), or about 4 inches (10 cm) larger than the soccer ball, in circumference, and weighed less than 20 ounces (567 grams). By 1948–49, when the laceless molded ball was made official, the size had been set at 30 inches (76 cm).
The first college to play the game was either Geneva College (Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania) or the University of Iowa. C.O. Bemis heard about the new sport at Springfield and tried it out with his students at Geneva in 1892. At Iowa, H.F. Kallenberg, who had attended Springfield in 1890, wrote Naismith for a copy of the rules and also presented the game to his students. At Springfield, Kallenberg met Amos Alonzo Stagg, who became athletic director at the new University of Chicago in 1892. The first college basketball game with five on a side was played between the University of Chicago and the University of Iowa in Iowa City on January 18, 1896. The University of Chicago won, 15–12, with neither team using a substitute. Kallenberg refereed that game—a common practice in that era—and some of the spectators took exception to some of his decisions.
The colleges formed their own rules committee in 1905, and by 1913 there were at least five sets of rules: collegiate, YMCA–Amateur Athletic Union, those used by state militia groups, and two varieties of professional rules. Teams often agreed to play under a different set for each half of a game. To establish some measure of uniformity, the colleges, Amateur Athletic Union, and YMCA formed the Joint Rules Committee in 1915. This group was renamed the National Basketball Committee (NBC) of the United States and Canada in 1936 and until 1979 served as the game’s sole amateur rule-making body. In that year, however, the colleges broke away to form their own rules committee, and during the same year the National Federation of State High School Associations likewise assumed the task of establishing separate playing rules for the high schools. The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Rules Committee for men is a 12-member board representing all three NCAA divisions. It has six members from Division I schools and three each from Divisions II and III. It has jurisdiction over colleges, junior colleges, the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA), and Armed Forces basketball. There is a similar body for women’s play.
Growth of the game
Basketball grew steadily but slowly in popularity and importance in the United States and internationally in the first three decades after World War II. Interest in the game deepened as a result of television exposure, but with the advent of cable television, especially during the 1980s, the game’s popularity exploded at all levels. Given a timely mix of spectacular players—such as Earvin (“Magic”) Johnson, Julius Erving (“Dr. J”), Larry Bird, and Michael Jordan—and the greatly increased exposure, basketball moved quickly to the forefront of the American sporting scene, alongside such traditional leaders as baseball and football. Four areas of the game developed during this period: U.S. high school and college basketball, professional basketball, women’s basketball, and international basketball.
U.S. high school and college basketball
Basketball at the high school and college levels developed from a structured, rigid game in the early days to one that is often fast-paced and high-scoring. Individual skills improved markedly, and, although basketball continued to be regarded as the ultimate team game, individualistic, one-on-one performers came to be not only accepted but used as an effective means of winning games.
In the early years games were frequently won with point totals of less than 30, and the game, from the spectator’s viewpoint, was slow. Once a team acquired a modest lead, the popular tactic was to stall the game by passing the ball without trying to score, in an attempt to run out the clock. The NBC, seeing the need to discourage such slowdown tactics, instituted a number of rule changes. In 1932–33 a line was drawn at midcourt, and the offensive team was required to advance the ball past it within 10 seconds or lose possession. Five years later, in 1937–38, the centre jump following each field goal or free throw was eliminated. Instead, the defending team was permitted to inbound the ball from the out-of-bounds line underneath the basket. Decades passed before another alteration of like magnitude was made in the college game. After experimentation, the NCAA Rules Committee installed a 45-second shot clock in 1985 (reduced to 35 seconds in 1993), restricting the time a team could control the ball before shooting, and one year later it implemented a three-point shot rule for baskets made beyond a distance of 19.75 feet (6.0 metres). In 2008 the three-point line was moved to 20.75 feet (6.3 metres) from the basket.
More noticeable alteration in the game came at both the playing and coaching levels. Stanford University’s Hank Luisetti was the first to use and popularize the one-hand shot in the late 1930s. Until then the only outside attempts were two-handed push shots. In the 1950s and ’60s a shooting style evolved from Luisetti’s push-off one hander to a jump shot, which is released at the top of the jump. West Virginia University guard Jerry West and Purdue University’s Rick Mount were two players who demonstrated the devastating effectiveness of this shot.
