Story: Basketball

Page 2. Origins and growth, 1908 to 1950s

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Basketball was invented by the Canadian Dr James Naismith in 1891. Employed as physical-education instructor at a YMCA training school in Massachusetts, he was given the task of creating a competitive game which his students could play indoors during winter. Inspired by a childhood game, ‘duck on a rock’ – where players threw stones at a target on a rock – he developed 13 rules that became the basis of basketball.

A former Naismith student, J. H. Greenwood, introduced basketball to New Zealand when he was appointed physical director of the Wellington YMCA in 1908. The first game took place later that year in the YMCA’s Wellington gymnasium. The sport was called indoor basketball to avoid confusion with the English offshoot of basketball played by females outdoors. New Zealand women’s basketball was renamed netball in 1970.

All in the name

Indoor basketball leagues during the 1930s included many business house teams, their names identifying the workplaces players came from. In Wellington the 1938 men’s league included the Taxes Rangers, the Pensions and the Woolworth’s Whoppers.

The ‘Y’ leagues

The ‘Y’ network (YMCA and YWCA) spread the game from the 1920s, often with the help of American Mormon missionaries. By the mid-1930s men’s and women’s indoor basketball associations had been set up in the main cities and some smaller centres. From the start, both sexes were involved, the YMCA organising the men’s leagues and the YWCA the women’s. In 1935 the Auckland women’s association had 14 teams. The first national indoor basketball tournament was held in Wellington in 1938. The 1939 national tournament, also in Wellington, drew a large crowd of spectators.

National bodies

During the Second World War many New Zealand servicemen were exposed to basketball by American personnel and returned home with mild cases of ‘hoop fever’. After the war, the game left the Y nests to create its own structure. The New Zealand Women’s Indoor Basketball Association (NZWIBA) was established in 1945; the men followed suit in 1946 with the New Zealand Men’s Indoor Basketball Association (NZMIBA).These bodies held their inaugural national tournaments in those same years.

From small beginnings

In 1945 Internal Affairs Minister Bill Parry became patron of the NZWIBA. In accepting the office he commented how he had ‘seen the game grow from a matter of a team or so when it was first played by the Y.M.C.A. and Y.W.C.A. till today [when] there are over 200 teams representing over 1000 women players.’1 The biggest problem facing the game was a lack of playing facilities, but he hoped this would be remedied by building new community halls.


Basketball’s post-war growth was steady but unspectacular. Encouragement and resources to spread the game were supplied by the Physical Welfare and Recreation Branch of the Internal Affairs Department. But a lack of facilities impeded development. Basic technique, the coaching expertise to teach basketball and the regular competition to hone skills were all also lacking. The government-sponsored construction of war memorial community halls, in which basketball could be played, helped to alleviate the facilities obstacle. Between 1946 and 1961 the NZMIBA grew from 16 affiliated associations comprising 366 teams to 31 associations with 750 teams.

Improving skills

The deepening influence of Mormon missionaries in the game improved player skills as well as coaching. Between 1946 and 1961, at the conclusion of the national men’s tournament, a New Zealand team would play a team of Mormon missionaries. The national team won the contest for the first time in 1951, hailed as New Zealand’s first international basketball victory.

Although the NZMIBA welcomed the Mormons’ contribution to coaching – they introduced teams to zone defence – it was forced to ban the Mormons from proselytising at games in 1961. The game also benefited from visits from American coaches organised through the United States government. These included John Wooden (the legendary UCLA coach) in 1957; Stu Inman (coach of San Jose State) in 1961, 1964, 1965 and 1966; and Red Auerbach (coach of the Boston Celtics) in 1970.

  1. Evening Post, 17 October 1945, p. 4. Back
How to cite this page:

John Saker, 'Basketball - Origins and growth, 1908 to 1950s', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 20 October 2021)

Story by John Saker, published 5 Sep 2013, updated 1 Oct 2015