Basketball in England

Basketball has a very long history in England, being introduced there by YMCA almost immediately after it was invented[1] (having been created by the Canadian Dr. James Naismith in 1891 in Massachusetts). World Wars I and II further spurred its popularity.

The four highest profile team sports in the United Kingdom are football, cricket, rugby union and rugby league. Basketball belongs to the next tier alongside ice hockey and netball; like these sports, it has a significant and dedicated following, a professional league, but attracts little coverage from the major British media outlets and suffers from lack of 'crossover' appeal.[2] While England is the birthplace of the four main sports, and England teams are relatively major powers in each of them, Basketball, like ice hockey, is essentially an 'import' from North America, and English and British teams have not generally been successful in them internationally, which also affects their profile.

The elite league is the fully professional British Basketball League, featuring teams from England and Scotland, while the semi-professional National Basketball League effectively forms the second-tier. There is no promotion and relegation between the two leagues because the BBL operates a franchise system whereby teams have to "buy into" the league.[3]


Introduced by YMCAEdit

Basketball was first introduced in England between March 1892 and January 1893 by the president of Birkenhead YMCA, C.J. Proctor, who had observed the game during a business trip to Canada. This introduction of the game led to a growth in participation in the new game of basketball initially as an internal league played at Birkenhead YMCA members (England's first Central Venue League), and later to other YMCA clubs in the Wirral and Merseyside regions.

In June 1854 Mel Rideout, a participant in the first game at Springfield College, introduced the game at a YMCA Convention held in England. This did not lead to a wider take up of the game.

Birkenhead initiative remained a local development until 1911 when a YMCA instructor brought basketball to Birmingham YMCA, and a team was produced. Within a few months teams had sprung up in the district playing one another in friendly matches. The American Rules had been introduced, but the teams in Birmingham found them to be too complicated, and when forming a Local Basketball Association, they compiled a more practical set of rules for their own use.

The use of YMCA instructors from Springfield College gave a direct link to the origins of the game. Within a short time after the Birmingham Development many YMCA clubs in England had adopted the game and had formed District Associations similar to the Association in Birmingham. Most of these Associations found the same difficulty of complication in the American Rules and in 1912 the Birmingham Association Rules of Basketball were accepted throughout most of England with some slight differences in rules according to particular conditions.

World War I and the inter-war yearsEdit

Many Inter-Clubs and Inter-YMCA. games were played until in 1914 with the start of World War I a large number of young men left their home towns for France. Basketball naturally lost a great deal of its initial impetus and although many games were played during the War years the development was limited.

With the arrival of the Americans into the War in 1917, many keen British basketball players, found out more about the game and in 1918 an American YMCA Physical Director brought some influence to hear on the District Associations in England, with the result that the local rules were altered slightly and the game became more like the American game. The game was influenced greatly by American forces in Europe during and after World War I and many European Countries as a result began to play Basketball. Britain continued to be influenced during this period, and YMCA clubs developed the game with added flavour. Rules, however, continued to vary according to the country in which the game was played and this state was to continue for a great number of years.

In 1924 basketball was included as a demonstration game at the Paris Olympic Games. Great Britain was successfully represented in this Tournament by a team from the London Central YMCA who won all their games. The London Central YMCA (also written about as CentYMCA Harriers in the Dutch press) were reigning National YMCA Champions this championship having been established in 1922. One of the players from the victorious YMCA team introduced the game to the Netherlands, i.e. A.M.V.J. Amsterdam in 1929. In his honour there still is to this day a tournament called after him, the Lew Lake tournament organized by the first Dutch basketball club, AMVJ Amsterdam, founded in January 1930. Still today Lew Lake is honoured in the Dutch basketball world as the first one to give basketball demonstrations and teach the game in Holland. AMVJ organized an international basketball tournament in March 1932, the first international games in the Netherlands. Teams from Belgium, Lille, Holland and CentYMCA took part. Centymca ended second after Olympique Lille.

The game continued to develop in England and in 1936 a meeting was called at the London Central YMCA to form a Governing Body for the sport. The new Association, the Amateur Basket Ball Association of England and Wales (ABBA.) was established with Mr. Herbert Naylor, the National Physical Director of YMCA in England as chairman, Mr. J. A. Clay of Birmingham as Honorary Secretary and Mr. W. Browning as London Area Secretary.

To run the Association England was divided into four areas:

  1. Manchester and a radius of up to 100 miles
  2. Birmingham and a radius of up to 100 miles
  3. London (including Bournemouth) and a radius of up to 100 miles
  4. Cardiff and a radius of up to 100 miles

A Divisional Secretary was appointed in each area. The game continued to spread in England as it was doing worldwide. Prior to 1936 basketball had been included in the Far Eastern Olympics held in Japan each year.

