It Proved a Very Fascinating Pastime: The Beginnings of Basketball in Harvey County

Previously posted Friday, March 7, 2014, edited March 28, 2024
by Kristine Schmucker, HCHM Curator

When we first published this article ten years ago, the WSU men’s basketball was enjoying an amazing season with a record of 31-0.  At that time, I thought it would be interesting to explore the contributions to the game of basketball made by Harvey County people.  It is March Madness again, so I thought it might be fun to take another look at Newton’s role in the game of basketball.

We’re getting a hell of a lot of exercise sitting around and playing cards.”

With this complaint, made at a card game in Newton, the new game of basketball came to Harvey County in 1900.  Among the group of men that regularly met to play cards was a businessman by the name of William C. Kosa.  He agreed to teach his friends a new game that he had learned at a Chicago YMCA to help them get more exercise – basketball.

William C. “Uncle Will” Kosa
Basketball Pioneer

Kosa had learned the new game played on the outdoor playground of the Hull House in Chicago.  He even had a copy of the rules. Along with another local businessman, R.A. Goerz, he organized a team known as the “Newton Ajax” in 1900 to play basketball.

Ajax Basketball Team, 1900
William C. Kosa, top row
HCHM Photo Archives

Same image also in the William C. Kosa Collection,
University of Illinois at Chicago Library, Special Collections.

Basketball was a brand-new sport in 1900.  Ten years earlier, Dr. James Naismth, while working at a YMCA in  Springfield, Ma, developed a game that could be played indoors during the winter months when it was difficult to exercise outside.  The game involved 13 rules, a ball, and peach baskets hung at a height of ten feet.  Two years later, he published the rules of his new game “Basketball”.

“Newton the birth place of basketball.

In 1898, William C. Kosa moved to Newton, Ks from Chicago and with him, the first official basketball rule book.  While in Newton, Kosa organized the first competitive basketball teams in Kansas – the Newton Ajax.  Kosa served as player, manager, and organizer of the new sport.

Unfortunately, since they were the first team to organize in Kansas, they were also the only team.  Very few people in the state Kansas knew about basketball.  To solve this problem, a second team was created from members of Co. D, Kansas Militia and was known as the “Newton Eagles.”

Newton Eagles Basketball Team, 1902
Top Row: Howard Randall, Guy Sawyer, Chris Hayman
First Row: John Lander, William C. Kosa** (coach/manager), Archie Caveny
HCHM Photo Archives

The first game was played on 6 February 1900 on “an improvised court with an improvised ball.” 
The Newton Kansan reported;

“Basketball was introduced in Newton last night.  A game took place between members of Co. D and one from ‘civilians’.  It proved a very fascinating pastime and those who took part are quite enthusiastic over the sport.(Newton Kansan 7 February 1900)

Throughout the spring of 1900, the two teams regularly faced each other.  Games were held on Wednesday nights at the Kansas Armory. Admission to the game was twenty-five cents; children free. One game attracted 500 spectators.  Although the “fast” Ajax team usually came out on top, “it was never a foregone conclusion, for the army team often turned the tables with characteristic Newton fight.” 

First Out of Town Opponent: Kansas University

Gradually more teams formed in Kansas.  On December 22, 1900, the Newton Ajax went against their first out of town opponent, the Kansas University, coached by the inventor of the game, Dr. James Naismith. The game was “hard fought, characterized by rough play and wrangling with the referee over decisions” but the Newton Ajax were able to win the game with a score of 2-0.

Later, Coach Kosa described the strategy he used:

“We used to get a two point lead and hold the ball the rest of the game to keep our opponents from scoring.”

Kosa’s Newton team “demonstrated team-playing and expert ball-handling a full stride ahead of Naismith.” (Newton Kansan Weekly 28 December 1900) Kosa is credited with improving ball handling techniques and an emphasis on team work to create a successful competitive team.

Playing Condidtions

Playing basketball, ca 1915 Rural south central Kansas Matthew Voth Collection of Cornelius and Minnie Schmidt Photos Used with permission.

The playing conditions were also often quite rough.  Unlike today’s polished hardwood, the condition of the court could vary widely. Games could be played outside on a somewhat level area. If playing inside, floors might be rough and warped.  The baskets may or may not have a backboard.  A game against El Dorado was played in an abandoned, unheated ice house.

As time went on the two Newton teams worked together. The Newton Ajax team met the visiting teams on the Newton home court. The Newton Eagles team consisted of men who could easily participate in road trip games.

Newton Eagles Basketball Team
Company D Kansas National Guard, 1904
Rudolph A. Goerz, Howes, William C. Kosa **, (coach/manager)
Guy Sawyer, George Hetzel
(On Floor) M.W. Mandull and Howes
HCHM Photo Archives
In 1905, the Newton Athletic Club was established, combining the two into one Newton team.  They successfully played against nationally known teams. During the 1905-06 season Newton was undefeated until they played Baker University.  Newton was able to secure three independent state titles 1905-1910.
Gradually the focus of basketball in Harvey County changed to college and high school teams. Newton High School’s first basketball team was established in 1906.

“Greatest Pioneers of Basketball

William C. Kosa remained in Newton, Kansas until 1940 when he and his wife, Lucia, moved to California.  Kosa continued to have an interest in Newton and was a founding member of the “Newton Old Timers Club” established in 1967 to celebrate Newton athletes of the past.  William Kosa returned to Newton in 1970 to help celebrate “Newton the birth place of basketball.

On January 1, 1977, at the age of 100, William C. Kosa, one of the greatest Pioneers of Basketball died in California.

Thank you to the University of Illinois at Chicago Library, Special Collections staff who provided information from the William C. Kosa Collection for this post.


**In some photos this individual is identified as John Hetzel.  In the William C. Kosa Collection, University of Illinois at Chicago Library, Special Collections,  he is identified as William C. Kosa.
  • Newton Kansan 7 February 1900.
  • Newton Kansan Weekly 28 December 1900
  • Millham, Charles.  “Newton is Basketball Capital of the Universe” Wichita Beacon, March 23, 1930, Section 5.  Reprinted in  Buller, Curtis.  Can’t You Hear the Whistle Blowing? A History of Newton Basketball the Years 1900 thr 1958 & 1979. Hesston, Ks: Hesston Prestige Printing, 1997.
  • Buller, Curtis.  Can’t You Hear the Whistle Blowing? A History of Newton Basketball the Years 1900 thru 1958 & 1979. Hesston, Ks: Hesston Prestige Printing, 1997.
  • William C. Kosa Collection, University of Illinois at Chicago Library, Special Collections.
    • Newton Kansan: 12 August 1976, 3 January 1977
    • Wichita Eagle 5 January 1977