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When Women's Basketball Was Unusually Polite

By Jennifer Jennings '04

Using peach baskets as hoops and wearing royal blue bloomers with black shirts and flat dress shoes as uniforms, Smith athletes played an unusually polite game of basketball on a chilly Sunday last February. The slow-paced match -- with rules that restricted running and wouldn't allow players to grab the ball from one another -- was a reenactment of the first women's basketball game, which took place at Smith College 111 years ago. The reenactment was part of the yearlong series of events celebrating Northampton's 350 years.

The actual first women's basketball game was played on March 22, 1893, in Smith's Alumnae Gymnasium. The Smith gymnastic instructor, Senda Berenson, adapted the game rules for women only a year after the game had been invented by Dr. James Naismith in Springfield, Massachusetts. That first women's game was played between two teams of Smith College students: the class of 1895 (sophomores) and the class of 1896 (first-years). The audience was exclusively women, since the bloomers worn in public by the players were considered immodest and inappropriate for the eyes of men.

For the 2004 reenactment, the teams were composed of Smith athletes from a variety of sports and all four classes as well as a few "super fans." The entire game was scripted and had been rehearsed during interterm by the two teams and Dasen Woitkowski '04, who played Berenson. Written in 1993 for the 100-year anniversary of the invention of women's basketball, the script was based on information from materials in the College Archives. Kim Allen, associate director of athletics; Lyn Oberbillig, director; and Portia D. Lowe, events coordinator, assigned each athlete a particular role, including one player who dislocated her shoulder at the very beginning of the 1893 game. "They put the basketball players near the hoop (which was a peach basket), so that the ball would get into the baskets more quickly," explains participant Debbie Sasges '07.

The athletes found it difficult to play by the 1893 rules. "The new rules didn't scare me, but, oh my god, you weren't allowed to dribble or reach in and grab the ball," notes Leigh Weisenburger '04, another reenactment team member. In today's game, basketball players dart up and down the court, but in those days running, although not prohibited, was considered "unladylike"; consequently the players were placed in three zones to limit the amount of activity. The game was slow: as players scored each basket, a ball handler had to climb a ladder to the peach basket (placed inside the normal net) to retrieve the ball. The players would then gather for another jump-ball.

The reenactment team included women of color and one player from Ecuador, while all the players in 1893 were white. Because the reenactment participants were all athletes, "a lot of our movements are very finessed from participating in sports, whereas the women (in 1893) were not as experienced with athletics and their movements were more abrupt and jerky," notes Weisenburger.

The reenactment and the hip-hop performance that followed were held on National Girls and Women in Sports Day, which celebrates Smith athletics and encourages young girls in grades 3 through 5 to enjoy and participate in athletic activities. It also kicked off Fitness February, the month-long series of events that included the official opening of the Olin Fitness Center on February 20. The audience -- young girls, their parents and members of the Smith community -- filled Ainsworth Gym's bleachers and floor to watch the women clad in the bulky 1893 uniforms play a genteel version of what has now become an aggressive, fast-paced game.

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