Many new faces appeared in Basketball in England. Mr. George Williams of London presented a cup to the ABBA, as Senior Championship Cup and the first tournament for the cup was staged in Birmingham on 6 June 1936. The finalists in this Knockout Championship Tournament were Hoylake YMCA and London Polytechnic. The former winning the 1st Championships of England and Wales by 32 points to 21 points.

Greater interest was taken in Basketball because of the incentive of the Championships and many more teams affiliated to ABBA the following year. The standard of play also improved and on 19 March 1938, Hoylake YMCA (the 1937 winners) were opposed by Latter Day Saints. This game won by Hoylake YMCA was the first game to be broadcast on radio with a running commentary being given during the final.

The George Williams Trophy played for by the teams in this competition is still used today for EB's premier Championship Competition.

Hoylake YMCA in October 1937 represented England in the Tournament at a Paris Competition - the first International team to play for England.

During 1937, Basketball had increased in popularity, not only with senior players, but also with the younger members. Junior games were played extensively and in 1938 ABBA organised on similar lines to the Senior Championships a National Junior Championship of England and Wales. Plaistow YMCA presented the ABBA with a Challenge Cup. On 9 April 1938 the first Junior Championship Final was held in Birmingham between Ton Pentre (Rhondda Valley) Boys' Club and London Polytechnic with the Welsh Club winning the first tournament.

On the 18th, 19th, and 20 April 1938 basketball was included along with the European Roller Speed Skating Championships the Semi Finals and Finals of the Basketball Championship of England and Wales. In the Final, the Catford Saints beat Rochdale Greys 61 points to 47 points. The standard of play in this Championship showed considerable improvement. On the day following the Championship Finals Catford Saints represented England in the first International match ever held in Britain. The game against Germany was won by England by 40 points to 35 points.

On 22/23 October 1938 a composite England International Team competed in the International Basketball Tournament at the Sports Palace in Berlin. The team with Mr. W. Browning as Coach and Mr. J. Clay as Manager included three Birmingham players - F. Cole, C. Hunt and A. J. Lee, four London players - F. Gibson. R. Bradley, A. Hants, M. Ashton. and also F. Allen (Rochdale) and G. McMinn (Manchester). This was the first time a composite International Team had travelled abroad and this in itself showed the development of English Basketball. Birmingham and London Area supplied the majority of those International players in keeping with the level of the development of Basketball in England.

ABBA of England and Wales, had, gone all out to attract the public, with success. Basketball was now being played extensively in most areas of England and Wales and the public seemed to be interested. In February 1939 a London National League was started involving 6 teams playing in a League Competition at Haringey Arena.

World War IIEdit

English Basketball was progressing very well indeed and by including 'Catford Saints' as the English team (1939 Championship Winners) in the Liège Festival that year, the ABBA once more made England's position in European Basketball felt. It is unfortunate for the progress of Basketball that World War II started in the latter part of 1939.

A Championship Final was held in April 1940 with the Birmingham Athletic Institute (BAI) beating London Central YMCA in this final. Due to the war there was no Championship for the next six years and thus Birmingham retained the Trophy for that period.

The War, although stemming the development of the actual number of clubs in Britain, did have a good effect upon the game. The Army adopted the game and a number of Army teams were started. The Army influenced the other services and Inter-Service Tournaments were started.

Many novices at basketball were introduced to a better class of play and coaching in the services. With the fall of the European Countries, many service personnel from these countries came to Britain, included in the Polish and French services contained some very keen basketball players, these people helped in the development of the game in the Forces.

In 1942/43, with the arrival of American forces, a further impetus to the growth of the game was given and their influence on the game in Britain continued for many years after the War.


Basketball struggles to get funding,[4][5][6][7][8][9][10][11] but there are still two leagues (the British Basketball League and the English Basketball League). The latter covers divisions 2, 3, and 4. There are also several amateur local leagues across the UK.


  1. ^ Naismith, James (1 January 1941). Basketball: Its Origin and Development. U of Nebraska Press. ISBN 0803283709 – via Google Books.
  2. ^ "Basketball's street cred fuels its fight to become UK's No2 sport". 18 January 2015 – via The Guardian.
  3. ^ "The curious case of basketball in the UK - GlobalSportsJobs". Archived from the original on 2016-09-23. Retrieved 2016-09-21.
  4. ^ "Team GB funding cuts are killing British basketball". 20 February 2016.
  5. ^ Brown, Paul (28 January 2015). "Future of British Basketball League in doubt as infighting plumbs new depths".
  6. ^ "NBA and Basketball England team up".
  7. ^ "Basketball England and British Basketball League meet to discuss future of sport after row".
  8. ^ "Further swimming decline dominates latest sports figures - Sport England".
  9. ^ "Will basketball be a winner in the UK?".
  10. ^ "John Amaechi: British basketball governance must change". 22 August 2014 – via

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