A Brief History of Williston Northampton Basketball

By Douglas Stark '90

This is adapted from an article that originally appeared in the January 1999 Williston Northampton Bulletin.  At that time Doug Stark was Librarian and Archivist at the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts. Today he is Museum Director at the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, RI.  He is the author of The SPHAS: The Life and Times of Basketball’s Greatest Jewish Team (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2011) and coauthor of Tennis and the Newport Casino (Charleston: Arcadia Publishing, 2011).

From The Willistonian, January 2, 1898.
From The Willistonian, January 2, 1898.

On a cold, wintery northeast night in 1898, a group of five Williston Seminary students “lined up for the first time . . . in a regular game, and defeated their opponents, the Y.M.C.A. of Northampton, by a score of 12-10.”  The Jan. 29, 1898 Willistonian reported that Williston’s first basketball game “excited much interest in the school.  The fellows turned out to a man, also several members of the faculty were present, as well as a representation of townspeople” to witness first hand this “new and intriguing game.”

In 1898, basketball was still in its infancy, having been created just seven years earlier at the School for Christian Workers (now Springfield College) in Springfield, MA.  In the winter of 1891, Dr. James Naismith, a recent graduate of McGill University, enrolled as a student-instructor in a school that trained YMCA general secretaries and physical education instructors.  Asked to create a game to occupy a class of “incorrigibles” between the football and baseball seasons, Naismith invented basketball.  After hanging two peach baskets at both ends of the gymnasium balcony and dividing the 18-man class into two nine-man teams, Naismith put the first ball, a soccer ball, into play.  Legend has it that only one basket was scored in that game.

Almost immediately, the game took off and spread quickly through the YMCAs.  Within a few years, the game was being played in 15 different countries and in colleges from the East to West Coasts.  Due to the rough play associated with the early game and the growing need for more court time, the YMCA banned basketball from its gyms in 1898.  Later that year, basketball was introduced at Williston Seminary, one of the first high schools in the country to embrace the game.

A rare photo of a game in progress in the Old Gym, ca. 1905.
A rare photo of a game in progress in the Old Gym, ca. 1905.

In 1898, football and baseball dominated Williston’s sports landscape.  In the fall of that year, however, a group of students wrote letters asking the faculty to add basketball to its list of winter sports.  After some consideration, the faculty “decided to organize several basket-ball teams and the following committee was appointed to make arrangements: [John] Frizzell ’98, [Jesse] Foster ’99, and [Thomas] MacBean ’00” (The Willistonian, Dec. 11, 1897).

Almost eighty years later, John H. Frizzell, class of 1898, wrote about his time as the team’s first coach and manager, and how basketball began at Williston:

“How they came to pick on me, I do not know, but one day in the fall of 1897, at the beginning of my senior year, they asked me to meet with them.  Williston was to have a basketball team, I was told, and I was to be coach and manager, and to that end, between them, they contributed ten dollars and their blessing; I had never seen a basketball or a game thereof.  We bought a ball, two baskets, and a dozen guides from Spaulding, and Mr. [Charles] Upson had the floor in the old gym properly marked off for a court.  I issued a call for candidates, and the dozen of us had ‘skull sessions.’  Finally we had a playing squad and a real team.  We played ten games, won our three home games, and closed the season with something over ten dollars in hand” (Williston Bulletin, Winter 1974, p.16).

A sadly deteriorated scrapbook photo of the first team.  Bill Crawford is front and center; we think John Frizzell is in the back row, second from left.
A sadly deteriorated scrapbook photo of the first team. Bill Crawford is front and center; we think John Frizzell is in the back row, second from left.

Prior to 1919, the school did not provide financial support to sports.  A guarantee was thus necessary to cover the expenses of the visiting team.  In order to collect these funds, an admission fee, usually 10 cents, was charged, and the students were asked to pledge money to make the games possible.  Financially, the first season was a success, as the team finished ahead with a balance of $10.80.

Basketball subscription ticket, 1905.
Basketball subscription ticket, 1905.

Although the inaugural season was successful financially, the performance on the court reflected the game’s crude beginnings.  Low scores and rough play, which resulted in excessive fouling, characterized the early games.  Rough play, in fact, was common in those days, mainly due to the smaller size of the basketball courts.  Surrounding the courts were chicken-wire fences that created a caged-in effect that kept the ball in play continuously.  (That’s why older gymnasium facilities are sometimes known as “cages.”)  Small sized or inexperienced teams, like Williston’s first squad, faced the likelihood of being worn down physically by stronger opponents.

Bill Crawford '01, the only one who'd ever played the game.
Bill Crawford ’01, the only one who’d ever played the game.

