History Repeats Itself: What Hot New Technology Has in Common With the Development of Basketball

June 12, 2019

By Noel Courage

It’s basketball playoff time! The history of basketball is well known. A Canadian, James Naismith, in Massachusetts, invented the game in 1891. It was merely a recreational pursuit, not a commercial enterprise. The game has since spread widely, for both love and money.

This article provides a fun look at the evolution of basketball, and some elements it has in common with modern, start-up technology. Innovation improved the tools of the game gradually over time. There were both incremental improvement and disruptive advances. This is similar to how many new products are invented by companies and universities in new technology areas.

Resourcefulness – working with what you have on hand

In product development, resourcefulness often involves “bootstrapping”, meaning working with what you have on hand. It may be glue and duct tape holding mechanical devices together. It could be 3D printing of components. Perhaps combining off the shelf parts and electronics in a new configuration. Do whatever it takes to get the product built for testing.

Naismith had two peach baskets and a soccer ball to test his game. He had initially wanted to use boxes, but they were not readily available. He mounted the baskets on the lower rail of the gym’s balcony, about 10 feet off the ground. When a basket was scored, a janitor would go up a ladder and retrieve the ball from the peach basket. An 1890’s soccer ball with laces was light and not entirely smooth. It would not be easy to control that ball when dribbling in traffic, but that only matters later on - no dribbling was allowed in the original rules - running was prohibited once you had the ball!

Incremental Improvements

A high tech example would be the continuous improvement in computer storage media and capacity. Also, think of your smart phone now compared to the one you had ten years ago. Sometimes, subtle refinements that look obvious in hindsight can actually be tricky and require a lot of problem-solving. Why didn’t I think to put the four wheels of a conventional roller skate in the in-line configuration?

An early, incremental improvement to the basketball bucket was to cut a small hole in it so that a broom-handle could be used to push the ball back out. Seems odd - isn’t it obvious to just cut the entire bottom out? Not so fast. If it is cut all the way out, then there is an issue as to whether one can properly judge whether certain shots went straight through or were an airball. If the hole is cut fractionally larger than the ball, then this mostly solves the basket/no basket judgment issue, but then the bottom of the old peach basket would be weakened and eventually get knocked out. Closed nets were next.  

Incremental improvements are not glamorous, but provide great opportunities to create value.

Disruptive Technology

Disruptive technology displaces the established technology and shakes up the game. Think of artificial intelligence, drones, CRISPR or blockchain.

Basketball was played using peach baskets, or similar, for many years. This was ripe for disruption, meaning a whole new approach that changes the way the game operates. In the early 1900’s, peach baskets were replaced by the metal hoops, closed net and backboard combination.

The addition of an open basketball net was not approved for use until 1912. The net can move and alter the path and speed of the ball, making it easier to visually judge when a basket has been scored. It was described by the Hooptactics basketball web site as a, “major milestone for basketball since the free falling ball after a made basket dramatically increased tempo and scoring of the game.”

Users and equipment adapt in response to regulation

Industry changes in response to government regulation, which means that product developers must adapt, and can seize opportunities for new innovation. Consider how environmental regulation of automobile fuel efficiency and emission standards has led to new technology for better gas mileage and reduced emissions.

Basketball started with 13 rules that have multiplied over the years. The FIBA 2018 rulebook has 96 pages. As one example of regulation, in the 1950’s NBA basketball was a slow-moving, defensive game. After many low-scoring and foul-filled games, the NBA changed the rules and implemented a 24 second shot clock. The immediate impact was less of a focus on stalling, and more scoring. This was an opportunity for players and teams to adapt to take advantage of the new regulation. Equipment also evolved with the speed and intensity of the game. For example, there have been many innovations in footwear, bypassing the stalwart Chuck Taylors® of the early 1920’s to arrive at modern professional-calibre shoes, such as Air Jordans®.

Regulation and innovation have also affected rims. The power of professional players led to the invention of nets on hinges, so that players throwing down monster dunks would not be injured or tear down the backboard. Regulatory approval of this rim then encouraged further design improvements. The safer, flexible rim almost never breaks the backboard and has led to innovations in dunking - we could say more about that, but we will just let you see it for yourself in the next game!

Hurry Up and Wait

Basketball evolved over many years, as discussed below. Nobody can wait these days when it comes to developing their particular product in a competitive new industry. Some inventors use rapid prototyping, which uses modern technology to manufacture of high quality prototypes at reasonable cost. However, as fast as a particular company moves, the major technology advances in a new technology area are often still measured in years.

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The base fundamentals for successful technology development, past and present, are similar, even though technology is very diverse. Hard work wins games and the technology race!

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Author(s):

Noel Courage Noel Courage
B.Sc. (Biochem.), LL.B.
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