Coaching strategy changed appreciably over the years. Frank W. Keaney, coach at the University of Rhode Island from 1921 to 1948, is credited with introducing the concept of “fast break” basketball, in which the offensive team rushes the ball upcourt hoping to get a good shot before the defense can get set. Another man who contributed to a quicker pace of play, particularly through the use of the pressure defense, was Adolph Rupp, who became the University of Kentucky’s coach in 1931 and turned its program into one of the most storied in basketball history.
Defensive coaching philosophy, similarly, has undergone change. Whereas pioneer coaches such as Henry Iba of Oklahoma A&M University (now Oklahoma State University) or Long Island University’s Clair Bee taught strictly a man-to-man defense, the zone defense, developed by Cam Henderson of Marshall University in West Virginia, later became an integral part of the game (see belowPlay of the game).
Over the years one of the rules makers’ chief concerns was to neutralize the advantage of taller players. At 6 feet 5 inches (1.96 metres) Joe Lapchick was considered very tall when he played for the Original Celtics in the 1920s, but, as even taller players appeared, rules were changed in response. To prevent tall players from stationing themselves near the basket, a rule was instituted in 1932–33 prohibiting the player with the ball from standing inside the foul lane with his back to the basket for more than three seconds; the three-second rule later applied to any attacking player in the foul lane. In 1937–38 a new rule forbade any player from touching the ball when it was in the basket or on its rim (basket interference), and in 1944–45 it became illegal for any defending player to touch the ball on its downward flight toward the basket (goaltending).
Nevertheless, with each passing decade, the teams with the tallest players tended to dominate. Bob Kurland (7 feet [2.13 metres]) led Oklahoma A&M to two NCAA championships in the 1940s and led the nation in scoring in 1945–46. In the same era George Mikan (6 feet 10 inches [2.08 metres]) scored more than 550 points in each of his final two seasons at DePaul University before going on to play nine professional seasons in which he scored more than 11,000 points. Mikan was an outstanding player, not only because of his size but because of his ability to shoot sweeping hook shots with both hands.
In the 1950s Bill Russell (6 feet 9 inches [2.06 metres]) led the University of San Francisco to two NCAA championships before going on to become one of the greatest centres in professional basketball history. Wilt Chamberlain (7 feet 1 inch [2.16 metres]) played at the University of Kansas before turning professional in the late 1950s and is regarded as the greatest all-around big man ever to play. It remained, however, for Lew Alcindor (later Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), also 7 feet 1 inch, to most influence the rules. After his sophomore year (1966–67) at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), the dunk shot was banned from collegiate basketball, ostensibly because the rules committee felt, again, that the big men had too great an advantage. The rule was rescinded beginning with the 1976–77 season, and the dunk shot became an important part of the game, electrifying both fans and players.
So too have the small- and medium-size players affected the game’s development. Bob Cousy, playing at Holy Cross College and later for the Boston Celtics, was regarded as one of the game’s first great playmakers. He was among the first to use the behind-the-back pass and between-the-legs dribble as effective offensive maneuvers. Later such smaller players as Providence College’s Ernie DiGregorio, the University of North Carolina’s Phil Ford, and Indiana’s Isiah Thomas proved the importance of their role. Between those two extremes are players such as Louisiana State University’sPete Maravich, who set an all-time collegiate scoring record of 44.5 points per game in the 1969–70 season; Magic Johnson, the point guard who led Michigan State University to a championship in 1979 and the Los Angeles Lakers to several NBA championships; Oscar Robertson, a dominating performer for the University of Cincinnati in the late 1950s and for the Milwaukee Bucks in the 1970s; Larry Bird of Indiana State University, a forward of exceptional versatility who led the Boston Celtics to several championships; and Michael Jordan, a great all-around player with the University of North Carolina in the 1980s who is widely considered the best professional player in the history of the sport.
Nothing influenced the college game’s growth more than television, however. The NCAA championship games were televised nationally from 1963, and by the 1980s all three major television networks were telecasting intersectional college games during the November-to-March season. Rights fees for these games soared from a few million dollars to well over $50 million by the late 1980s. As for broadcasting the NCAA finals, a television contract that began in 2003 gave the NCAA an average of $545 million per year for the television rights; this exponential growth in broadcast fees reflected the importance of these games to both networks and advertisers.
Profits such as these inevitably attract gamblers, and in the evolution of college basketball the darkest hours have been related to gambling scandals. But, as the game began to draw more attention and generate more income, the pressure to win intensified, resulting in an outbreak of rules violations, especially with regard to recruitment of star players.
