The First Pro Players

Basketball Steps Out from the YMCA

In case you haven’t noticed, we’ve been chronicling basketball’s early days. So far, the game’s early rules and the role that Muscular Christianity played in the sport’s creation have been covered.

But today we’re seeing how the sport stepped out from the shadows of the amateurism that birthed basketball and into the sunlight of professionalism. After all this is the ProHoopsHistory Newsletter, not the Amateur Basketball News Hour, so I’m thoroughly excited pro basketball came about.

Unsurprisingly, the first basketball players weren’t all that good at the sport. Give the men some slack, the sport had just been created. Nonetheless, the game was an exciting spectacle and amateur basketball drew good crowds at YMCAs.

Thus came The Great Fall from amateur grace.

If sizeable crowds were willing to turn out to watch basketball, surely you could charge them for it. Especially as these amateurs who were nurtured and trained by the YMCA began to gain proficiency at the sport.

The rise of the professionals was a disappointing development for basketball’s early proponents, though, who were steeped in the idealism of amateur sport. For example, in the 1898 edition of Official Basket Ball Rules, Luther Gulick chided the rise of professionalism and blamed the weak-willed enforcement of amateurism.

The game of basket ball is open to numerous abuses, and unless it is held with a strong hand, it will be a detriment to all lovers of good sport. That it has not been held with sufficient firmness in the past is shown by the fact that a number of teams from Young Men's Christian Associations and from military companies have left their respective organizations and have organized independently, some of them forming professional teams. It is comparatively easy to hire a hall, get up a basket ball, and then pay for the hall from the gate receipts; so that any group of individuals may organize themselves into a basket ball club, play the game, and divide the proceeds among themselves.

This kind of sport has ruined every branch of athletics to which it has come. When commence to make money out of sport, it degenerates with most tremendous speed, so that those who love sport have come to set their faces like a flint against every tendency toward professionalism in athletics. It has in the past inevitably resulted in men of lower character going into the game, for, on the average, men of serious purposes in life do not care to go into that kind of thing.[1]

Even more so than James Naismith, Gulick was a powerful force behind the (amateur) institutionalization of basketball. So, he was unsurprisingly distressed at the game spinning out of the control of the amateur system run by the YMCA and the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) that Gulick championed.

Considering that basketball was played primarily at YMCAs in its early years, it’s unsurprising that the first pros emerged from disgruntled amateurs at the Y. The epicenter of this revolt was the Delaware River Valley (Wilmington to Philadelphia to Trenton) and New York City.


The Trenton Basketball Team, 1896-97

Since at least the winter of 1892-93, the YMCA in Trenton, New Jersey, fielded basketball competitions at its gymnasium. An example of basketball’s popularity was demonstrated in March 1895 when an “enthusiastic gathering of nearly 1000 people” watched the Germantown, Pennsylvania, YMCA team defeat Trenton 12-3.[2]

By 1896, Trenton had become a powerhouse. Its talented players claimed the national championship after defeating other YMCA teams, independent amateurs, and college clubs in the New York City – Philadelphia corridor. The Philadelphia Times provides contemporaneous evidence by noting in the fall of 1896 that “The Trenton basket-ball team, which last year won the championship of the United States, has reorganized for the season.”[3]

This re-organization, however, was apparently as professionals.

In Cages to Jump Shots: Pro Basketball’s Early Years, historian Robert W. Peterson observed this transdormation. In November 1895, notes from the Trenton YMCA’s meeting minutes mention a two-man committee appointed “to investigate the reported trouble in the gymnasium.” The trouble undoubtedly centered on the Trenton team’s evolution from amateurs to pros.

Indeed, the rupture between the ball players and the YMCA appeared the next year in the Daily True American, a local Trenton paper. According to Peterson’s research, the paper reported that the basketball players “are no longer sailing under the colors of the YMCA but have organized independently this year, through some difficulties.” Early basketball historian Marvin A. Riley, cited by Peterson, mentioned “considerable friction developed between the [Trenton] YMCA team and the secretary.”

Riley determined that the “little things” of dispute added up to a “breach which resulted in the YMCA team leaving the old home and going up to Masonic Temple” to professionally play their games.

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As you might surmise, finely tracing the trajectory from amateur to professional is difficult in this period; but that trajectory does indeed exist even if every step cannot be plotted.

In October 1897, it was reported the Trenton team was gearing up for yet another season. A particular sentence gives away the strained and broken relationship between amateur authorities and these early pros: “Regarding the registration scheme of the A.A.U., all the Trenton teams have adopted the same stand taken by Philadelphia clubs, and have refused to register.”[4]

In Peterson’s estimation, the Daily True American on November 4, 1896, carried the first printed advertisement for a professional game. The ad put the public on notice that the Trenton Basketball Team (as the wayward YMCA team was now known) would take on the Brooklyn YMCA for a price of 25 cents per seat or 15 cents for standing room. The Philadelphia Inquirer noted the final score of this game as a 16-to-1 drubbing of Brooklyn by Trenton.[5]

One wonders how the Brooklyn YMCA reacted upon learning that their squad played against a professional team. Whatever the Brooklyn YMCA’s reaction, we know that of a neighboring YMCA in Manhattan.


The 23rd Street YMCA Team in 1896-97, soon to become the professional Wanderers

In 1897, the AAU held its first national basketball championship tournament. Twelve amateur teams competed for the AAU title in New York City and the local 23rd Street YMCA Team bested the competition winning the tournament. Following the victory, the 23rd Street Team informed their YMCA as well as the AAU that they would begin playing professionally. The YMCA summarily banned the young men not just from amateur competition but from YMCA facilities entirely.

Whereas the Trenton team found a home court at the local Masonic temple, the New Yorkers had no permanent home. Thus, the 23rd Street Team began traveling to various gyms in the local area searching for opponents and paychecks. Soon nicknamed the “Wanderers,” the old 23rd Street Team became one of basketball’s first barnstorming professional teams, if not the first.

The Trenton Basketball Team and the New York Wanderers shared the common thread of germinating from the muscular Christian world of the YMCA and growing into the “corrupted” wilderness of professional basketball.

They would soon share another commonality: members of the first professional basketball league.

Details on that watershed moment to come soon in a future letter.


Robert W. Peterson, Cages to Jump Shots: Pro Basketball’s Early Years, University of Nebraska Press, 1990. [BUY THIS BOOK!]

[1] Luther Gulick, “Registration of Basket Ball Players,” in Official Basket Ball Rules, ed. Luther Gulick, (New York: American Sports Publishing Company, 1897), 5.

[2] “Again Victorious: Germantown Defeats Trenton in a Game of Basket Ball,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, March 39, 1895.

[3] “Sporting Notes,” The Philadelphia Times, October 29, 1896.

[4] “Basket Ball News: The Champion Trenton Team Will Lose Many Of Its Best Players,” The Philadelphia Times, October 21, 1897.

[5] “Sporting Briefs,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, November 9, 1896.