Yesterday was Selection Sunday, which officially kicks off March Madness. Today, we feature an excerpt from Kenneth Joel Zogry’s Print News and Raise Hell: The Daily Tar Heel and the Evolution of a Modern University, on the early origins of basketball at UNC.
For over 125 years, the Daily Tar Heel has chronicled life at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and at times pushed and prodded the university community on issues of local, state, and national significance. Thousands of students have served on its staff, many of whom have gone on to prominent careers in journalism and other influential fields. Print News and Raise Hell engagingly narrates the story of the newspaper’s development and the contributions of many of the people associated with it.
Print News and Raise Hell is available now in both print and ebook editions.
The Unknown Early Origins of Basketball at Carolina
Despite numerous books on the history of basketball at UNC, the true early origins of the game on campus have remained shrouded in mystery. The origins of basketball at Carolina may actually date back to 1896—and, more significantly, the concept was likely brought to campus by someone who learned the game from its creator, James Naismith. On April 25, 1896, a small article in The Tar Heel reported that a Mr. H. E. Mechling had been hired as the university’s physical instructor and noted that Mechling came to UNC from the School for Christian Workers in Springfield, Massachusetts (at this time, the campus YMCA oversaw all sports activites at UNC). A subsequent article stated that Mechling was a graduate of that school and had served there for three years as the assistant physical instructor. That puts Mechling at the school in 1891, the year Naismith first mounted two peach baskets on poles—without holes, as early on players had to retrieve the balls from the baskets—and invented basketball. In 1941, on the fiftieth anniversary of the game, a newspaper in Louisville, Kentucky, ran an interview with the elderly Mechling (who had moved there after leaving UNC in 1898), in which he reminisced about being on Naismith’s first basketball team. No records survive that verify Mechling’s story about being on the first team, but certainly he learned the sport directly from Naismith. At Carolina, Mechling served not only as physical instructor but was a medical student and captain of the medical and pharmaceutical student’s intramural football team.
Basketball was first played at UNC in mid November of 1898. It seems Mechling set the wheels in motion before leaving for Louisville at the end of the previous spring term, and his successor, J.W. Calder (who also likely knew basketball from his YMCA training in New York), oversaw the first games. A Tar Heel article on November 1, under the headline “Improvement in the Gymnasium,” reported that “apparatus [has been] ordered” and that one of “the most attractive features of [the improvements] will be basket ball, an enormously popular sport.…Basket ball has come to stay.” Two weeks later the paper noted: “Basket Ball is progressing. It seems to have come for good. The intense interest shown in the sport just at this time in the midst of the most exciting period of the foot-ball season, speaks well for it the new game – Push it.” In December 1901 the rules of the game were published in The Tar Heel, and the accompanying article reported that an “attempt is being made to arrange a basket-ball schedule.” Regular intramural games between students in different classes and graduate programs commenced in early 1903.
Interest in basketball ebbed and flowed during the first decade of the twentieth century, though The Tar Heel pushed and prodded it along relentlessly. The reason it did not catch on immediately may have been the result of students considering it to be a female sport, as many women’s colleges in North Carolina and across the country adopted outdoor versions in the mid to late 1890s. The game was first played at Carolina in the original Memorial Hall (now demolished), an immense and foreboding Gothic Revival structure built in 1885, dedicated in part to the university’s Confederate dead, and patterned after a similar building at Harvard dedicated to that school’s fallen Union soldiers. The cavernous open interior with its maze of exposed and darkly stained wooden trusses was the logical place to play, as the freestanding benches could be moved against the walls, and rudimentary portable baskets set up. In 1904 Bynum Gymnasium was completed, and soon after the paper noted that “basketballs and racks” were provided for students. How often the game was played in Bynum in the early years remains in question, however, as the university’s physical instructor frowned on it because of the scratches the players’ fast movement in leather bottomed-shoes made on his shiny new wood floors.
In hopes of moving the creation of an intercollegiate basketball team forward, former Tar Heel editor and football captain Charles Baskerville wrote a letter to the paper in January 1908, which was reprinted in its entirety. “The Tar Heel is right in urging the introduction of basketball into our athletics,” Baskerville declared. The following October a front-page story reported that “Basket Ball Men Organize,” along with a strong editorial likely written by Frank Porter Graham: “Often has an editor, having scratched his head in vain for news either real or imaginary, turned to the devoted subject of basketball. But the men who gathered together Friday night, once and for all, removed the subject of basketball from the number of those subjects which have been often and so unsteadily go to make up the editors’ disputed repertoire.” Finally in January 1911, thirteen years after being introduced at UNC, a Carolina team first took the court against another school. From these humble beginnings, few could have imagined that the University of North Carolina’s men’s varsity basketball program would one day stand atop the sport nationally.
Kenneth Joel Zogry, Ph.D., is a public historian and researches and writes extensively about UNC history. You can read his previous post here.
Excerpted from Print News and Raise Hell: The Daily Tar Heel and the Evolution of a Modern University, by Kenneth Joel Zogry. Copyright © 2018 by the University of North Carolina Press. Used by permission of the publisher. www.uncpress.org