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James Naismith

Dr. James Naismith grew up on a farm just outside Almonte. Here’s an excerpt from the Wikipedia article about him.

James Naismith

James Naismith (November 6, 1861 – November 28, 1939) was a Canadian sports coach and innovator. He invented the sport of basketball in 1891 and is often credited with introducing the first football helmet. He wrote the original basketball rulebook, founded the University of Kansas basketball program, and lived to see basketball adopted as an Olympic demonstration sport in 1904 and as an official event at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, as well as the birth of both the National Invitation Tournament (1938) and the NCAA Men’s Division I Basketball Championship (1939).

Born in Canada, Naismith studied physical education in Montreal before moving to the United States, where he developed basketball in late 1891 while teaching at the International YMCA Training School in Springfield, Massachusetts. Naismith also studied medicine in Denver, taking his MD in 1898 before moving to the University of Kansas. After a decade (1898–1907) serving there as a faculty member and part-time basketball coach during the sport’s fledgling years, he became the Kansas Jayhawks’ athletic director. He became a U.S. citizen in 1925.

Early years

Naismith was born in 1861 in Ramsay Township (now part of Mississippi Mills, Ontario). Struggling in school but gifted in farm labour, Naismith spent his days outside playing catch, hide-and-seek, or duck on a rock, a medieval game in which a person guards a large drake stone from opposing players, who try to knock it down by throwing smaller stones at it. To play duck on a rock most effectively, Naismith soon found out that a soft lobbing shot was far more effective than a straight hard throw, a thought which later proved essential for the invention of basketball. Orphaned early in his life, Naismith lived with his aunt and uncle for many years and attended grade school at Bennies Corners near Almonte. Then he enrolled in Almonte High School, from which he graduated in 1883.

Almonte high school, early 20th century.

James Naismith never had a middle name and never signed his name with the “A” initial. The “A” was added by someone in the administration at the University of Kansas. Dr. Naismith’s only surviving child in 1982 also stated that his father never had a middle initial “A”. The Basketball Hall of Fame also clarifies this as does other members of his family and personal friends of his. Noted historian Curtis J. Phillips has done extensive research on the subject.

McGill University

In the same year, Naismith entered McGill University in Montreal. Although described as a slight figure, standing 5 foot 10 ½ and listed at 168 pounds, he was a talented and versatile athlete, representing McGill in Canadian football, lacrosse, rugby, soccer and gymnastics. He played center on the football team, introduced the first football helmet into regular play and won multiple Wicksteed medals for outstanding gymnastics performances. Naismith earned a BA in Physical Education (1888) and a Diploma at the Presbyterian College in Montreal (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.

Dr. James Naismith, the inventor of basketball, practicing with his wife in 1928.

Springfield College: Invention of “Basket Ball”

At Springfield YMCA, Naismith struggled with a rowdy class which was confined to indoor games throughout the harsh New England winter and thus was perpetually short-tempered. Under orders from Dr. Luther Gulick, head of Springfield YMCA Physical Education, Naismith 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 and explicitly emphasized to “make it fair for all players and not too rough.”

In his attempt to think up a new game, Naismith was guided by three main thoughts. Firstly, he analyzed the most popular games of those times (rugby, lacrosse, soccer, football, hockey and baseball); Naismith noticed the hazards of a ball and concluded that the big soft soccer ball was safest. Secondly, he saw that most physical contact occurred while running with the ball, dribbling or hitting it, so he decided that passing was the only legal option. Finally, Naismith further reduced body contact by making the goal unguardable, namely placing it high above the player’s heads. To score goals, he forced the players to throw a soft lobbing shot that had proven effective in his old favourite game duck on a rock. Naismith christened this new game “Basket Ball” and put his thoughts together in 13 basic rules.

The first game of “Basket Ball” was played in December 1891. In a handwritten report, Naismith described the circumstances of the inaugural match; in contrast to modern basketball, the players played nine versus nine, handled a soccer ball, not a basketball, and instead of shooting at two hoops, the goals were a pair of peach baskets: “When Mr. Stubbins brot [sic] 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 what is known today as the dribble. Since the ball could only be moved up the court via a pass early players tossed the ball over their heads as they ran up court. Also, following each “goal” a jump ball was taken in the middle of the court. Both practices are obsolete in the rules of modern basketball.

