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Celebrating the Life of Dr. James Naismith: Creator of the Game of Basketball!

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There are many details that make up the life of every human being ever to walk the face of the earth…details that make up who a certain person is, defining their being and what type of legacy gets left behind.  Some people choose to live quiet lives and their contributions to society stay at a small and personal level. Others leave their mark in this world in much bolder ways by logging into the history books of time.  When we think of “everything” in the world we realize that at one time this certain “something” didn’t exist. Somebody had to have a hand in this certain something’s invention…somewhere credit is due for every known thing in our universe.  As we sit here in 2016 we are very used to the existence of the major sports and they feel as though they have always sort of “been there”.  Well, even sports had to come from somewhere, right? Take the glorious game of basketball for example. Obviously there was a time when the game was “not here”…it simply didn’t exist yet. So let us look at the origins and the amazing man who was responsible for bringing basketball to the world and the “details” of the life he lived.


Dr. James Naismith (born on November 6, 1861 – November 28, 1939) was a Canadian-American physical educator, physician, chaplain, sports coach and innovator. He was the sole inventor of the sport of basketball in 1891. He published the original basketball rulebook, which basically consisted of 13 major rules, and founded the University of Kansas basketball program. Naismith’s main mission in life was to see basketball adopted as an Olympic sport in 1904.

Canadian born Naismith studied physical education at McGill University in Montreal before moving to the US.  Despite being described as small in stature, he stood 5 foot 10 ½ and weighed at 168 pounds, and was a talented athlete.  He represented McGill in Canadian football, lacrosse, rugby, soccer and gymnastics. He was the center-man on his football team, and was innovative even then for he made some padding to protect his ears, something that was unheard of at this point in time. He won several Wicksteed medals for outstanding gymnastics skills and performances. James earned a BA in Physical Education in 1888 and a Diploma at the Presbyterian College in Montreal in 1890.  From 1891 on, Naismith taught physical education and became the first McGill director of athletics, but then left Montreal to become a physical education teacher at the YMCA International Training School in Springfield, Massachusetts. While teaching at the International YMCA Training School in Springfield, Massachusetts, he made the discovery of this thing we call “basketball”.  Shortly after he received his MD in Denver (1898), he moved to the University of Kansas and became the Kansas Jayhawks' athletic director.


Once he dug his heels into the Springfield YMCA, Naismith found himself struggling with a restless and rowdy class that was growing more and more unruly due to the “cabin fever” effect.  The harsh New England winters were responsible for keeping this group of wound up athletes indoors and clearly this was becoming a problem.  Dr. Luther Gulick, head of Springfield YMCA Physical Education, sent strict orders to Naismith and was given 14 days to create an indoor game that would provide an "athletic distraction"…Gulick demanded that it would not take up much room, could help its track athletes to keep in shape during the winter months and explicitly emphasized to "make it fair for all players and not too rough."

Naismith quickly went to work for he was under the gun to come up with this new conceptual diagram to bestow upon his rowdy group of athletes.  When he was trying to think of new and exciting avenues he closely analyzed the popular sports of that time, namely Lacrosse, soccer, football, rugby, hockey and baseball. One of the guidelines that he had to adhere to was making this new game less physical to keep injuries to a minimum. When he analyzed the earlier stated “popular” sports he noticed that most physical contact came when a player would be running with the ball on their person.  His remedy to this was forcing the players to pass the ball when the pressure was on.  A lot of injuries also occurred when “guarding” the goal so his idea of putting the peach basket 10ft in the air was brilliant. Now the players would have to throw the ball up in the air to make a “basket” and nobody protecting the goal which eliminated getting smashed in the head with a fast moving projectile! He was surely on to something here! He then kept the game fairly basic which consisted of thirteen basic rules and dubbed this new game “basketball”…Because you throw a ball into a fruit basket. Ahhhhh poetry!

The actual first game of "Basket Ball" was played in December 1891. In a written report, Naismith described the circumstances of the inaugural match… a few of the differences between Naismith’s game and modern basketball:  the players played nine vs nine, used a soccer ball (not a “basketball”), and threw the ball into fruit baskets (peach baskets) as opposed to the metal rims and nets that we see today:  Naismith explains: "When Mr. Stubbins brought up the peach baskets to the gym I secured them on the inside of the railing of the gallery. This was about 10 feet from the floor, one at each end of the gymnasium. I then put the 13 rules on the bulletin board just behind the instructor's platform, secured a soccer ball and awaited the arrival of the class... The class did not show much enthusiasm but followed my lead... I then explained what they had to do to make goals, tossed the ball up between the two center men & tried to keep them somewhat near the rules. Most of the fouls were called for running with the ball; though tackling the man with the ball was not uncommon."


In contrast to modern basketball, the original rules did not include “dribbling”.  The ball could only be moved up the court via a pass so players tossed the ball over their heads as they made their way up court toward the basket. Also following each scored "basket" a jump ball was executed at center court. These are two grand examples of changes to the original game!


In a radio interview in January 1939, Naismith gave more details of the first game and the initial rules that were used:

“I showed them two peach baskets I’d nailed up at each end of the gym, and I told them the idea was to throw the ball into the opposing team’s peach basket. I blew a whistle, and the first game of basketball began. … The boys began tackling, kicking and punching in the clinches. They ended up in a free-for-all in the middle of the gym floor. The injury toll: several black eyes, one separated shoulder and one player knocked unconscious.  It certainly was murder.”  Naismith changed some of the rules as part of the mission of creating a less injurious activity. The most important one was that there should be no running with the ball. That stopped tackling and overall physical contact. “We tried out the game with those [new] rules (fouls), and we didn’t have one casualty.” Mission complete.

By 1892, basketball had grown so popular on campus that Dennis Horkenbach (editor-in-chief of The Triangle, the Springfield college newspaper) featured it in an article called "A New Game", and there were calls to call this new game "Naismith Ball", but Naismith refused.  By 1893, basketball was introduced internationally by the YMCA movement. From Springfield, Naismith went to Denver where he acquired a medical degree and in 1898 he joined the University of Kansas faculty at Lawrence, Kansas after coaching at Baker University.

The Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts, is named in his honor, and he was the inaugural inductee in 1959. The National Collegiate Athletic Association rewards its best players and coaches annually with the” Naismith Awards”, among them the Naismith College Player of the Year, the Naismith College Coach of the Year and the Naismith Prep Player of the Year.  Naismith was also inducted into the Canadian Basketball Hall of Fame, the Canadian Olympic Hall of Fame, the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame, the Ontario Sports Hall of Fame, the Ottawa Sports Hall of Fame, the McGill University Sports Hall of Fame, the Kansas State Sports Hall of Fame, and FIBA Hall of Fame.  The FIBA Basketball World Cup trophy is named the "James Naismith Trophy" in his honor. On June 21, 2013, Dr. Naismith was inducted into the Kansas Hall of Fame during ceremonies in Topeka. Not a bad list, eh??


Naismith suffered a major brain hemorrhage on November 19, 1939 and died nine days later in his home located in Lawrence, Kansas.  He was 78 years old and was buried with his first wife in Memorial Park Cemetery in Lawrence, KS. He lived quite the story, was quite the innovator and will forever be celebrated by basketball players, fans and by people in general for his amazing contributions to society as a whole. His details are written in stone…his legacy shall never perish.

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