William Chase: The Man Who Made Basketball’s First-Ever Basket
He had worked in a music store and as a clerk at an insurance company and hadn’t “been away from the office on account of sickness for 3½ years.” Asked if he played the piano or organ, he wrote “Neither” and replied “I think not” to the question of whether he could lead in singing. Single and three weeks away from his 24th birthday, he believed the object of the Young Men’s Christian Association was to “save young men from the path of destruction by providing a pleasant place in which to spend their leisure time and also by bringing them under good influences.”
On his application form dated June 2, 1891, William Richmond Chase, a native of New Bedford, Massachusetts, revealed all this and more with his cursive handwriting as he presented his case for acceptance to the International YMCA Training School, known today as Springfield College and known forever because of its association with the inventor of basketball, James Naismith. While Naismith gave the world the game that thrives 129 years later, young William Chase delivered its first highlight. On December 21, 1891, Naismith organized the first basketball game for his students at the school, where Chase had indeed earned a spot earlier that year, even with his admitted inability to handle a keyboard or carry a tune. The men split into two teams with nine players per side. They played with a soccer ball, since no one constructed an actual basketball until Spalding in 1894. The game didn’t even have a name and for several years after its inception was often known as “basket ball.”
That historic first contest turned into a defensive struggle, an offensive nightmare, something the Knicks-Heat of the 1990s could only fantasize about, with a final score of 1–0. The lone basket? A long-distance shot from Chase late in the game. The first game, the first basket, the first scorer. Chase’s achievement proved unprecedented in sports history. No one knows who belted the first home run, who scored the first touchdown or who kicked in the first goal. Who made the first-ever hole-in-one or crossed the finish line ahead of everyone else in the first 100-meter sprint? Impossible to know. Yet every shot in basketball history traces back to Chase.
That means every time Damian Lillard dribbles just past half-court and casually drains another absurd 35-foot jump shot, the Portland star pays unknowing tribute to Chase. As does James Harden when he knocks in a patented stepback 3-pointer. As does LeBron James when he throws down another vicious dunk and Kawhi Leonard when he drills a killer midrange jumper at the end of the shot clock. Every kid on the playground who banks in the winning shot over his buddy in a game of one-on-one also owes a debt to Chase, just like every farm kid shooting alone on a grass court and every 50-year-old dad using a sky-hook to beat his son and daughter in a heated game of H-O-R-S-E in the family driveway. Go back further in time and to any spot in the world. Every player who’s picked up a ball since the game’s birth has followed in the footsteps of William Chase, basketball’s earliest sharpshooter, the first man with a hot hand, the first player to be “in the zone,” the first person to know the thrill of watching a ball drop gently into a hoop (if not gently through the net in his case), the first player to get mad at a teammate for not feeding him the rock when he’s feeling it, the first offensive star to tell a defender he didn’t have a chance in hell of stopping him, the first to make a game-winning shot, the first clutch baller. Maybe he skipped a few of those— in 1891 it was surely considered un-Christian-like and setting one on a path to a fiery destruction to trash-talk opponents after lighting them up — but that basket showed the game’s earliest players and its inventor the fun that came with gettin’ buckets.
Yet his achievement has basically been lost to history, nearly instantly forgotten even as the sport that came alive that day has lasted forever. Papers started writing about Naismith’s invention by 1892 as it spread beyond Springfield but Chase’s role didn’t earn any press in those days. When Chase died on August 30, 1951, at his daughter’s home in Rhode Island, at the age of 84, he merited an incomplete obituary in The New York Times. The five-paragraph story noted his involvement in the “first game of basketball at Springfield College” and added he “appeared to be in excellent health until shortly before his death.” But it gave no mention of his starring role as the only player to actually score. The Associated Press obituary didn’t include that fact either. He received a fine farewell in the papers, but not his due.
Of course, basketball history has never been as revered as those of other sports, even though the entire game can be traced back to one day and one game. Baseball fans recite stats of stars of the 1920s as easily as they rattle off a childhood phone number. Football worships early heroes like Rockne, Thorpe and Grange and NFL Films provided images that memorialized legends and myths. Boxing has Jack Dempsey and Joe Louis punching their way to relevance even in the present. But standouts from the first six decades of basketball barely register today. For many fans, the game began with Wilt and Russell, perhaps with George Mikan. Another generation dates the game to Magic and Larry and many can’t remember a time before Jordan or LeBron. Danger always exists in romanticizing the past, of pining for good old days that actually weren’t that great, of ridiculing the present to build up what’s come before. The opposite happens as well, with fans dismissing games and players of yesterday in a misguided attempt to play up the greatness of today. But appreciating the game’s beginnings actually allows us to marvel at everything that grew after. It helps us understand how the game was built.
That brings William Chase and his timely shot from December 1891 back into the black-and-white picture. Conditions weren’t ripe for an offensive explosion that day. Competitors, most of them on the shorter side, like the 5-foot-7 Chase, who weighed about 165 pounds in his playing days, wore trousers and jerseys, hardly conducive to freedom of movement. Another player in that first game named Ernest Hildner remembered in 1961, “The first time we played, it was a brutal slugging match trying to shove the ball into the basket.” Chase himself noted in 1947 that “as soon as the game was explained to us, we practiced shooting baskets.” It’s easy to picture a bunch of chuckers milling about, firing soccer balls at a peach basket, all of them quickly realizing the fun that comes from shooting hoops. The practice paid off for one of them at least.
Since no one bothered filming the 1891 battle, details of the actual seminal field goal prove difficult to come by. A 1971 filler story in New York’s Poughkeepsie Journal reported “the first point in basketball history was scored by William R. Chase in December, 1891, from mid-court to win the game for his team by a score of 1–0, according to Encylopædia Brittanica.” Various newspapers interviewed Chase in the 1930s and ’40s about his role in the first game and he eventually revealed information about the shot. On January 17, 1947, the New York Daily News ran a syndicated piece from the U.P. that discussed Chase’s past. “Goals were rare in those days,” Chase said, surely the greatest understatement of the 20th century about an event from the 19th century. “It was nothing compared to the 60 or more points rung up by teams today. In fact, the first game ended with a score of 1–0.”
Chase then described his basket that launched every bucket that followed. Seventy-nine years old at the time of the interview, he talked about the shot as if he’d sunk it a day earlier. “I remember it distinctly,” he said. “I scored the point from my position at left center. I aimed the ball for the basket but it hit a couple of players and bounced back again. I tried again and this time my shot was perfect.”
The reporter didn’t appreciate he’d stumbled upon one hell of a scoop — perhaps the only published quote about the first basket ever made, from the man himself — but all these decades after Chase said those words about that one shot, they should still delight anyone who loves the game.
“I remember it distinctly. I scored the point from my position at left center. I aimed the ball for the basket but it hit a couple of players and bounced back again. I tried again and this time my shot was perfect.”
An eye for the details. Pride and perhaps a hint of deserved cockiness about his “perfect shot.” As much as the game would change, the joy that comes from the simple act of making a basket remains timeless and universal. It reads like a quote Stephen Curry gives today to a gaggle of reporters about knocking down a three-pointer after a miss and an offensive rebound gets kicked back to him. Over the decades various stories and books listed the shot coming from 25 feet, perhaps an estimate from that “mid-court” assessment provided by Britannica, but I never saw any interviews Chase gave that provided distances. Chase almost certainly never left his feet and probably gave it the old two-handed chuck from his chest, since the jump shot took about another 45 years to make an appearance in basketball.