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.

There is some evidence that Dr. Naismith borrowed components for the game of basketball from Lambert G. Will. This evidence disputes the claim that Dr. Naismith was the sole inventor of the game. A team photo shows Will’s team with a dated basketball before Naismith’s claim of having the first game.

University of Kansas

The University of Kansas men’s basketball program officially began in 1898, following Naismith’s arrival, just six years after Naismith penned the sport’s first official rules. Naismith was not initially hired to coach basketball, but rather as a chapel director and physical education instructor. In these early days, the majority of the basketball games were played against nearby YMCA teams, with YMCA’s across the nation having played an integral part in the birth of basketball. Other common opponents were Haskell Indian Nations University and William Jewell College. Under Naismith, the team played only two current Big 12 schools: Missouri (twice) and Kansas State (once). Naismith was, ironically, the only coach in the program’s history to have a losing record (55–60). However, Naismith coached Forrest “Phog” Allen, his eventual successor at Kansas, who went on to join his mentor in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. When Allen became a coach himself and told him that he was going to coach basketball at Baker University in 1904, Naismith discouraged him: “You can’t coach basketball; you just play it.” Instead, Allen embarked on a coaching career that would lead him to be known as “the Father of Basketball Coaching.” During his time at Kansas, Allen coached Dean Smith (1952 National Championship team) and Adolph Rupp (1922 Helms Foundation National Championship team). When Dean Smith retired as head Basketball coach at North Carolina he was the winningest coach in college basketball history, #2 was Adolph Rupp (Kentucky) and #3 was Allen. The three coaches have joined Naismith as members of the Basketball Hall of Fame.

By the turn of the century, there were enough college teams in the East of the U.S. that the first intercollegiate competitions could be played out. Although his sport continuously grew, Naismith long regarded his game as a curiosity and preferred gymnastics and wrestling as better forms of physical education. However, basketball became a demonstration sport at the 1904 Games in St. Louis, USA. As the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame reports, Naismith was also neither interested in self-promotion nor in the glory of competitive sports. Instead, he was more interested in his physical education career, receiving an honorary PE Masters degree in 1910, patrolled the Mexican border for four months in 1916 during World War I, travelled to France, published two books (“A Modern College” in 1911 and “Essence of a Healthy Life” in 1918) and took on American citizenship in 1925.

In 1935, the National Association of Basketball Coaches (created by Naismith’s pupil Phog Allen) collected money so that the 74-year old Naismith could witness the introduction of basketball into the official Olympic sports program of the 1936 Summer Olympic Games. There, Naismith handed out the medals to three North American teams; United States, for the Gold Medal, Canada, for the Silver Medal, and Mexico, for their Bronze medal win. During the Olympics, he was named the Honorary President of the International Basketball Federation. When Naismith returned he commented that seeing the game played by many nations was the greatest compensation he could have received for his invention. In 1937, Naismith played a role in the formation of the National Association of Intercollegiate Basketball, which later became the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA).

In his later years, Naismith became Professor Emeritus in Kansas and retired in 1937 at the age of 76. Including his years as coach, Naismith served as athletic director and faculty at the school for a total of almost 40 years. Naismith died in 1939 after he suffered a fatal brain hemorrhage and was buried in Lawrence, Kansas. Posthumously, his masterwork “Basketball — its Origins and Development” was published in 1941. In Lawrence, Kansas, James Naismith has a road named in his honour, Naismith Drive, which runs in front of Allen Fieldhouse (the official address of Allen Fieldhouse is 1651 Naismith Drive), the university’s basketball facility. It is a separated, four-lane road that runs north and south from University Drive south to its end at 24th street, just south of the KU campus. The university also named the court in Allen Fieldhouse, James Naismith Court in his honour. Naismith Hall, a college residential dormitory, is located on the northeastern edge of 19th Street and Naismith Drive.