In December of 1891, in response to the need for a new indoor game that took little space and was not as rough as football, James Naismith created the game of “Basket Ball” by nailing a peach basket “around 10 feet high” to the “railing of the gallery” of the Springfield YMCA, as recorded in his handwritten notes after witnessing the first game.
The seemingly arbitrary placement of the rim would prove to be the foundational measurement of the game that has stood the test of time for well over a century, now standard practice whether in the stadiums of professional NBA teams or the street-ball courts of any neighborhood. Despite many rules changes, along with alterations to the position and sizing of the three-point line, free-throw line, and others, the height of the hoop has remained exactly the same.
Although this placement may seem insignificant, at the very least, it offers the tangible target for players to shoot for. In this choice, however, the question arises: What differences would result if the location was changed?
If the height of the regulation basketball goal were lower, there would be a dramatic increase in field goal percentage. Every shot would have a higher chance of going in, and the precision required for a 15-foot attempt previously would now be evident for a 20-footer. Consideration must also be given to the proliferation of dunking, as a 9-foot goal would afford more players the opportunity, and skilled players increased ease, of the slam dunk.
Overall, the result would be an emphasis on offense and more scoring per game, but less drama as the importance of every shot would dwindle. Defense would be key, but left as an afterthought in the flurry of scoring that would occur on low rims.
If the rim’s altitude was increased to, for example, 11 feet, then every shot would become more of a chore. Not only would slightly more effort be required, but shooting percentages would dwindle, as three-point shots suddenly become more difficult and even lay-ups become an arduous task.
Along with a sharp decline in the frequency of dunking, the game would become a treatise in defense. After all, a strong defensive team could now prevent their opponent from scoring on longer stretches of time, since each basket made would now be a rarer occasion. Although each goal scored would now be more exciting, the lack of total scoring per game would have a more negative impact on the entertainment quality of the game.
We have a body of evidence 100 years long and thousands upon thousands of games wide with which to judge the quality of the choice to place the rim at 10 feet. In the end, as evidence by the continuing popularity and enjoyment of the game, it seems like James’ original placement was perfect after all, and stands no real chance of changing any time soon.