The sport that started that day in 1891 endured and Chase maintained a lifelong passion for the game. He played for the Secretarial team at the school in 1892, a club that earned a school championship at the International YMCA Training School, and he was on the “Original Team” of 18 players who earned induction into the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame in 1959. (Thanks to research available in Springfield’s College Archives and Special Collection, with help from the school’s Social Science Department’s Public History and Museum Minor and a dogged graduate named Sam Fox, much more is still being learned about the game’s first participants, including Chase and others who went on to play critical roles in the game’s growth. These pioneers have all been dead for more than 50 years, but their old school keeps their memories very much alive.)
In the final decades of his life, newspaper reporters found their way to Chase when they wrote about basketball’s origins and he maintained a respected role as a hoops dignitary, brought to arenas around the East Coast when the sport paid tribute to its past. Madison Square Garden hosted a 10-minute-long re-creation in 1937 of the first game, using players drawn from the Brooklyn YMCA. They played under the original rules and with peach baskets and, like its ancient predecessor, produced a 1–0 outcome. Chase attended the game with a few other players from the original contest, and the game’s first pure shooter proved he still had the touch — the AP reported that Chase “outscored Jules Bender, Long Island University ace, 2–1 in a free throw shoot-contest.” Seven years later he tossed the ceremonial jump ball at the first college basketball doubleheader in Boston Garden. Also in 1944, a story in The Fitchburg Sentinel reported “while he gave up active playing 37 years ago, Mr. Chase attends basketball games with surprising frequency and he is easily detected because of his rabid interest in the proceedings.” Chase spoke with Boston Globe reporter Jerry Nason that same year, nonchalantly dropping a nuke on the entire history of the game, saying, “I never saw any peach baskets. We threw the ball into a wire basket.” (Before rewriting basketball’s entire story, let it be noted that in 1947, in the same story where Chase described his made basket, the reporter wrote, “According to Chase, Naismith had the janitor rig up two peach baskets and gathered the students together to explain the game…” So the peach basket lives! Perhaps.) Fifty-three years before speaking to the Globe’s Nason, when the young Chase sent in his application to the International YMCA Training School, basketball didn’t even exist but it would maintain a crucial role for the rest of his days. At 77, he told Nason, “I attribute my present physical condition to the basketball I played as a young man.”
As an old man Chase maintained a close relationship with Springfield College, evident in the letters housed in the school’s archives. He wrote to the alumni secretary in 1941, noting he’d recently attended a “benefit basket ball affair” with 1,400 people. Introduced to the audience as “one of the poor unfortunates” of the debut game, the crowd gave him a nice ovation. “Such is fame,” he wrote.
Throughout his life he worked in insurance and real estate, including operating William R. Chase Insurance in New Bedford, before moving on to other outfits. While no one from the basketball world can speak with first-hand knowledge about Chase today, it’s a different story in the insurance business. In 2019, I chatted with Raymond A. Covill, whose father, Raymond F. Covill, started Humphrey and Covill with his agency partner Ernest Humphrey in New Bedford in 1926. Raymond A., born in 1931, did some office work at his dad’s business as a teenager and remembered Chase’s involvement with the company in the 1940s. Covill said Chase was an insurance broker with the company and “you would place the insurance with our agency and we split the commission. … He wrote mostly fire policies on houses and furniture and some autos.” Covill recalled Chase as “a little guy…. Thinning hair on top, white hair, and he had a big white mustache and he wore bifocals. But he was a very, very pleasant guy, especially to me. Very, very polite, nice, soft-spoken guy.” Chase didn’t brag to his office mates about his starring role in basketball’s debut — imagine the humble nature it takes to not wander to the water cooler and discuss how you nailed the first basket in hoops history, or to refrain from using that tidbit to reel in a prospective client who’s a big basketball fan — but he did mention playing back in Springfield. “I think he was proud of it,” Covill said, “but he didn’t talk much about the basketball.”
Just like very few ever talked much about his singular moment. But for more than a century, with every jumper, every swish, every layup, every bank shot and, perhaps especially, every 25-footer, basketball has honored William Chase, the game’s original marksman.