The Patents Behind Basketball

This March Madness consider how the sport has evolved in its 128-year history, through innovations in ball design, hoops and training devices

(Steven Errico/Getty Images)

Looking for a way to exercise students in the winter, James Naismith invented the game of basketball in 1891 at the International YMCA Training School in Springfield, Massachusetts (now Springfield College). The game consisted of peach baskets, a soccer ball and a set of rules. The goal was to throw a soccer ball into a fruit basket nailed to the lower railing of the gym balcony.

One of the first refinements to the game was to cut the bottom out of the basket so that someone did not have to use a ladder to retrieve the ball from the basket. Yet from these humble beginnings many technological improvements and patented inventions have followed to make basketball what it is today. The wide reach of the YMCA helped transform the simple game into a sport played worldwide.

James Naismith (Wikipedia)

The Ball

The game was originally played with a soccer ball, but Naismith asked A.G Spalding to develop the very first basketball. Spalding had developed and manufactured the first American football in 1887, made of sewn leather and including a slot and lacing to encase the air bladder. The first basketball developed by Spalding in 1894 looked much like a round football—it too had lacing.

In 1929, however, George L. Pierce was awarded the first patent for a ball specifically designed for “basket ball,” as it was called at the time. Pierce’s invention overcame the issues of earlier balls, which were made from panels of leather that tapered to points at the sphere’s poles where they were laced together (figure 5). His decisions to change the shape of the panels (12) and stitch the ball (13) closed as opposed to using bulky laces (figure 2) decreased stress at the seams and produced a ball with better balance and resilience. Pierce, who worked for Spalding for 50 years, was a major innovator in the field of early sports gear beyond the seminal patent for the basketball; he is also known for his patent for cleats used for football and baseball.

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U.S. patent 1,718,305 awarded to George L. Pierce on June 25, 1929 for a “Basket Ball” (USPTO)

Sometimes it is not about how a ball functions, but how it looks, there have been many design patents granted for basketballs over the decades. One such design by Cheryl Sellers of Triangle, Virginia includes ornamental circles on the surface of a ball.

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Des. Pat. D826,352 granted on August 21, 2018 to Cheryl Sellers for a “Basketball” (USPTO)

The Basket

There have been numerous innovations in the “basket” or “goal” taking it from the fruit basket used by James Naismith to what we see today allowing basketball to be played everywhere from pickup games on the playground to school gyms to large arenas.

In 1891, the same year that basketball was invented, Hiram B. Rockhill of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania received a patent for a holder for a bucket or basin. While not invented as a basketball hoop, and there is no indication that it was used as such, it looks like one. Looking back, such a mechanism would have been a very useful way to hold the peach baskets that James Naismith attached to the railing in his Springfield gymnasium, and may have even inspired people to develop hoops of their own.

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Pat. No. 451,715 granted on May 5, 1891 to Hiram B. Rockhill for a “Holder for Basin." Figure 1 looks strikingly similar to a peach basket being supported by a ring. (USPTO)

By early 20th century, basketball’s popularity was on the rise, as were innovations in metal basketball hoops, the use of nets and a backboard.