Despite these conditions, Williston enjoyed an impressive beginning.  After defeating the Northampton YMCA in its opening two games, Williston suffered its first defeat, 19-7, to the Holyoke High School team.  During the next several weeks reality set in, as Williston lost to Springfield High School 37-4, the Springfield Bicycle Club 26-4, Holyoke High School 38-7, and the Northampton YMCA 12-9.  After defeating Springfield High School 14-11, the team lost to the Chicopee Parish team.  The season ended with a loss to the Westfield YMCA.

Despite a fine effort and support from the student body, Williston’s first team was generally outclassed by more experienced clubs.  Lack of experience, practice and cooperation from the players themselves were Williston’s biggest problems, as only Bill Crawford, class of 1901, was familiar with the game, having played it several weeks prior to the start of the season at the Holyoke YMCA.  In addition, injury and illness forced the team to use less skilled players on several occasions.  Nevertheless, in a season-ending article in The Willistonian, coach and manager Frizzell spoke optimistically about the team’s future when he wrote:

“The season has, I think, firmly established the game in Williston, and I hope that we may have a good strong team next year and in the years following.  I am sure that with a little more practice a strong winning team can be put in the field” (The Willistonian, March 26, 1898).

Tony Lavelli '45.  As a Celtic, he played the accordion during halftime.
Tony Lavelli ’45. As a Celtic, he played the accordion during halftime.

After that initial season, basketball at Williston grew in popularity and participation.  During the next few years, Williston became a powerhouse.  The team was particularly strong from 1900 to 1904, with the 1902 squad defeating the Yale Freshmen 55-2.  In 1909 and 1910, Williston posted consecutive back-to-back undefeated seasons, and the 1909 team outscored its opponents 518 to 156 while going 9-0.  (Phenomenal center Joseph Lynch ’10 scored 152 of those points, nearly tying the combined total for all opposing players.)  In the next few decades, the basketball team stayed competitive, and in 1945, posted a 14-0 record behind captain Tony Lavelli ’45, who later played for the Boston Celtics and New York Knicks.

Two years after James Naismith’s invention of basketball in 1891, women began playing basketball at Smith College.  In 1893, Smith’s Director of Physical Education, Senda Berenson Abbott, visited Naismith and saw the possibilities that basketball had for women.  After adapting the rules for women’s play, basketball debuted at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, on March 21, 1893.

While there is no official record of when basketball began at the Northampton School for Girls, Frances Bryan Humphreys ’27 recalled playing in Scott Gymnasium.  It can be assumed, given the school’s close ties with Smith, that the game was played from 1924, when ‘Hamp School was founded.   In an interview with Archivist Rick Teller ’70, Mary Kimball Holland ’32, who was Secretary of the Athletic Association, noted that “basketball was the only sport we did with other schools.  We played Northfield — maybe there were others.”  Mrs. Holland recalled how the game was played with six players on a side in those days.

“We played in the days when the court was divided into three sections.  It was a passing game; none of the running you see today  I was a side center — I was short.  My roommate Blissie [Helen Bliss Allen ’32] was the center because she was taller.  We stayed in that center zone and never left our third of the court.  The center’s job was to feed the ball past the other team’s guards to our forwards, who would try to score.”

Colleen Hession '02: 2096 points.
Colleen Hession ’02: 2096 points.

After the 1971 merger between Northampton School for Girls and Williston Academy, the girls fielded a team and finished 4-1 in 1972.  In the past few decades, the girls’ teams have enjoyed tremendous success, including a New England championship in 1986 (18-3), and seasons of 18-6, 20-4, and 20-5, respectively in 1997, 1998, and 2004.  In 2002, Colleen Hession ’02 became the first and only Williston player to score 2000 points — specifically 2096 — in her school career.  Seven — five girls and two boys — have broken the 1000 point barrier.  Mark Timm ’78 was the first to achieve this milestone.  (Timm’s numbers take on additional perspective when one considers that the three-point shot was not introduced to the high school game until 1987.)  And in the most successful campaign in recent memory, the 2014-15 boys’ squad finished 18-3 and won the New England Class A championship, beating Suffield 51-48 to avenge an early season loss.

Since basketball’s early years, the game has exploded, becoming one of the fastest growing and most closely followed sports in the world.  Each year, the NBA Finals and the NCAA Final Four are viewed by hundreds of millions of fans throughout the world.  Players from all over the world travel to the United States to participate collegiately and professionally.  It is a game that Williston’s first team would not recognize.  Today, the scores are higher, the players are faster and stronger, and women’s professional basketball attracts a significant audience.  Even though the game has changed considerably — the elimination of the jump ball toss after each basket, dribbling with one hand, and the advent of the 24 second clock, to name a few — the essence of the game is still very similar to that first night in 1898 when five Williston boys played basketball for the first time, establishing a tradition that continues today.

Outdoor basketball at Northampton School for Girls, ca. 1945.
Outdoor basketball at Northampton School for Girls, ca. 1945.

One thought on “A Brief History of Williston Northampton Basketball”

  1. Thanks Rick!
    If you are ever interested in looking back to Williston ‘ s history of theatre …I’d love to help.

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