The first basketball game on English soil took place in Birkenhead
I’m not a huge basketball fan. I have tried to get interested on many occasions, but the NBA has never quite excited me as it does millions of people around the world. I adore baseball and have a growing interest in the NFL, but basketball passed me by a little. I played a game in high school once, and I attended a Cheshire Phoenix contest back in the day, but that is pretty much the extent of my exposure hitherto.
However, like everyone with a pulse, I have plumbed the depths of Netflix during the coronavirus pandemic, attempting to find new content on which to binge. Louis Theroux is always great, while Michael Moore gets you thinking. In a departure from the norm, though, I have also recently watched The Last Dance, a docuseries about Michael Jordan and the 1990s Chicago Bulls. I was inspired to reconsider basketball, and that led to a sensational discovery linked to my hometown.
Dr James Naismith and the creation of basketball
Basketball was created by a Canadian, Dr James Naismith, in 1891. A physical education instructor, Naismith struggled with his rowdy class at Springfield Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) in Massachusetts during the winter months. Confined to indoor exercise amid harsh weather conditions, the students became unruly, derailing any plans Naismith conceived for learning. Thoroughly frustrated, the doctor was tasked with inventing a game specifically to occupy those hyper minds. His ultimate creation did the same for billions of people around the world for decades to come.
A 31-year-old visionary, Naismith studied sports from around the world, attempting to decipher why each respective game was successful. In particular, Dr James focused on rugby, baseball, lacrosse and soccer, considering ways to merge the best parts of each discipline into one new sport that could be played indoors using artificial light. Above all else, Naismith wanted his game to be exciting, with a high-tempo and plenty of action. He began to tinker with a concept along those lines.
Firstly, Naismith got hold of two peach baskets and nailed them to the walls, ten feet off the ground, at either end of the Springfield gymnasium. Then, he found an old soccer ball and proceeded to brainstorm a few rules that coalesced into a codified sport. Naismith called his game basketball. Among two competing teams, the objective was to win possession of the ball, manipulate it around the gymnasium and eventually shoot it through one of the peach baskets, scoring points. The team that scored the most points won the game.
The first basketball contest was played at Springfield, overseen by Naismith and his bosses. Basketball was such a hit that it quickly spread throughout the YMCA network, gaining popularity by osmosis. People were enthralled by the new game, and intrigue fuelled its progress. American colleges fell in love with the sport soon thereafter, honing its development across the country.
How the YMCA played a pioneering role in the growth of basketball
The YMCA was founded in 1844 by Sir George Williams, a worker in the textile trade of London. Concerned about the welfare of workers amid deteriorating conditions, Williams started a prayer and study group to give people a break from the Industrial Revolution grind. That group mushroomed into the YMCA, which extended overseas in 1855, spreading throughout Europe.
The primary function of those early YMCA institutions was to offer cheap or emergency accommodation to people in need, whether due to financial problems or medical troubles. While working to tackle homelessness, drug abuse, alcoholism and poverty, YMCA leaders were keen to develop a distinct curriculum, helping to develop residents with programs related to education, academia, wellbeing and life skills.
In time, sports proved particularly popular among YMCA stakeholders. By 1879, the first YMCA gym was established in America. A few years later, athletic exercise was adopted into the YMCA charter and philosophy. Further gyms were encouraged, and new enclaves were added as the network grew. The YMCA can therefore be seen as much more than a homeless shelter. It is a movement of social enrichment, and the development of human achievement under its purview can never be discounted.
Why the first game of English basketball took place in Birkenhead
My beloved home peninsula of Wirral joined the YCMA movement in 1874, opening an institute on Grange Road in Birkenhead. The service has remained open ever since, moving locations but never ceasing to dispense help to the local community for 146 years. It turns out Grange Road is also a sacred place in the annals of basketball history. In fact, it is the spiritual home of basketball in England.
You see, in March 1892, CJ Proctor, president of the Birkenhead YMCA, went on a business trip to Canada, where he encountered basketball being played in other branches. Duly impressed, Proctor asked for a deeper explanation of the minutiae before taking the game back to Birkenhead. It was there, upon Proctor’s return, that the first game of basketball ever recorded in England took place. The Birkenhead YMCA blazed a trail of innovation, and we should always be proud of this little-known fact.
The Birkenhead YMCA soon created an internal basketball league at its Grange Road headquarters, while basketball also seeped out across the peninsula. Accordingly, for the 19 years between 1892 and 1911, Wirral remained the exclusive nucleus of basketball in England. No other town, city or hamlet played the game. It was our secret passion, a signature hobby of our quirky fiefdom. That is a significant achievement worthy of celebration.
