Trenton Evening Times - January 1894
That I was way off base, became clear when I began reading From Cages to Jump Shots: Pro Basketball's Early Years by Robert W. Peterson, better known as the author of Only the Ball Was White, a groundbreaking book about the Negro Leagues. Basketball it turns out became very popular, very quickly in Trenton, to the point that the first professional basketball team was formed there in late 1896. Unlike baseball, much is known about basketball's beginnings - including the who (Dr. James Naismith), the where (Springfield, Massachusetts) and the when, December of 1891. At what is now Springfield College, but was then a YMCA training school, Naismith invented an indoor game with a ball to satisfy an "incorrigible" class of students who had already driven two prior instructors away in despair. When Naismith introduced basketball to his students it proved to be very popular even though only one basket was made - a 25 foot toss apparently anticipating the three point shot. Compared to our limited knowledge of early baseball rules, it's interesting to see how the first basketball rules were established, especially that baskets are 10 feet high because the original peach baskets were attached to railings that happened to be - 10 feet high.
Trenton Evening Times - November 1, 1896 - this may be the earliest known newspaper ad for a professional basketball game
Another interesting aspect of basketball history is how the game had a ready made structure in place to facilitate expansion. Unlike baseball which initially had to rely on direct personal contact, YMCA's throughout the country needed some form of indoor exercise. It certainly didn't take long for basketball to reach New Jersey as less than six months after the first game, The News (Paterson) announced that "a new game called basket-ball" was to be played for the first time at a local YMCA. Trenton apparently wasted no time getting into the act and in January of 1894, the city's YMCA team ("the acknowledged champions of New Jersey") defeated the Nanticoke, Pennsylvania, YMCA team for the championship of Pennsylvania and New Jersey in a game that took two nights to play. The Trenton team continued to enjoy considerable success to the point that in February of 1896, the Trenton Evening Times claimed they were the "champion of the country." In the process, however, the team had apparently run afoul of the their YMCA sponsors and opened the 1896-97 season in a new home Trenton's Masonic Temple where according to Peterson, they played as professionals.
This picture of the Paterson Armory gives a sense of the cages that were used by professional teams in some cases through the early 1930s. According to Robert Peterson, they were never part of college basketball.
The team's new home was the social hall on the third floor of the temple where a 12 foot wire mesh cage was erected around the court to keep the ball in bounds which is why basketball players came to be known as "cagers." Admission to the November 8, 1896 game with the Brooklyn YMCA was 25 cents for a seat with standing room at 15 cents. Shortly after 8:00, the Trenton team took the floor in "pretty uniforms of red and black" to "tremendous cheers" from the 700 spectators. Apparently delayed for some reason, the visitors didn't take the floor until about 8:25 and were allowed only five minutes to warm up before the opening jump. Basketball was evolving rapidly and 1896-97 marked the first season a basket was worth two points and the last time each team had seven players on the floor (two side centres or centers). There was a center jump after every basket (a rule that didn't change until 1937) and a lot of passing before a shot was taken. In this contest it took seven minutes before Trenton finally scored on the way to an 8-0 half time lead. Things didn't get much better for the Brooklyn team in second half and only a late foul shot got them on the board in a 16-1 defeat. While later accounts claimed the Trenton players were each paid $15, Peterson believes it was no more than $5.
Trenton Evening Times - November 8, 1896