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Posted by : Robert Child Thursday


It is November 1891 and unruly and bored students at the Springfield International Training School (YMCA) have begun taking their frustrations out on each other. The monotony of indoor routines of tumbling, twirling and calisthenics, have gotten to be too much. In the preceding month two instructors asked to be reassigned from the rowdy class. With black eyes and fights not speaking well of a Christian organization, the situation is desperate and Physical Education Head, Luther Gulick, calls a meeting of his faculty.

Stating that it was imperative to keep bodies and minds active and distracted throughout the long New England, winter Gulick presents a challenge to his faculty – devise a new game that could be played indoors with the “roughness” extracted. His faculty is less than enthusiastic.

Present at this fateful November meeting is newly arrived Canadian divinity college graduate, thirty year old, James Naismith. Naismith, with a full schedule of courses to teach at the training school and considering himself unavailable for this unappealing assignment with the disorderly class is most vocal with suggestions for his fellow faculty members.

Naismith, outlining his enthusiastic ideas, unwittingly assures himself the position with Gulick finally saying, “Naismith, you’ve got two weeks, the class is yours, see what you can do with it.”

After repeatedly attempting to dissuade Gulick of his candidacy, Naismith resigns himself to the task and his fate with the difficult class. He astutely realizes that what was getting to the students was the boredom of routine physical drills with an absence of a sense of game play or challenge.

Remembering Gulick’s remark that there was “nothing new under the sun” Naismith tried at first to adapt elements of other games including; sailor’s tag, English rounders, town ball, handy-over and leapfrog which all fail miserably in succession. Naismith’s students, many in their 20’s and 30’s, felt as if they were being forced to take part in children’s games and are unmerciful towards Naismith. And James carried his anguish home nightly.

He next decided that the key would be to bring indoors the concept of adult outdoor games. Adaptations of cricket and baseball are rejected early on and finally he introduced football to the indoor playing field. For this experiment Naismith adapts some elements of English rugby. The Americans in the class, familiar with the all out tackling of American football cannot grasp the idea of the “gentle tackle” above the waist in stopping their opponent. Universal ridicule from his class ends this new gentle version of indoor football.

Soccer, known as “association football” at the time, was the experiment where student injuries began to mount. Naismith’s players often forgot they were attired in soft-soled shoes and in their excitement of kicking a ball, break several toes. Much to Gulick’s and Naismith’s dismay, many balls kicked from these newly injured feet tend to sail right through the large glass gymnasium windows.

With the injuries mounting and damage to the YMCA facility escalating, Naismith decides to introduce a version of indoor Lacrosse, which he had played in Montreal. As the Canadian national game at the time, Naismith knew half of his students, who were Canadian, would at least grasp the rules of the sport. Unfortunately, indoor lacrosse would be recorded as his greatest debacle.

Naismith’s Canadian students not only knew the game, they used the tactics and tricks they had honed over the years of playing the sport against the beginners in the class. Simple on site first aide proved inadequate to repair broken limbs and jaws, which resulted from this miscalculation.

Reaching the end of the two-week experiment to create a new game and with just forty-eight hours left of his assigned task, Naismith considered himself a colossal failure.

Facing his unsympathetic class, on the next to last day, with nothing new left to try, the smug looks on his student’s faces confirmed to him that they too knew he had failed. Disheartened, Naismith prepared to turn the experiment over to another instructor.

Leaving his students and wearily climbing the stairs to his office above the locker room he paused and the words of his strong-minded Scottish grandfather echoed in his ears. When Jim and Grandfather Young worked the fields around the farm in Canada and encountered an obstacle, his grandfather would always sternly repeat, “Don’t think you can’t master it! Do it and make a man of yourself.”

This memory combined with the boys hearty laughter drifting up from the locker room below brought Jim’s already beaten down self-esteem to its depths. Naismith had never failed to master any task or situation in his life from being orphaned at nine years old to becoming a lumberjack then gaining a full scholarship to the theology school at McGill University.

This, James realized, was to be the defining moment in his life. If he gave up now he would carry the burden of his failure for the rest of his life. His belief in himself was now all he had left. He decided to let go trust that somehow, someway the solution would come to him. Over the next two days James Naismith would write his name into sports history.

