History of Women's Basketball

© Athletes Unlimited, LLC 2022 / Credit: Jade Hewitt Media

Women’s basketball was not late to the game – in fact, women started playing basketball less than a year after it was invented by James Naismith in 1891.

Early Years

Granted, women’s basketball was played with many different rules and conditions, like adapted regulations, to make it easier and more acceptable for society at the time.

Sarah Berenson is known as the founding mother of women’s basketball and introduced the game at Smith University to her physical education students. It spread across the country and just eight months after James Naismith put on the first public basketball game ever in a Massachusetts YMCA, the University of California-Berkeley women’s team played a game on the Berkeley campus against a prep school called Miss Head’s School.

Each year more colleges welcomed women’s basketball and in 1896 the first women’s intercollegiate game took place between Stanford University and Cal-Berkeley.

Turn of the century

It wasn’t until the 1900s that support for women’s basketball teams rose with the introduction of industrial leagues – teams sponsored by companies for their workers in the 1920s. The USA women’s basketball team won gold in the first international basketball game in 1953.

Women’s basketball played with modified rules until 1971, when it transitioned to the five-player, full-court game with a thirty-second shot clock. Just a few years later in 1976, professional women’s basketball became an Olympic Sport.

The first-ever professional league was the Women’s Basketball League (WBL), founded by Bill Byrne with eight teams. It lasted three seasons with teams in 13 different states.

This was a recurring trend for women’s pro basketball as leagues popped up but quickly died out. The Ladies Professional Basketball Association was founded with six teams in 1980 but played for less than a month before folding; the Women’s American Basketball Association (WABA) formed with six teams in 1984 but folded after; the National Women’s Basketball Association (NWBA), founded in 1986, folded in the same season.

Women’s pro basketball had its first summer league through the Women’s Basketball Association (WBA), that lasted from 1993 to 1995.

Longterm success for professionals

It wasn’t until the WNBA, established in 1996, that women’s professional basketball experienced longevity as a league. Athletes Unlimited color commentator Sheryl Swoopes was the first player signed by the WNBA to the Houston Comets.

Swoopes is the only player in WNBA history to be a three-time regular-season MVP and three-time Defensive Player of the Year. Swoopes, who won four titles with the Comets, was a two-time scoring leader, seven-time All-WNBA pick, and six-time All-Star.

The W celebrated its 26th season in 2022.

Welcoming Athletes Unlimited

Athletes Unlimited launched its inaugural Basketball season in January 2022.

The five-week season made its debut in Las Vegas, Nev. with 30 games broadcasted live nationally.

The 44-player roster featured current and former WNBA players, as well as additional talent from the wider pool of U.S. and international players. Washington Mystics standout Natasha Cloud and WNBA veterans Sydney Colson and Ty Young were the first players to sign with the league.

Athletes Unlimited Basketball is set to play its second season at Fair Park Coliseum in Dallas, Texas from February 22 to March 26, 2023.

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