BASKETBALL. Unlike other team games that evolved over a long period, basketball was invented to provide an easy-to-learn, exciting, inexpensive team sport that could be played in a gym during the winter months. Created in 1891 by James Naismith, physical-education instructor at the Intl. YMCA Training School in Springfield, MA, the game gained immediate popularity, spreading through Y's all over the country. Basketball's growth and popularity in Cleveland paralleled this development. The sport was introduced in 1894 at the Cleveland YMCA at E. 9th and Prospect, and by Jan. 1895 teams were organized and intramural games scheduled. In the early 1900s, basketball teams were formed in the city's high schools, colleges, settlement houses, churches, shops, and businesses as well. A Y-sponsored amateur basketball league was formally organized in 1906-07 with 8 teams, and the league was made permanent the following year.

Each team was limited to 8 players, and all participants had to be members of either the YMCAs, SETTLEMENT HOUSES, and municipal (Muny) recreation centers.

Basketball spread throughout the nation's colleges in the late 1890s. The Intl. Athletic Assn. of the U.S., later the National Collegiate Athletic Assn., assumed responsibility for the college rules in 1908. In Cleveland, the first recorded basketball games were played by Western Reserve Univ. in the 1897-98 season. Other local collegiate teams were fielded by German Wallace (1905) and Case Institute (1911). In these early days, colleges scheduled games with whatever teams were available, including high schools, Y's, and athletic clubs. Cleveland high school basketball developed about the same time. A team representing CENTRAL HIGH SCHOOL apparently played basketball at the YMCA in 1901, and the following year the team was part of a Y league. Regulation of Cleveland's high school athletic programs began in Dec. 1904 with the founding of the Senate League made up of Central, Collinwood, East, East Technical, Glenville, John Adams, Lincoln, South, West, and West Technical. Three years later, high school basketball came under the jurisdiction of the Ohio High School Athletic Assn. Basketball and FOOTBALL were the most popular high school sports, and proceeds from the games made these sports self-supporting.

Although Naismith sought to devise a game that would eliminate the roughness of football, both players and fans contributed to the disorder that frequently accompanied basketball games. In Cleveland, the YMCA discouraged the annual formation of leagues in 1900 for that reason. In the close quarters of a gym, it was difficult for two officials to enforce the rules of the game, and they suffered abuse from both players and partisan fans. The Cleveland Y's ticket policy, however, did help control attendance at games. With the game's popularity came the realization that money could be made from the sport, and touring professional basketball teams were formed to play all comers. The Buffalo Germans, considered the best professional team in the country at the time, were challenged by the Columbias of Cleveland in Feb. 1909; unfortunately, the local team lost the game, 70-22.

Beginning in the 1920s, there was an upsurge of spectator interest in sporting events. Sports, which had been player-centered almost exclusively, were redesigned for consumer enjoyment, and professional basketball introduced an exciting, high-scoring, fast-paced, running style of play that eventually reached all levels of the game. Cleveland's PUBLIC AUDITORIUM, with a seating capacity of close to 12,000, was well suited to basketball events, which consisted of a main attraction, usually a game between popular professional or college teams, with preliminary games often featuring outstanding local amateur teams. The New York Celtics, an independent touring pro basketball team, played to a capacity crowd at the newly opened auditorium in the winter of 1922-23, introducing the pivot play which in turn was copied by the local amateur leagues.

Cleveland developed a successful amateur basketball program which served as a model for other cities to follow. The Muny leagues, supervised by the city, were formed in 1920, and in 1929 the Greater Cleveland Basketball Commission was organized to monitor the amateur program. Whereas a half-dozen teams had been competing in the early days, by 1935 there were approx. 1,000 teams for men, women, and teens. The backbone of amateur sports in Cleveland was the sponsorship system whereby a firm or individual would outfit a team with his or her name displayed on the uniform as a form of advertising; if the team was successful, additional publicity would follow. This practice did not compromise the teams' amateur standing with the AAU, which organized a branch here in 1931.

College basketball schedules became standardized with the elimination of non-college opponents. Local rivalry in the 1930s was promoted with the formation of the "Big 4," an informal grouping of WRU, Case, John Carroll, and Baldwin-Wallace. With the growing number of high schools, the Cleveland Senate expanded in 1936, adding James Ford Rhodes, John Hay, and John Marshall, and Benedictine, Cathedral Latin, Holy Name, and St. Ignatius, which previously had played in the Catholic League. An East Senate and West Senate were created, and the division winners played each other for the city basketball championship, beginning in 1938.

The spectator orientation of basketball in the 1920s led to the formation of the national professional American Basketball League in 1925. The ABL standardized the rules of the game, which had varied from region to region, and to prevent roster jumping clubs were permitted to sign players to exclusive contracts. One of the leaders in organizing the league was MAX ROSENBLUM, owner of the Cleveland Rosenblums. His club won the first league championship, defeating the Brooklyn Arcadians 2 out of 3 games in the 1926 playoff. In the league's second year of operation the Celtics joined the ABL, dominating it so thoroughly the next 2 seasons that attendance declined, and 3 teams folded. To equalize the competition, the ABL disbanded the Celtics, distributing the players to the remaining teams. The Cleveland Rosenblums acquired 3 former Celtics and won the next 2 championships. Attendance at the ABL games dwindled with the onset of the Depression, and the Cleveland team was forced to withdraw from the league in Dec. 1930. Losses mounted and the ABL ceased to be a national circuit at the end of the 1930-31 season. The Cleveland Rosenblums continued to play touring pro teams during the 1930s, including the New York Renaissance, an all-black team featuring Clevelander WILLIAM T. (WEE WILLIE) SMITH, who was inducted into the National Basketball Hall of Fame in 1963.

