Game history

The Lithuanian immigrant who started the first women’s college basketball game

Women’s sports were widely condemned in the 1890s. The founder of the modern Olympic Games, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, called the activities “indecent”, and even cycling by women was called “vicious” by Atlantic, a prestigious journal. But the standards of the time did not deter a Massachusetts college physical education director, Senda Berenson, from hosting the first girls’ college basketball game in the spring of 1893.

A little over a year earlier, Berenson, a 25-year-old Jewish immigrant from Lithuania, had learned of the invention of basketball from Canadian-born Dr. James Naismith. Naismith wrote the original 13 Rules of the Sport as part of a class assignment in December 1891 at a YMCA training school in Springfield, Massachusetts.

Intrigued and keen to promote fitness, Berenson began the sport as a classroom exercise at the women’s-only Smith College in Northhampton, Massachusetts. The first match between the teams took place at the campus gymnasium on March 22, 1893, with Berenson as referee.

READ MORE: How a Canadian Invented Basketball

Hanging from the ceiling, two garbage cans served as arches. The contestants, dressed in dark long bloomers, played two 15-minute halves, with a 10-minute intermission in between. Each team earns one point for a basket made. A crowd of around 800 cheering madly (men were not allowed to attend) watched the sophomores win, 5-4.

“The athletic track of the gymnasium was packed with spectators, and cheerful in the colors of the two classes,” according to a press article. “One side was occupied by sophomores and seniors, the other side by juniors and freshmen, and a fierce rivalry between the two sides was maintained throughout the competition.”

The winning team received a gold and green banner.

Nearly a century later, Berenson, known as “The Mother of Women’s Basketball,” was recognized as a basketball contributor with a posthumous induction into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame.

Who was the pioneer of women’s basketball Senda Berenson?

A portrait of Senda Berenson in the book Smith College Class of 1902.

Born March 19, 1868 in Butrimonys, Lithuania, Berenson immigrated to America with her family after her father’s lumber business was destroyed in a fire. The impoverished Berensons settled in Boston, where Senda became interested in music, literature, and art.

To improve his deplorable physical condition, Berenson studied Swedish gymnastics, a discipline focused on stretching and exercises, at a gymnastics academy in Boston. Berenson enjoyed the activity so much that she became a longtime fitness and gymnastics advocate, much to the disappointment of her brother, Bernard, who wanted her to continue studying the piano.

In 1892 Berenson was hired to train Swedish gymnastics at Smith College, about 100 miles west of Boston. She eventually became the school’s physical education director. At Smith College, Berenson saw the need to fill a void during the long, harsh New England winters.

“Berenson wanted to supplement the gymnastic exercises with other activities that would keep students fit, prevent going crazy and could be used indoors,” says Nanci Young, archivist at Smith College. “Naismith’s basketball seemed like a good candidate.”

Berenson was also frustrated with the lack of interest in athletic activity as a source of well-being among the Smith students.

“When she heard about Naismith’s work with basketball and its effectiveness in attracting equally indifferent young men, she quickly grabbed it as a possible solution,” says Ralph Melnick, author of Senda Berenson: The unlikely founder of women’s basketball. “And it was.”

A player is injured in a historic match

In the first game, the women didn’t move around the field much, but the historic contest was hardly distinguished, according to the students who witnessed it. During the first kick-off, a player was seriously injured.

“As I was throwing the ball for the start of the game, he hit the raised hand of the center player, the captain of the first-year team, in a peculiar way, so that his shoulder joint went. been moved, “Berenson said, according to the book, Breaking the Glass: The Remarkable History of Women’s Basketball. “We took the girl into the office and put the seal in place, another center took its place and the game continued.”

Berenson’s game was not intended for young women to develop a fierce competitive spirit. “It was a men’s goal, and clearly not what Senda believed to be the goal of women’s basketball,” said Melnick.

The first game was just a friendly competition, and afterwards the winners served the losers refreshments.

Berenson’s adaptation of the men’s game included dividing the pitch into three equal sections, with players being required to stay in their zones. Players could not snatch or kick a ball from the hands of another player, and a 3 second time limit for holding the ball was mandatory, with no more than three dribbles allowed at a time.

Berenson changed Naismith’s rules to avoid “dangerous nervous tendencies and the loss of grace, dignity and self-respect that we would all have. [a women player] promote, ”according to one account.

The game was an instant hit with the students. “The faculty were a little more compelling,” says Melnick, “but emerged in the years to come as they began to see the undeniable benefits this new program was bringing to their students. The big school games in the early 1900s are said to have drawn as many as 1,200 spectators.

Shortly after that first game, women began playing basketball across the country, with the first women’s college game being held on April 4, 1896, between Stanford and the University of California.

Berenson’s rules for the women’s game published

Senda Berenson edited a guide to women's basketball published by Spalding, a sporting goods company.

Senda Berenson edited a guide to women’s basketball published by Spalding, a sporting goods company.

In 1901, Berenson’s Rules were first published in a guide to women’s basketball published by Spalding, a sporting goods company. The rules were revised in 1913 and again in 1915, but major changes were not made again until the 1960s, Young says.

“Some colleges pushed for even bigger changes than Senda could support in an effort to make the game faster and more competitive,” said Melnick. “But she held the line even though some teams went outside the lines she drew nonetheless.”

Berenson, who died in 1954, eagerly promoted the game for the rest of her life. And, in 1985, she and former college basketball player and coach Margaret Wade became the first women to enter the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield.