When he invented the game, Dr. James Naismith was looking for a sport that could be played indoor during cold weather (he was in Massachusetts). He also wanted one that wasn't as rough as outdoor sports, but still had more aerobic value than, say, chess. Presumably, to avoid injuries, he slowed the game down by making players bounce the ball before they took a shot. We suspect that rules against fouling were an afterthought, to make sure players did not grab an opponent as they shot.
We wonder if the man would recognize basketball today? While he would probably be satisfied that his little winter diversion has turned into March Madness, keeping bookies in shoes, we think it would blow his whistle to see the perversions that have altered the game over the years – many of them in the last few decades. A few changes he would likely applaud, such as the 3-point shot that rewards long distance accuracy, and the rule against giants camping out under the basket. He might actually find dunking exciting, because it is, and because it's something he probably thought was impossible living in a time when anybody more than six feet was considered tall.
And we are confident he would blow his whistle 10 times as often as the refs do today. It seems to get worse every year. Ball handlers routinely do what used to be illegal "palming" the ball, as they swing wildly from side to side, and "discontinue" as they hesitate in their dribble while navigating the court. But the thing that would probably pain him the most is players speeding up the floor, almost passing the ball to themselves and then forgetting the bounce altogether as they drive to the basket. Back in the '50s and '60s you were allowed one step after picking up your dribble. Today, it is routine to take at least two steps, and more often three and four – including a jump step – and knocking over anybody who happens to be in the way.
We used to call it traveling, but not once during the many NCAA tournament games have we seen it called on a player racing to the basket. There were a few calls against big guys posted up who moved their pivot foot, which hardly seems as serious an infraction as a guy taking multiple steps to build speed for a slam dunk. What would surely appall Naismith is the amount of contact permitted in his game, especially on the offense. For decades after its invention, offensive players had to go around defenders, not through them. This point is especially offensive, pun intended, because one of the Philly teams we root for lost a game after its best big man fouled out, simply because he did not get out of the way of a man blasting through him toward the basket. At one time, that call was an obvious charge. Today, unless the defensive man has been absolutely still for at least a week, the call usually favors the offense. That type of contact ought to be either charging or a no-call. It must be exactly the opposite of what Naismith conceived as fouling.
Even announcers recognize contact as the God-given right of offensive players. They note when a player driving to the basket fails to make sufficient contact to draw a foul. It has gotten so bad that we have seen defensive players in the tournament step aside, literally giving their man a free shot rather than risk a foul. We can almost hear the man who designed a “safe” winter game watching its current version,with the best player of our times wearing a protective face mask, and mumbling, “Madness. Madness.”