The most identifiable phase of college basketball in America is the postseason tournament held in March—popularly known as March Madness. Interest in the NCAA tournament paralleled the growth of the game. The first basketball tournament was staged by the Amateur Athletic Union in 1897 and was won by New York City’s 23rd Street YMCA, later to become a traveling professional team known as the New York Wanderers. Although the YMCA was prominently identified with the game in its early years, it did not hold its first national tournament until 1923, and that event took place until 1962. The first national tournament for colleges was held in 1937 and was conducted by an organization in Kansas City, Missouri, that later became the NAIA.
New York City basketball writers organized the first National Invitation Tournament (NIT) in 1938, but a year later the New York City colleges took control of the event. Until the early 1950s the NIT was considered the most prestigious American tournament, but, with the growth of the college-run NCAA championship, the NIT became a consolation event for teams that failed to make the NCAA selections.
The first NCAA tournament was played in 1939, and its growth took place in three stages. The first era ran through 1964, when it was essentially a tournament for champions of various conferences. There were just eight teams in the 1939 field, and by 1963 it had been expanded to 25 teams, all champions of their respective conferences, plus several successful independent teams. The most outstanding teams of the 1940s and ’50s participated in both the NCAA and NIT tournaments, but, after the gambling scandals that followed the 1950 NIT championship, a rule was passed prohibiting a team from playing in both. Afterward the NCAA tournament progressively outgrew the NIT.
In 1964 the second era dawned as the UCLA Bruins, coached by John Wooden, began a period of domination over the NCAA field. From that season until 1975 Wooden led his teams to 10 NCAA championships. Only championships won by Texas Western University (now University of Texas at El Paso) in 1966 and North Carolina State in 1974 interrupted UCLA’s reign. In the eyes of many, the UCLA dynastic period probably had a regressive effect on the game’s growth; a sport with such high predictability lost some of its attractiveness.
The third growth stage came with the end of UCLA’s dominance. Champions began to emerge from all sections of the country. From the field of 25 in 1974, the NCAA tournament expanded to 64 participants in 1985, to 65 in 2001, and to 68 in 2011 (corresponding “play-in games” were added in 2001 and 2011), including not only conference championship teams but other outstanding teams from the same conferences as well. Three weeks of play culminate with the Final Four weekend, an event now comparable in general public interest and media attention to the Super Bowl and World Series. Championships at the Division II, Division III, and NAIA levels also continued to grow in interest, reaping some of the fallout from the popularity of Division I.
About 17,000 high schools in the United States have basketball teams. All 50 states conduct statewide tournaments annually.
U.S. professional basketball
The professional game first prospered largely in the Middle Atlantic and New England states. Trenton (New Jersey) and the New York Wanderers were the first great professional clubs, followed by the Buffalo (New York) Germans, who started out in 1895 as 14-year-old members of the Buffalo YMCA and, with occasional new members, continued for 44 years, winning 792 out of 878 games.
A group of basketball stylists who never received the acclaim they deserved (because in their heyday they played for various towns) consisted of Edward and Lew Wachter, Jimmy Williamson, Jack Inglis, and Bill Hardman. They introduced the bounce pass and long pass as offensive weapons and championed the rule (adopted 1923–24) that made each player, when fouled, shoot his own free throw.
Before World War II the most widely heralded professional team was the Original Celtics, which started out in 1915 as a group of youngsters from New York City, kept adding better players in the early 1920s, and became so invincible that the team disbanded in 1928, only to regroup in the early 1930s as the New York Celtics. They finally retired in 1936. The Celtics played every night of the week, twice on Sundays, and largely on the road. During the 1922–23 season they won 204 of 215 games.
Another formidable aggregation was the New York Renaissance (the Rens), organized by Robert Douglas in 1923 and regarded as the strongest all-black team of all time. During the 1925–26 campaign they split a six-game series with the Original Celtics. During the 1932–33 season the Rens won 88 consecutive games. In 1939 they defeated the Harlem Globetrotters and the Oshkosh All Stars in the world championship pro tournament in Chicago. Among the great professional clubs were the teams of Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, and East Liverpool, Ohio, as well as the New York Nationals, the Paterson (New Jersey) Crescents, and the South Philadelphia Hebrew All Stars—better known as the Sphas.
The first professional league was the National Basketball League (NBL), formed in 1898. Its game differed from the college game in that a chicken-wire cage typically surrounded the court, separating players from often hostile fans. (Basketball players were long referred to as cagers.) The chicken wire was soon replaced with a rope netting, off which the players bounced like prizefighters in a boxing ring. The cage also kept the ball from going out-of-bounds, thus quickening the pace of play. In these early days players were also permitted to resume dribbling after halting. Despite the lively action of the game, the NBL and other early leagues were short-lived, mostly because of the frequent movement of players, who sold their services on a per-game basis. With players performing for several cities or clubs within the same season, the leagues suffered games of unreliable quality and many financially unstable franchises.
