When Americans think of sports, some of the first things that come to mind are the NBA, the NFL, along with half-time shows, marching bands and cheerleaders, as well as tailgate parties and, of course, beer and buffalo wings.

Many don't think of the ancient origins of the "ball game," or the first organized game in the history of sports, which dates back to 3,500 years ago in Mesoamerica (the subtropical region in Central America that includes Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador).

On a recent visit to the beautiful countries of Belize and Guatemala, I learned that the Mayans were serious about their "ball game," so much so that it was a life-or-death competition as well as a "complex ritual based on religious beliefs."

While Belize is home to some amazing Mayan archaeological sites, such as Corozal, Altun Ha and Lamanai) and my favorite, Actun Tunichil Muknal (Cave of the Crystal Sepulchre or ATM), my Mayan experience wasn't yet complete. So I decided to venture across the border into Guatemala, home of Tikal National Park, which is "considered the largest excavated site in the American continent" and "Guatemala's most famous cultural and natural preserve." In addition, five "ball courts" were also discovered there.

On entering Tikal National Park, I was welcomed by a giant ceiba (or kapok tree), Guatemala's national tree that was sacred to the Maya. Also referred to as the "Tree of Life," for its roots point to the four cardinal points, the ceiba tree was followed by three trails that lead into the dense rain forest filled with black howler monkeys, spider monkeys, white-nosed coati, colorful peacocks and toucans.

Once you climb to the top of the Mayan temples (a great ancient Mayan workout I must say) you get a spectacular birds-eye view above the canopy of the rain forest.  As you walk further into the jungle, you can see open plazas and several-story buildings where priests and kings once lived. 

"This majestic archaeological gem comprises 222 square miles of jungle all around the ceremonial center.  It took the University of Pennsylvania 13 years to uncover about 10 square miles of structures at Tikal. However, much of it is still left to be unearthed," according to Tikal National Park's official website.

Besides its natural beauty, Tikal National Park encompasses an intense history of the original "ball game," reported to be the first organized, team sport.

During a Mayan "ball game" ball players competed for their lives -- where the "winner takes all" literally meant just that. The winners would be praised and celebrated with a feast, but most importantly they would be granted their lives. The losers or the team leaders on the other hand, often became human sacrifices to the gods and moved on to the Underworld.

"To Ancient Mesoamericans, life was an everyday struggle between good and evil. They believed that the only way to keep the sun shining, crops growing and people healthy was to sacrifice a valuable human being -- a ballplayer," according to the historical website, ballgame.org

"Human sacrifice didn't happen at every ballgame. Yet this event was important enough to be recorded by several cultures in detailed paintings and stone carvings known as reliefs."

The Mayan "Dream Team" was vastly different than today's. The ball players wore headdresses, jade necklaces, protective gear and face paint. They also used a heavy, bouncy rubber ball made from the rubber tree that often weighed up to eight pounds. Some balls were hollow and had a human skull in its core. Now that some serious b-ball!

The ball game was reportedly played on a stone "court" whose measurements varied. It had walls that sloped inward and stone rings that hung high on the walls.

The goal of the game was to pass the ball around, without having it touch your hands, and then get the ball to pass through one of the rings. Without the use of your hands, it was extremely challenging to get the ball through the ring. Once a ball player "scored," or if the ball touched the ground, the game would usually be over.

"The Mayan Ball Game was a solemn experience, filled with ritual importance. Religious leaders attended, as did most chieftains and other government leaders. Sacred songs were sung and played. Other religious activities took place as well," according to ballgame.org

While ball games are no longer a religious ritual, sports can seem like a religion to many -- especially in the U.S.

Last year, I learned more about Americans love affair with basketball when I visited the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts, where a basketball game was first played on Dec. 21, 1891. 

James Naismith, a physical education instructor, introduced the "new" game to his class of 18 young men at the YMCA International Training School in Springfield, which isn't too far away from my alma mater, the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

While it's reported that the pace of the game was slow at first, the new pastime spread quickly, and "in 1894, basketball was already being played in France, China, India and more than a dozen other nations." 

At the time, I didn't realize that "ball games," or organized sports for that matter, had such an interesting and varied past with Mayans leaving their footprints on the game by crafting their own version.

From Guatemala and Belize to Springfield, Massachusetts, and beyond, it was interesting to see how the art of the "ball game" and basketball has proven to be a slam dunk throughout the ages.