Women's amateur basketball in Cleveland, played according to men's rules, began as early as 1918, and by the 1930s there were several women's amateur and industrial leagues. Locally the Newman-Stern girls' basketball team won the world championship in 1926, defeating the Edmonton, Alberta, Commercial Graduates. Two of their 4 games were played in Cleveland as preliminary contests to the Rosenblum-Arcadian title playoff. Women's high school and collegiate basketball in Cleveland pursued a different course. Influenced by the National Section on Women's Athletics of the American Physical Education Assn., an anticompetitive athlete-centered program was adopted, stressing intramural sports and a broad participation open to all girls. This basketball was generally played according to "girls' rules," producing a slower, less strenuous game.

The coming of World War II restricted amateur and collegiate as well as professional basketball, which was now represented by the National Basketball League. As players and teams became scarce after 1941, the NBL was reduced to 3 teams, and in 1943 the Cleveland Chase Brass & Copper basketball team, an outstanding amateur group, joined the league. In spite of the scoring of their best player, Mel Riebe, the Cleveland team was clearly outclassed. The next 2 seasons the Cleveland entry was the Allmen Transfers; however, they left the league at the end of the 1945-46 season.

In the post-World War II era, basketball continued its popularity on the amateur, high school, and college level, and a full-fledged professional basketball program developed. The competitive consumer-oriented game became more intense and remained so with the introduction of nationally televised games. The increased competitiveness of college basketball reached a crisis point with the basketball point-shaving scandal in 1951, when 33 players were accused of accepting money to keep the number of points between the winning and losing score within a range determined by gamblers. Also, the NCAA, bowing to the reality of widespread collegiate recruiting violations, decided in 1952 to permit awards of full scholarships based solely on athletic ability—a key decision in separating sports from academic concerns. In contrast to this national development, athletics at Greater Cleveland colleges, including basketball, remained an integral part of the academic programs. In 1955 WRU, Case, and John Carroll helped form the President's Athletic Conference. Governed by the presidents of the member institutions, the PAC prohibited athletic scholarships, and student participants were required to report all sources of income financing their college education. Case Western Reserve Univ. withdrew from the PAC in 1983 to help found the North Coast Conference, which offered a program of both men's and women's varsity sports. Basketball, whether played in the PAC, the North Coast Conference or the Ohio Conference, to which Baldwin-Wallace belonged, was noncommercial and athlete-centered. At CLEVELAND STATE UNIV. (formerly Fenn College), basketball was the major sport, and CSU developed the most extensive basketball program in the area. As a Division I team in the NCAA, it plays basketball on a national major college level. CSU together with 7 other schools formed the Assn. of Mid-Continent Universities in 1982.

High school basketball in the post-World War II era also reflected the faster-paced, high-scoring game that had become popular. Players had greater physical abilities and were more skilled at playing the game. During this time, EAST TECHNICAL HIGH SCHOOL won the state championship 3 times, and CATHEDRAL LATIN SCHOOL won the state Class AA crown in 1977. In 1954 and 1956 the state high school basketball championships were held at the CLEVELAND ARENA. With the coming of desegregation in 1979, the Cleveland Senate, now made up of Cleveland schools only, was realigned into North and South divisions.

Although the CLEVELAND REBELS and the CLEVELAND PIPERS played professional basketball briefly, the professional game was not a consistent part of the Cleveland scene until the CLEVELAND CAVALIERS were organized and admitted to the National Basketball Assn. in 1970. Their tenure in Cleveland has been the longest in the area. They capped off their 2015-16 season by winning the NBA Championship, the first major sports title for the city since 1964.

Varsity girls' basketball using boys' rules developed in the schools and colleges during the 1960s. Locally, women's teams representing John Carroll, Baldwin-Wallace, CWRU, Notre Dame, Ursuline, and Tri-C were among those playing intercollegiate schedules in the early 1970s. When Title IX, passed by Congress in 1972, outlawed sexual discrimination by school districts or institutions, greater Cleveland school systems developed varsity girls' basketball programs.

In 1997, the CLEVELAND ROCKERS were one of the original eight teams of the new Women's Basketball Association, fielding legendary players such as former Harlem Globetrotters member Lynette Woodard, who had been the first female player in Globetrotter history. In 2002, the league restructured, moving ownership of the team to the Gund family (owners of the Caveliers).  However, after one year the Gunds decided not to continue running the team.  Fans and players failed to find local ownership or raise enough money to run the team themselves, and so the franchise folded officially in 2003 after seven seasons.

In Cleveland as elsewhere, basketball's popularity was assured as it became an exciting spectator sport. Its introduction and development through the Cleveland YMCA followed the national trends occurring at the time. During the post-World War II era, college basketball remained for the most part athlete-centered, in contrast to the commercialization characteristic of some college basketball elsewhere. Locally, the highly skilled audience-directed, competitive basketball was played on the professional level. In 1994 the Cleveland Cavaliers moved into Gund Arena, their new home in downtown Cleveland.

Mary Stavish

Hiram House Records, WRHS.

YMCA Records, WRHS.

Article Categories