The Great Depression of the 1930s hurt professional basketball, and a new NBL was organized in 1937 in and around the upper Midwest. Professional basketball assumed major league status with the organization of the new Basketball Association of America (BAA) in 1946 under the guidance of Walter A. Brown, president of the Boston Garden. Brown contended that professional basketball would succeed only if there were sufficient financial support to nurse the league over the early lean years, if the game emphasized skill instead of brawling, and if all players were restricted to contracts with a reserve rule protecting each team from raiding by another club. Following a costly two-year feud, the BAA and the NBL merged in 1949 to form the National Basketball Association (NBA).
To help equalize the strength of the teams, the NBA established an annual college draft permitting each club to select a college senior in inverse order to the final standings in the previous year’s competition, thus enabling the lower-standing clubs to select the more talented collegians. In addition, the game was altered through three radical rule changes in the 1954–55 season:
A team must shoot for a basket within 24 seconds after acquiring possession of the ball.
A bonus free throw is awarded to a player anytime the opposing team commits more than six (later five, now four) personal fouls in a quarter or more than two personal fouls in an overtime period.
Two free throws are granted for any backcourt foul.
After a struggle to survive, including some large financial losses and several short-lived franchises, the NBA took its place as the major professional basketball league in the United States. A rival 11-team American Basketball Association (ABA), with George Mikan as commissioner, was launched in the 1967–68 season, and a bitter feud developed with the NBA for the top collegiate talent each season. In 1976 the ABA disbanded, and four of its teams were taken into the NBA.
The NBA grew increasingly popular through the 1980s. Attendance records were broken in that decade by most of the franchises, a growth pattern stimulated at least in part by the increased coverage by cable television. The NBA has a total of 30 teams organized into Eastern and Western conferences and further divided into six divisions. In the Eastern Conference the Atlantic Division comprises the Boston Celtics, the Brooklyn Nets, the New York Knicks, the Philadelphia 76ers, and the Toronto Raptors; the Central Division is made up of the Chicago Bulls, the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Detroit Pistons, the Indiana Pacers, and the Milwaukee Bucks; the Southeast Division comprises the Atlanta Hawks, the Charlotte Hornets, the Miami Heat, the Orlando Magic, and the Washington Wizards. In the Western Conference the Southwest Division comprises the Texas-based Dallas Mavericks, Houston Rockets, and San Antonio Spurs, the Memphis Grizzlies, and the New Orleans Pelicans; the Northwest Division is made up of the Denver Nuggets, the Minnesota Timberwolves, the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Portland Trail Blazers, and the Utah Jazz; the Pacific Division comprises the Phoenix Suns and the California-based Golden State Warriors, Los Angeles Clippers, Los Angeles Lakers, and Sacramento Kings. The play-offs follow the traditional 82-game schedule, involving 16 teams and beginning in late April. Played as a best-of-seven series, the final pairings stretch into late June.
Although basketball is traditionally a winter game, the NBA still fills its arenas and attracts a national television audience in late spring and early summer. As the popularity of the league grew, player salaries rose to an annual average of more than $5 million by mid-2000s, and some superstars earned more than $20 million yearly. The NBA has a salary cap that limits (at least theoretically, as loopholes allow many teams to exceed the cap) the total amount a team can spend on salaries in any given season.
In 2001 the NBA launched the National Basketball Development League (NBDL). The league served as a kind of “farm system” for the NBA. Through its first 50 years the NBA did not have an official system of player development or a true minor league system for bringing up young and inexperienced players such as exists in major league baseball. College basketball has been the area from which the NBA did the vast majority of its recruiting. By 2000 this had begun to change somewhat, as players began to be drafted straight out of high school with increasing frequency. In 2005 the NBA instituted a rule stipulating that domestic players must be at least age 19 and have been out of high school for one year to be eligible for the draft, which in effect required players to spend at least one year in college or on an international professional team before coming to the NBA.
U.S. women’s basketball
Clara Baer, who introduced basketball at the H. Sophie Newcomb College for Women in New Orleans, influenced the women’s style of play with her set of women’s rules, published in 1895. On receiving a diagram of the court from Naismith, Baer mistook dotted lines, indicating the areas in which players might best execute team play, to be restraining lines, with the result that the forwards, centres, and guards were confined to specified areas. This seemed appropriate because many felt that the men’s game was too strenuous for women.
