Opinion | Illinois basketball’s rich history deserves better appreciation

Players from the 1906 womens basketball team pose for a group photo. Senior columnist Noah Nelson believes that the history of Illinois basketball should be more valued and recognized.

Photo courtesy of University of Illinois Archives

Players from the 1906 women’s basketball team pose for a group photo. Senior columnist Noah Nelson believes that the history of Illinois basketball should be more valued and recognized.

By Noah Nelson, Senior Columnist

It’s been argued over the years whether or not the University is considered a football or basketball school. I even wrote a column questioning that very matter last year.

Say what you want about the topic, but both programs dominate the spectrum of varsity sports at Illinois. They each have a rich history worth knowing and appreciating. But basketball at the University began with women, and while this isn’t widely known among fellow Illini, it should be.

In 1891, gym teacher James Naismith needed to find a sport to occupy his students during the winter months at Springfield College in Massachusetts. He decided that two teams would score each other by throwing a ball into a basket mounted on the wall with an open bottom. Today, this sport is known as basketball.

Flash forward a few years, and basketball quickly spread like wildfire to various high schools and colleges across the country. At the time, the University had football, baseball, wrestling, golf and track teams for men. The women wanted to play a sport, too, and decided to try out this new game of basketball.

According to the University of Illinois Archives, The Illio and Winton Solberg’s 2000 book titled “The University of Illinois 1894-1904: The Shaping of the University,” women introduced the sport to the school in 1896 and played their first game at the Kenney Gym on Nov. 20 of that year. They defeated Illinois Wesleyan 28-14 in an unknown timed game.

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Men’s basketball did not appear until 1906, yet the women’s teams kept playing until then. Both teams continued to play at Kenney Gym, which is still located on Springfield Ave. today, before eventually moving to George Huff Hall and their current location at the State Farm Center.

Nowadays, basketball, especially the men’s, is part of the ongoing culture here at the University. Fans can’t wait to sport their orange and blue to cheer on the Illini each season. It’s one of the reasons many students attend the University. It was one of mine. 

But basketball at Illinois goes much farther back than the days of Dee Brown, Deron William, Lou Henson and the Flyin’ Illini. Who would’ve thought that such a male-dominated sport was introduced to the school by women?

At the time of the first game played on campus, students and faculty didn’t know what to think. But they soon realized that women can shine at sports too, even in this newfound game called basketball.

Whether or not you’re a fan of the game, you must appreciate this rich history of basketball at Illinois. It’s just another reason why we should be grateful for the University and its varsity sports.


Noah is a senior in Media.

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