While a lot has changed in basketball — the jerseys, balls, courts, rules, and overall aesthetic of the game — one thing remains remarkably the same. The basket is 10 feet off the ground. This tradition goes back nearly 130 years to when Dr. James Naismith first invented the sport. Why are hoops still 10-feet tall? The answer is comically simple.
The beginnings of basketball
In 1891, Dr. Naismith was working at a Springfield, Massachusetts YMCA when he hung the first peach basket on the railing of the running track. This rail was 10 feet off the ground, according to Britannica. In the grand scheme of things, this is probably the only similarity the first basketball game has with its modern counterpart.
The first game involved nine people playing on each side, a soccer ball, and a strict ban on dribbling or moving with the ball in hand. Stories of the first basketball game show a violent, disjointed, and bloodthirsty group of incorrigible men who were fed up with the kids’ games and calisthenics of Naismith’s normal classes.
The evolution of NBA hoops
By nailing a peach basket to the rail, however, Naismith birthed a fast-growing international phenomenon that was remarkably easy to play. Those first “hoops” were not without flaws, however. Being peach baskets, there was a bottom meant to hold peaches. As such, the first games required a ladder in order to retrieve any made points.
Fortunately, although not as quickly as one may expect, the bottoms were eventually cut out and later replaced with nets. The makeup of the baskets, however, continued to change into the modern era.
The NBA’s breakaway rim
While many may not know the specific name, the breakaway rim is now the standard across the world. Before the breakaway rim, hoops were firmly mounted into place. During an era where most players were barely 6-feet-tall, this was not an issue. But by the ’60s and early ’70s, dunking was growing more common. With it, rims were getting bent out of shape and falling off the hoop.
In 1976, a breakaway rim — with hinges that allow it to bend upward and downward with less injury risk to both the player and hoop itself — was first introduced by Arthur Ehrat. The breakaway got its big-stage debut at the 1978 Final Four in St. Louis. Over the next few years, it became the standard.
However, even this rim was meant for the athletes of the era. While the 250 pounds of pressure the breakaway rim could handle may have worked in 1976, Shaquille O’Neal entered the league in 1992 and changed everything.
Shaquille O’Neal’s effect on NBA hoops
It did not take long for the 7-foot-1, 300-pound athlete to prove that NBA hoops were not built to withstand his force. During a game against the Suns, O’Neal dunked so hard that the hydraulic system meant to hold up the basket imploded, causing the entire hoop to fold down into itself.
In a later game, O’Neal dunked so hard the rim didn’t just come down, but the backboard and the shot clock as well. This caused the league to install a steel brace that increases the backboard’s stability. Just to be safe, the NBA also introduced a rule that prohibits players from hanging on the rim too long after a dunk.
While a lot has changed with basketball, the height of the rim, even if it was built that way by chance, appears to be perfect. Sure, it changes based on age groups and leagues, but the 10-foot height remains the standard for professional and college leagues. It just so happens that decades later, it’s now the perfect height for players to dunk on, too.