Women’s rules over the years frequently have been modified. Until 1971 there were six players on a team, and the court was so divided that the three forwards played in the frontcourt and did all the scoring while the three guards covered the backcourt. Senda Berenson staged the first women’s college basketball game in 1893 when her freshman and sophomore Smith College women played against one another. In April 1895 the women of the University of California (Berkeley) played Stanford University. Despite a multitude of hindrances (such as being thought unladylike), women’s basketball gradually secured a foothold. In 1971, when women’s rules were changed to reduce the number on a team from six players to five and women were freed from the limits imposed by the half-court game, the level of individual skills and competition quickly rose.
In the early 1980s control of the women’s college game was shifted from the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW) to the NCAA, a move that not only streamlined the operation and made it more efficient but also added to the visibility of women’s basketball. The women’s NCAA championship tournament runs concurrently with the men’s, and many of the games are nationally televised. Women’s basketball became an Olympic sport in 1976.
Individual women stars have been heavily recruited by colleges, but the players frequently found that there was no opportunity for them to play beyond the college level. Leagues were occasionally formed, such as the Women’s Professional Basketball League (WPBL); begun in 1978, the WPBL lasted only three years. Eventually filling the void was the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA). Aligned with the powerful NBA, the WNBA held its inaugural season in 1997 with eight teams. By 2006 the WNBA had grown to 14 teams, though following the season the Charlotte Sting disbanded, and in 2008 the WNBA’s inaugural champion, the Houston Comets, also folded. The Sacramento Monarchs disbanded in 2009. The Eastern Conference consists of the Atlanta Dream, Chicago Sky, Connecticut Sun (in Uncasville), Indiana Fever (in Indianapolis), New York Liberty (in New York City), and Washington (D.C.) Mystics. The Western Conference comprises the Los Angeles Sparks, Minnesota Lynx (in Minneapolis), Phoenix Mercury, San Antonio Silver Stars, Seattle Storm, and Tulsa (Oklahoma) Shock. Women’s professional basketball is played during the summer months.
The success of international basketball was greatly advanced by Forrest C. (“Phog”) Allen, a Naismith disciple and a former coach at the University of Kansas, who led the movement for the inclusion of basketball in the Olympic Games in 1936 and thereafter. Basketball has also been played in the Pan-American Games since their inauguration in 1951. The international game is governed by the Fédération Internationale de Basketball Amateur (FIBA). World championships began in 1950 for men and in 1953 for women. (The men’s tournament was renamed the FIBA Basketball World Cup in 2014.) Under international rules the court differs in that there is no frontcourt or backcourt, and the free throw lanes form a modified wedge shape. There are some differences in rules, including those governing substitutions, technical and personal fouls, free throws, intermissions, and time-outs. Outside the United States there are few places that strictly separate amateur from professional athletes.
Basketball has caught on particularly well in Italy. The Italian professional basketball league (Lega Basket) is highly regarded and popular in that country. Spain also has several basketball leagues, the main one being the ACB (Asociación de Clubes de Baloncesto). The other major centre of European basketball is eastern Europe, particularly the Balkans. Although the European leagues are not formally aligned with the American NBA, there are links between European and American basketball. It is not uncommon for European players to be drafted by the NBA, nor is it uncommon for American players to play in Europe. American players in the European leagues tend to be older players who have finished successful NBA careers in the United States or younger players who have not yet been drafted into the NBA.
Ring, rules, and equipment
Because there is no universally accepted world ruling body for professional boxing, each country has its own set of rules, and in the United States there are different rules in different states. Generally bouts take place in a “ring” that is 18 to 22 feet (5.5 to 6.7 metres) square and surrounded by four strands of rope. Professional bouts may be scheduled to last from 4 to 12 rounds of three minutes’ duration, though two-minute rounds are commonly used in women’s bouts and in some bouts held in Great Britain. Since the late 1920s, professional championship bouts traditionally lasted 15 rounds, but by the late 1980s the WBC, WBA, and IBF championships were all being scheduled for 12 rounds.