Pat. No. 922,630 granted on May 25, 1909 to Milton Reach of Springfield, Massachusetts for a “Basket Ball Goal,” an early goal patent, is directed to “basket ball goals and particularly to means for supporting the basket to the wall where by the goal or basket will be firmly held and may be readily attached to and detached from the wall.” The bracket’s spring pin (12) allowed the goal to be easily removed while also helping to hold the bottom slot of the bracket (7) in place, and prevented “the goal from being jarred out of place when hit with the basket ball from the under side.” (USPTO)
Pat. No. 1,308,831 granted on July 8, 1919 to Frank Albach of St. Louis, Missouri for a “Basket-Ball Goal” demonstrates the evolution of the hoop, which is stabilized by two lower supports (9) and more importantly, contains holes (6) in the rim through which cords (7) can run to lace a net to the rim. (USPTO)
Pat. No. 1,309,806 granted on July 15, 1919 to Philo Medart of St Louis, Missouri for a “Back-Stop” provides for the flexibility of a removable basketball goal. Figure 1 shows the basketball goal set up against the stage in an “assembly room” and attached to the floor and stage by “convenient attaching means.” Today portable goals are commonplace and few spaces are dedicated only to be used as a basketball court. This early portable goal contains both a hoop and a backboard and allowed multipurpose spaces to be converted temporarily into basketball courts. (USPTO)
Pat. No. 1,757,350 granted on May 6, 1930 to William Wallace of Layette, Indiana for a “Basket-Ball-Ball Suspension” is an improvement on earlier removable goals. In this instance, the goal merely folds up against the ceiling. This innovation provides the flexibility seen in gymnasiums today where basketball goals are simply raised and lowered by the flip of a switch. (USPTO)

Alvie E. Sandeberg, of University City, Missouri invented a number of different goal improvements. On February 24, 1936, he filed both a design patent application and a utility patent application for his new “Basketball Goal;” the two patents were issued a week apart in September of that same year. Prior to his invention, nets had to be tied or laced on to the hoop. But thanks to Sandeberg all one needs to do is take loops from the net and hook them over the connectors circling the ring. This method is so effective that we could not think today of attaching the net by any other mode.

Pat. No. 2,053,635 was granted on September 8, 1936 to Alvie Sandeberg of University City, Missouri for a “Basketball Goal.” Figure 3 shows his spiral metal connector. (USPTO)
Design Pat. No. D101,090 was granted on September 8, 1936 to Alvie Sandeberg of University City, Missouri for a “Basketball Goal.” (USPTO)

Practice, Practice, Practice

If March Madness gets you on your feet and inspired, there are, of course, a number of basketball training devices for perfecting your game, as evidenced by a long history of patented inventions. You can focus on the fundamentals, using everything from basketball hoops with ball returns to devices that help with posture and positioning.

Pat. No. 2,710,189 granted on June 7, 1955 to Dennis Carroll of Jasper, Georgia for “Mean for Practicing Tipping of Basketballs” allows a player to practice knocking (or tipping) a basketball into the goal from under the basket. “Tipping in a goal” is distinguished from “tossing” or “throwing a goal;” a ball rolling around the rim or bouncing off the rim can be “tipped” in to the basket by a player to score a point. The training tool consists of a lid that covers the basket, which allows players to master the art of tipping the ball into the goal. (USPTO)
Pat. No. 3,012,781 granted on December 12, 1961 to Glen Nelson of St Paul, Minnesota for a “Basketball Training Apparatus” trains a player to improve jumping for the ball. The tethered ball on a flexible cord is “designed to develop a basketball player’s ability in jumping and grabbing rebound, to build cooperation in using both hands, as two hands are needed to pull the ball down, and to strengthen the forearms, wrists, and hands.” (USPTO)
Pat. No. 3,233,896 granted on February 8, 1966 to Joseph King of Arlington County, Virginia for a “Basketball Return device is an improvement of earlier ball return devices in that the point of return is movable so that shots can be practiced from various positions. (USPTO)
Pat. No. 9,149,701 granted on October 4, 2015 to Robin Bramlette of Austin, Texas for a “Training Basketball” has intended handprints on the ball. These handprints help the shooter have proper hand position and, thus, better control of the ball. (USPTO)
Pat. No. 10,080,944 granted on September 25, 2018 to Patrick Bowling of New Haven, Kentucky for a “Basketball Shooting Device” both returns balls and helps with a shooter’s form. “Basketball players often have incorrect shooting habits and/or shooting form when shooting a basketball in to a basketball rim. Therefore, a need continues to exist in the art to correct and/or teach better shooting form, as well as, generate muscle memory of the proper form.” The device has guide panels that help shooters correctly position themselves for a shot. (USPTO)