Before long, the lack of basketball participation in major English cities became a conspicuous problem. Therefore, in 1911, original basketball instructors from Springfield YCMA made a pilgrimage to England, hoping to spread the game’s gospel and imbue American rules into our version of the sport. They took basketball to the YMCA in Birmingham, which became the administrative crux of the English code. However, Wirral still stood strong as the original hub of domestic basketball passion, and the superior skill of our local players gained widespread appreciation.
How Hoylake YMCA became the first national basketball champions in English history
Throughout the 1910s and 1920s, regional basketball associations sprang up across Britain, spilling over from the YMCA network for the first time. At the 1924 Olympics in Paris, basketball was a demonstration sport, and London YMCA represented Great Britain, winning all of its games. That was an eyebrow-raiser for the basketball cognoscenti, overwhelmingly centred on the United States. Experts saw that the UK had serious basketball potential, and efforts to formalise that spirit were expedited.
By 1936, residual British interest in the game was mopped up and wrung out into a regional league structure under the Amateur Basket Ball Association of England and Wales (ABBA) umbrella. A senior championship cup of the ABBA vowed to bring all the regional champions together each year, forming a knockout tournament for the national title. One can only imagine the excitement of such a novel concept.
Somewhat remarkably, Hoylake YMCA - located on Wirral’s northern coast – won the first national basketball championship in English history. Hoylake beat London Polytechnic, 32-21, in the inaugural final of 1936. They subsequently represented England in a rudimentary equivalent of Champions League basketball, competing against teams from continental Europe.
Hoylake also won the 1937 national basketball championship, beating the Latter Day Saints, 23-17, to defend the title. Accordingly, we can see that, for the first 45 years of basketball’s existence in England, Wirral was its defining powerhouse. More than that, Wirral held a monopoly on basketball passion, skill and success in our nation. For almost half a century, nobody else came close. It is remarkable that we have never heard more about our borough’s basketball excellence.
In 1938, Hoylake featured in the first basketball game ever broadcasted on British radio. Apparently something of a grudge match, their contest with the aforementioned Latter Day Saints was carried across the airwaves, a major boon for the popularity of British basketball. The Hoylakers gained mild fame, representing the borough with pride.
The sad demise of basketball in Wirral
Alas, the outbreak of World War II stifled organised basketball across the country, and it never really recovered in Wirral, the original hotbed. While an influx of American soldiers stationed in the UK kept basketball alive recreationally, attempts to maintain strict organisation during combat were largely unsuccessful. After the war, London and Birmingham became the main engines of domestic basketball, taking advantage of economic development and greater urban sprawl to accommodate the game more readily. By most accounts, top level basketball in Wirral ebbed away without trace.
Our local YMCA groups were not finished making history, however. In 1962, an upstart rock band called The Beatles toured the music halls of Wirral, performing at both Hoylake YMCA and Birkenhead YMCA. In Hoylake, the local lads were infamously booed off the stage. I guess Wirral always did make for a tough crowd.
A National Basketball League (NBL) was introduced in 1972, but the closest team to Wirral were the Liverpool Bruno Roughcutters, who played at Deeside Leisure Centre. The Mersey Tigers were formed in 2007, while the aforementioned Phoenix have enjoyed transient success in the British Basketball League (BBL), now the top level of play on these shores.
The Bromborough Bulldogs are a famous name in local basketball circles, and they are currently celebrating their 25th anniversary, playing and training out of various schools and gyms in the local area. Quite whether the Bulldogs will ever grow into a viable BBL franchise is unclear, but we can all dream of such a basketball renaissance on Wirral.
Calling on Wirral Council to recognise its basketball heritage
I’m not overly familiar with the process for attaining formal recognition for historic achievements. There is bound to be an absurd labyrinth of bureaucracy and red tape to navigate, but I urge Wirral Council to seriously consider honouring the basketball pioneers of the Birkenhead and Hoylake YMCA branches.
Basketball is the third most-watched sport in the world, behind only cricket and football. CJ Proctor deserves to be acknowledged for putting Wirral on that map long before any other place in England.
Whether it be a blue plaque, a statue, a museum or a ceremonial renaming, we must do something to mark our unique contributions to basketball. From an economic perspective, there are huge potential benefits from associated tourism, while positive press is always welcomed.
Ultimately, basketball will always remain a monolithic preserve of American pop culture, with its towering glitz and glamour, but we should stake a greater claim to its development throughout England. We live in a vastly different age to Dr James Naismith and his peach baskets, but that makes it even easier to celebrate our contributions to the genius game of his imagination.
A special mention to Dr Keith Myerscough, who made the original academic discoveries that underpin this essay. Dr Myerscough's findings were originally published in the following places:
- The Development of Basketball in England and the USA: The Contribution of the YMCA Movement, M Ed, Manchester University, 1993
- The Game with No Name: The Invention of Basketball - International Journal of the History of Sport, Vol.12, No.1, April 1995