A referee is stationed inside the ring with the boxers and regulates the bout. In some jurisdictions the referee scores the contest along with two judges outside the ring. In most jurisdictions, however, the referee does not participate in the judging, and three ringside officials score the bout. The officials award points to each boxer for each round, and a boxer must win on two of the three scorecards to earn a decision victory. In Olympic bouts five judges score the fight electronically by pushing a button whenever a punch is believed to have landed on a boxer. No punch is registered as a hit unless at least three judges press their buttons within a second of each other. Padded gloves, ranging from 8 to 10 ounces (227 to 283 grams) in weight, are worn by the boxers.
A bout ends in a knockout when a boxer is knocked down and cannot get up by the count of 10. A fight can be stopped by a technical knockout (TKO) when a boxer is deemed by the referee (and sometimes the ringside physician) to be unable to defend himself properly, when a boxer is deemed to have sustained a serious injury, or when a boxer or his seconds decide he should not continue. A bout may also end in a decision when the bout has gone the scheduled number of rounds and the scoring officials decide the winner. Several conditions can cause a bout to end in a draw: all three judges awarding identical scores to both contestants results in a draw, as does two of three judges awarding opponents identical scores, regardless of the third judge’s score; further, two of the three judges giving the decision to opposing contestants and the third judge’s scorecard being evenly divided between the opponents leads to a draw. In a “no contest” the bout is declared a nullity because of a premature and inconclusive end, such as one of the participants being unable to continue owing to a cut caused by an accidental clash of heads early in the fight. A bout may also end in disqualification.
The rules governing amateur boxing are similar in the United States, Great Britain, and continental Europe but differ substantially from those governing professional boxing. Amateur bouts are normally three rounds in duration, and the boxers wear protective headgear. Olympic bouts changed from three rounds of three minutes to four rounds of two minutes for the Games at Sydney in 2000. The referee only supervises the boxing, while three to five ringside judges score the bout. The rules are also more stringently enforced in amateur boxing, and disqualification is more common than in professional boxing.
An effective offense depends on the ability to throw punches quickly and to place them strategically so as to penetrate the opponent’s guard. Defensive tactics include parrying or warding off punches with one’s upraised arms and gloves, moving the head evasively up and down (“bobbing”) and side to side (“weaving”), and bending or twisting one’s head and upper body out of the blow’s path. Footwork is important to both offense and defense. The two generally recognized stances are “orthodox” and “southpaw.” The former has the left hand and the left foot forward, the latter the right hand and the right foot forward—the foot or hand that is forward is known as the lead. Boxers using orthodox stances ordinarily are right-handed and rely on that hand for power, using the left hand to jab and hook; the converse is true of southpaw boxers, who are usually left-handed. In either stance the lead hand is extended forward in front of the body and the other hand is held near the chin for protection, the chin is tucked into the chest, and the shoulders are hunched. There are individual variations.
There are four basic punches: the jab, hook, uppercut, and straight right (straight left for a southpaw), which is sometimes referred to as a “cross.” All other punches are modifications of these basic punches. The jab, whether thrown from an orthodox or a southpaw stance, is a straight punch delivered with the lead hand, which moves directly out from the shoulder. The hook, also thrown with the lead hand, is a short lateral movement of arm and fist, with elbow bent and wrist twisted inward at the moment of impact. The uppercut is an upward blow delivered from the direction of the toes with either hand. The straight right or left is thrown at shoulder level with the back hand, usually as a follow-up to a jab from the other hand.
In bare-knuckle fighting the emphasis was on the power of the punch, since bouts usually ended only when one contestant could not continue. The hands were held in front of the body in no particular position, and footwork was practically nonexistent. With the advent of padded gloves and contests decided on points, boxing skills and footwork became more important. James J. Corbett was the first modern heavyweight to concentrate on technique. Ten years after Corbett lost the title, heavyweight champion Jack Johnson showed that he too could box as well as punch. The heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey enjoyed tremendous popularity because he was an aggressive fighter with an explosive assault. Dempsey fought from a crouch, bobbing and weaving to leave as little of himself exposed as possible. The heavyweight champion Joe Louis perfected the “stalking” style, a method of patiently pursuing his opponent until he came within range to deliver damaging blows.
