It seems like a simple question: When was the first-ever college basketball game?
Answering that is quite a bit more complicated. Both Geneva College and Vanderbilt University claim the first-ever basketball game by a college team, both in 1893, while Hamline and Minnesota A&M played in the first intercollegiate game together in 1895.
But let’s get into more detail. And what better place to start the search than at the source?
In his book “Basketball: Its Origin and Development,” Dr. James Naismith addresses the question:
“Geneva College, in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, and the University of Iowa both played basketball in the season of 1892. Which of these two colleges may claim the first game, I do not know. Mr. C.O. Beamis [sic], a Springfield boy, had gone to Geneva College as physical director. Beamis had seen the game played in the Training School gymnasium while he was home on a vacation. He realized that it might solve the need of a winter activity in his school. I told him of the success we had and explained to him the fundamentals of the game. On his return to Beaver Falls, he started the game in Geneva College; it is my belief therefore, that this college was the first to play basketball.”
In February of 1892, an article in the Geneva school newspaper refers to basketball by a unique moniker: “Football in the Gym is a popular mode of exercise at present. Some sever knocks are received, but in the excitement, they are of course not noticed.
A year later, in 1893, another article was published: “New Brighton played a game of basket foot ball on the Geneva, Saturday night April 8th. The score was 3 goals to 0 in favor of Geneva.”
And for a while, that was that. Geneva still claims itself as the birthplace of college basketball.
But in 2008, Bill Traughber, a historian at Vanderbilt offered a different origin story.
Traughber found a fascinating story from the Feb. 7, 1893 edition of Nashville’s newspaper, the Daily American:
Teams From Vanderbilt and the Y.M.C.A. to Meet Tonight
"The new game known as basket ball which has been recently introduced into gymnasiums throughout the United States has gained a large following. Its advent in Nashville was marked with an enthusiastic reception. The game is very much like foot ball with much of the roughness eliminated, and instead of keeping the ball down it is kept up. To-night at 8 o'clock in the gymnasium of the Young Men's Christian Association the public will have an opportunity of witnessing a spirited contest in basket ball between teams from Vanderbilt and the association. The two teams are well trained and an exciting game will be played. The public is invited to witness the contest. Seats will be placed on the running track for ladies, who are especially urged to be present."
But he wasn’t ready to make a definitive claim off of the announcement of the game alone. He needed further proof that the match had actually happened when it was supposed to.
THE VANDERBILTS WON
They Defeat the Y.M.C.A. Team at Basketball
"The game of basketball at the Y.M.C.A. gymnasium last night between the Vanderbilts and the Association team was witnessed by a large audience, who greatly enjoyed the first public exhibition of this new game. The game in many of its features resembles football, but is not nearly so dangerous to life and limb. Nine men constitute a team At each end of the hall is a shallow bag, the mouth of which is held open by a metal hoop a foot or so in diameter The bag is fastened securely to the wall about five or six feet from the floor, and the object is to put the ball into the opponent's goal. A goal counts three points. The game last night resulted in favor of Vanderbilt by a score of 9 to 6."
And there it was. A newspaper article recapping a game from Feb. 7, 1893 — 60 days before Geneva would play New Brighton.
Furthermore, the university’s yearbook commemorates the win against the Nashville Y.M.C.A. in 1893 by listing the “Basket Ball Nine” with names and positions of every player, along with the result from the season’s game (in the early days of the sport, basketball teams fielded nine players each):
Both Vanderbilt and Geneva still claim to have hosted the first college basketball game, and both claims are strong. The Commodores have newspaper and yearbook articles that point to a game played on Feb. 7, 1953. Geneva has the inventor of the sport himself supposing they were the first.
But one thing is for sure: both games were played against local Y.M.C.A. teams.
Another first came two years later, in 1895. On Feb. 9 of that year, Minnesota A&M traveled to Hamline University for a game of basketball in the basement of the Hall of Science. A makeshift court was erected in a former mess hall, and Minnesota A&M prevailed 9-3.
No other schools claim to have an earlier intercollegiate game, so we can be fairly certain that this was the first.
The next year, on Jan. 18, 1896, Chicago would beat Iowa 15-12 in the first intercollegiate game with modern five-man lineups.