Indiana Basketball Roots Aren’t Where You Thought They Were

Nicholas McCay, general secretary of the Crawfordsville YMCA, learned the game of basketball from the game’s founder, James Naismith, and brought it to Crawfordsville, Indiana. Subsequently, the first basketball game in Indiana was played on March 16, 1894 between the Crawfordsville and Lafayette YMCAs. Crawfordsville won, 45 – 21. That is why Crawfordsville is the birthplace of Indiana basketball.

Every good Hoosier knows it. We have repeated it a thousand times. But what if it weren’t true? Would that make you angry?

I recently had a conversation with a huge Indiana basketball fan. We were discussing early Indiana basketball history and I mentioned that new evidence has revealed that basketball wasn’t first played in Crawfordsville, nor was the first game held there.

“Were they games, or just practices of some sort?” he asked.

“Both,” I replied. There had been games, scrimmages, exhibitions, and demonstrations featured elsewhere in Indiana before the Crawfordsville game. “All we can state for certain about the Crawfordsville game,” I said, “is loaded with caveats—it is the first known game between two teams from two different cities in which we know the resulting score.”

He didn’t like that. “Still, McCay learned basketball from James Naismith and brought the game here, right?” he said.

“Well, that’s been called into question too,” I said. “New research suggests Nicholas McCay wasn’t responsible for bringing basketball here and it’s likely he never met Naismith.”

“Well, that’s the way I’ve always told it,” the fan said, “so I’m going to keep on telling it that way.”

He went on, “They’re rewriting all other history, so they might as well rewrite Indiana basketball history while they’re at it.”

He was bitter. For 74 years, McCay had been given credit for delivering basketball to Indiana. Can you imagine? What luck and what a wonderful legacy. What a wonderful fallacy! Where and how did such a rumor get started?

As museums and libraries digitize newspaper archives, what once took days, weeks, or months of painstakingly scrolling through microfilm readers, now can be done in minutes or hours. This is how historian S. Chandler Lighty discovered evidence of basketball played in Indiana at least 20 months before the infamous Crawfordsville game and he published his findings in the December 2014 issue of Indiana Magazine of History. His article, “James Naismith Didn’t Sleep Here: A Re-examination of Indiana Basketball’s Origins,” is a must-read for history and Indiana basketball fans. Here are some revelations Lighty exposed.

  • On November 17, 1894, the Crawfordsville Review ran a story from the Indianapolis News that stated, “Basketball was introduced into the State by the Indianapolis [YMCA] association through its physical director. Two teams were organized in the city and played against one another through two seasons.” No writer and no editor of the Crawfordsville newspaper questioned the legitimacy of that claim.
  • Nicholas McCay’s duties as general secretary of the Crawfordsville YMCA did not include physical education or introducing new sports. Furthermore, he quit his job at the YMCA 7 months before the infamous “first” game took place.
  • On April 1, 1893, the Indianapolis News dedicated two columns to the game of basketball being played at the Indianapolis YMCA a full year before the Crawfordsville game. It mentioned a league of four teams competed and credited physical director William A. McCulloch with introducing the game a few months earlier.
  • An Indianapolis Sun story in November 1892 reported basketball being played competitively in Evansville. The Evansville Journal News reported the results of a game played between the Evansville YMCA and Terre Haute YMCA on January 27, 1894. Evansville won 26 – 15.

As you see, even my statement that the first-known scheduled game between two teams with a resulting score was in Crawfordsville—which I wrote in my book, “Season of Upsets”—was incorrect. Am I angry? No. Embarrassed? A little, but I published “Season of Upsets” before Lighty’s revelations. History changes.

Scholars of Indiana basketball (if there really are any) should have known something was up. As early as 2008, Bill Pickett uncovered some dubious newspaper reporting and research. A man who claimed to play in the March 16, 1894 contest told a reporter of the local Journal and Review in 1944 that it was the first game ever in Indiana. The claim was not verified. The Indianapolis Star repeated it. The March 1971 issue of the Indiana Historical Bulletin, published by the Indiana Historical Bureau, repeated the claim, as did Herbert Schwomeyer in 1997 in the 9th edition of his book, “Hoosier Hysteria.” From there, the fable spread like wildfire and Hoosiers accepted it as fact.

Sound familiar? It should. That is how rumors are created.

Historians desire the truth and revise history to expose that truth. Not every case, but far too often, past recorders of history wrote what they wanted to be true, rather than what was true. They wrote what they perceived to be the story with no respect for other people involved. In 1944, a Crawfordsville reporter might have wanted to believe the very first basketball game was played in his town. When he found someone who had played in that March 16, 1894 game, and he claimed it to be so, he accepted it. Maybe he didn’t care and it was just one of several silly stories he’d write that week or month. But think about it—how did those players know somebody hadn’t played basketball in any other corner of the state in the 27 months between the game’s invention and their contest? They didn’t.

There is no harm in being wrong as long as we accept the truth when presented to us. To keep an open mind first requires us to open our mind, whether it be history, a relationship, work, or politics.

Nicholas McCay did not introduce basketball to the state of Indiana and the first game was not played in Crawfordsville. I accept it and you can to.



Indiana basketball roots aren’t where you thought they were.