Until Muhammad Ali, heavyweights were not expected to move quickly. At his peak, however, Ali was the fastest and arguably the most skillful heavyweight champion of all time. He danced around the ring with his arms sometimes dangling at his side, his legs ready to take him into punching range or out of harm’s way at will. Although Ali did not possess a devastating punch, his hand speed was extraordinary, and he dominated many fights by delivering rapid sequences of blows. Though style remains a matter of individual choice, swift lateral movement, good defensive head movement, combination punching, and effective counterpunching have, to a large degree, become the most important aspects of modern boxing technique.Ron OlverNigel CollinsThe Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica
Boxing in art, literature, and film
For such a brutal trade, boxing has attracted more than its share of artists and writers. Of course, it may be more accurate to say that it is boxing’s seminaked display of aggression that accounts for its appeal. If all life is ultimately a Darwinian struggle for survival, then boxing at least has the virtue of being open about it. Boxing is also said to foster the “manly” virtues of discipline and fortitude. According to the duke of Wellington, boxing “tends to produce and keep up that natural undaunted bravery and intrepidity which has enabled our armies to conquer in many a hard-fought battle.” Whatever its psychological hold, the sport has always inspired wonder and admiration, as well as repugnance, moving the artist to pick up pen, brush, chisel, or camera.
One of the earliest depictions of boxers appears on a Minoan vase from Cretec. 1500 bc. Almost 800 years later Homer recounted a boxing match in the 23rd book of the Iliad (seeabove), and, in a neat bit of parallelism, the sport became part of the 23rd Olympiad in 688 bc. Later Plato referred to boxing in the Republic and the dialogueGorgias; Virgil, echoing Homer, included a boxing match in the Aeneid (seeabove). Pindar composed poems for Olympic champions, as in the Olympian ode written for Diagoras of Rhodes excerpted here:
But, Father Zeus, you who rule over the ridges of Atabyrium, grant honor to the hymn ordained in praise of an Olympian victor, and to the man who has found excellence as a boxer, and grant to him honoured grace in the eyes of both citizens and strangers. For he walks a straight course on a road that hates arrogance, knowing clearly the sound prophetic wisdom of his good ancestors.
Greek and Roman art frequently depict boxing. Greek vases portray many different types of blows and postures and often show blood pouring from a boxer’s nose and cuts on his face. The life-size seated boxer (dating to the 1st century bc) now in the Roman National Museum in Rome wears superbly detailed sharp thongs on his hands, and his battered face, broken nose, and cauliflower ears show the effects of such fighting. The brutal and sinister forms of the Roman caestus (glove) frequently appear in small bronzes and in Roman mosaics.
After boxing died out with the gladiatorial games in the 5th century ad, it naturally disappeared from the literary and artistic canvas. When the sport resurfaced in 17th-century England, artists and writers soon gravitated to it. William Hogarth painted the first British champion, James Figg, and Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift attended Figg’s exhibitions in London. Early in the next century, Lord Byron and John Keats professed themselves admirers of the sport, while William Hazlitt’s essay “The Fight” (1821) made it legitimate material for men of letters. In 1812 a London journalist, Pierce Egan, wrote a history of British boxing, Boxiana, whose highly stylized prose very likely influenced a young reader by the name of Charles Dickens. Both Dickens and William Makepeace Thackeray attended the famous fight between the American John C. Heenan and the British champion Tom Sayers in 1860, and Thackeray wrote a rather silly but endearing poem about it, A Lay of Ancient London.George Bernard Shaw devoted a novel to boxing, Cashel Byron’s Profession (1883), which became the play The Admirable Bashville (1903). Arthur Conan Doyle not only made sure that Sherlock Holmes was a good amateur pugilist, he also wrote a half dozen stories about boxers under the title The Croxley Master and Other Tales of the Ring and Camp (1910). Even the poet laureateJohn Masefield devoted some stanzas to boxing in The Everlasting Mercy (1911). Here a boxer’s seconds (a second assists or supports a boxer or duelist) try to ensure that their fighter will be ready for his next round:
They drove (a dodge that never fails)
A pin beneath my finger nails.
They poured what seemed a running beck
Of cold spring water down my neck;
Jim with a lancet quick as flies
Lowered the swelling round my eyes.
They sluiced my legs and fanned my face
Through all that blessed minute’s grace;
They gave my calves a thorough kneading,
They salved my cuts and stopped the bleeding.
A gulp of liquor dulled the pain,
And then the flasks clinked again.
Americans resisted boxing until the end of the 19th century, but, once the sport had gained a foothold, men who wrote about boxing often seemed as plentiful as fighters themselves. Among them were Jack London, Dashiell Hammet, H.C. Witwer, Nelson Algren, Ernest Hemingway, Ring Lardner, James T. Farrell, Clifford Odets, Irwin Shaw, Budd Schulberg, and Norman Mailer.
In fact, it is likely that more literary writing, as opposed to pure journalism, has been spent on boxing than on any other sport, and, indeed, on rare occasions, gifted journalists have blurred the line between literary writing and sportswriting. A.J. Liebling’s reportage in The Sweet Science (1956), for example, appeals both to writers and sports fans, and Heywood Broun’s newspaper column “The Orthodox Champion” (1922) managed to both celebrate and poke fun at the way boxing and literature are often conjoined. To understand why writers, especially male writers (though not exclusively, Joyce Carol Oates being an exception), are drawn to the sport, it is enough to know that boxers, more than any other athlete, throw into relief the writer’s own sedentary and introspective profession. Bluntly put: one writes, the other fights. The boxer engages in a visible struggle, with a designated opponent, whose outcome is usually (though not always) resoundingly clear, while the writer’s struggle is always with himself, and success is hardly the product of a unanimous decision. Moreover, if the writer frets that his own experience is somehow less vital or real than that of the man of action, boxing can symbolize this insecurity.
Given boxers’ well-developed physiques and the visceral reality of physical combat, such men and the profession they engage in are a natural subject for painters and photographers. The French painter Théodore Géricault and the English painter John Constable portrayed boxers, while such well-known Regency caricaturists as Thomas Rowlandson and Robert and George Cruikshank trained their jaundiced eyes on the London Prize Ring. American George Bellows vividly portrayed boxing matches in Stag at Sharkey’s (1909) and Both Members of This Club (1909). Bellows’s 1924 lithograph of Luis Firpo knocking Jack Dempsey out of the ring is perhaps the most famous of all boxing scenes. Other American painters of boxing include Thomas Eakins and James Chapin, both of whom ably rendered the movement, power, and grace of men boxing, as well as the fatigue and pathos that often attends the aftermath.
These same dramatic qualities appealed to filmmakers. In fact, the very first motion picture using “actors” was a boxing exhibition filmed by Thomas Edison on June 16, 1894, using the Edison kinetoscope. And in 1897, the championship fight between Gentleman Jim Corbett and Bob Fitzsimmons became the first sporting event to be captured on film. The power of such films was attested to when interstate commerce in footage of Jack Johnson beating Jim Jeffries (July 4, 1910) was prohibited by federal law. (The fact that Johnson was an African American and Jim Jeffries a white boxer had more than a little to do with it.) Johnson’s life would eventually be the subject of another boxing film, The Great White Hope (1970, adapted from the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Howard Sackler). As for fictional movies about boxers, they outnumber all other sports films. Although most early fight films followed a set pattern of a poor boy who battles his way out of the slums only to fall prey to women and gangsters, their popularity really depended on the built-in tension in every boxing match. Not only is there danger with every punch thrown, there is anxiety in who shall prevail; and when two boxers represent different constituencies of class, ethnicity, or nationality, a championship fight becomes all the more significant.
A short list of notable fight films includes Rouben Mamoulian’sGolden Boy (1939); Robert Rossen’sBody and Soul (1947), about an ambitious Jewish fighter’s rise from poverty; Robert Wise’sThe Set-Up (1949) and Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956); Mark Robson’sChampion (1949), loosely based on Ring Lardner’s short story of the same name, and The Harder They Fall (1956), inspired by the rise and fall of Primo Carnera; Kurt Newman’s The Ring (1952), about a young Mexican American’s fight for respect in and out of the ring; Requiem for a Heavyweight (1962, adapted from Rod Serling’s Playhouse 90 production of 1956); John Huston’s Fat City (1972), which captured the unglamorous world of small-time boxers; Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull (1980), based upon the life of the fighter Jake La Motta; Sakamoto Junji’s Dotsuitaru nen (1989, Knockout), based upon the autobiography of young welterweight Akai Hidekazu, who suffers brain damage from boxing but eventually returns to the ring (Akai plays himself in this film); the six popular but highly artificial Rocky movies (1976–2006), which tell the story of a decent man who fights for a living; Kitano Takeshi’sKidzu ritān (1996, Kids Return), about two Japanese teen bullies who take up boxing and learn about life in the process; Katya Bankowsky’s Shadow Boxers (1999), a documentary featuring Lucia Rijker; Karyn Kusama’s Girlfight (2000), an award-winning film about female pugilists; Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby (2004), a drama that focuses on the relationship between a female boxer and her aging trainer; and David O. Russell’sThe Fighter (2010), which follows two boxing half brothers as one tries to land his big break with training from the other, who is dealing with his own crack cocaine addiction. In books or in film, the climactic match often means salvation or redemption—a time-tested formula hard to resist.Arthur KrystalMichael Poliakoff