With intense determination, and deepened resolve, Naismith methodically reviewed each of his failed attempts at creating a new sport. James, through those sleepless nights, came to the conclusion that first – all team games utilize a ball as an essential item of competition and second the difficulty of the game is inversely related to the size of the ball – that is small balls, like a baseball require a stick or a bat which complicates the game and large balls, like a soccer ball tend to simplify the game by serving as the direct object of competition.

James quickly drew diagrams of an indoor playing field with these criteria in mind; it must be easy to play and easy to learn. Added to that, he realized because of space limitations and a hard floor surface, that running must be kept to a minimum and tackling was out of the question.

Naismith reduced his new, yet unnamed game to two prerequisites and snapped his fingers in elation. “If the player can’t run with the ball, we don’t have to tackle; and if we don’t have to tackle; the roughness will be eliminated.” He had found the solution.

With no sleep, Naismith began his final day of the “experiment” knowing he did not have a fully formed game. “The players have to have something to do with the ball once they have it”, he thought. Some type of goal was required. Keeping to his idea of a non-tackling sport, he decided against the concept of a horizontal goal like lacrosse or soccer and the requirement for a goaltender.

He remembered a childhood game from Canada, Duck on A Rock, in which players tossed rocks at a larger rock or “duck” aiming to knock it off its perch. Naismith, elated, had found the final piece of the puzzle. He decided that the goal would be elevated and tossed at. This created a measure of difficulty for defense and required skill on the thrower’s part. With this final element he remained true to Gulick’s ideal of non-roughness because with an elevated goal, one above the player’s heads, accuracy would win out over force in getting the ball into the goal. Naismith could hardly contain his excitement.

Still with morning, just hours away and before introducing his new game, Naismith did not have a ball for the new game. He scouted his office for a suitable one and found a soccer ball. Temporarily this would have to do. Seeking out the school’s janitor, Naismith asked for two 18” boxes to be brought to the gym. Stebbins, the janitor, responded that all he could provide were two old peach baskets. Naismith took them and quickly had them nailed into the lower rung of a balcony which was part of an elevated running track.

Returning to his office, Naismith condensed all his work down to a short set of “Rules”. In less than an hour he had come up with “13 Rules” and had the departmental secretary type them up and post them in the gym.

Entering the gym, December 21, 1891, and facing the final hours with his eighteen reluctant and smug students, Naismith’s confidence was again deflated when he saw troublemaker Frank Mahan pointing and laughing at the peach baskets. “Hey look, another new game!”

Naismith carried on with pretend optimism and quickly divided the students up into two teams of nine players and went over his new thirteen rules. Having no idea how to start the game Naismith decided that the best way to begin, without roughness, was to toss the ball up between two players at mid court. Later Naismith joked that this method of starting his new game only encouraged roughness.

Both squads took to the game immediately and Naismith had great difficulty in pulling his students off the court so they could attend their next class. Naismith’s new game was a resounding hit. History records that the single “basket” scored that day had to be retrieved by Stebbins, the janitor, as the peach baskets still had their bottoms.

The new sport was an instant success; the most rebellious of the class became its devotees. Frank Mahan the troublemaking student from North Carolina gallantly offered the name “Naismith ball: for the new sport. Laughingly Naismith fended off the suggestion as the death knell for the new sport and Mahan offered, “Why not basketball?” And thus the game was named. Naismith’s players had a haunch that something historic had been created and Mahan, first to scoff at the new game, stole the original thirteen rules for the game right off the bulletin board.

Mahan sheepishly returned to Naismith weeks later with those same sheets of paper to which Naismith proudly signed his name. Little did either of them imagine, that those same sheets of paper containing the original thirteen rules of the game of basketball, would be requested by both the British Museum and the Smithsonian Institution for their permanent collections.

News of the new sport of Basketball spread like wildfire. After the students returned from Christmas vacation spectators filled the balconies to the rafters. Naismith later recalled that since their class was held at noon ladies from the nearby offices began spending their lunch hour watching the boys from the gallery. This, he said, elevated the boys on the court a great deal and added much excitement to the atmosphere. On January 15, 1892 the school paper printed the original thirteen rules and the story was distributed nationwide in all YMCA’s. In addition, students who had returned to their hometowns brought word of the new game and began introducing it to their local communities.

In April 1892 the New York Times, with the opening of the new YMCA Athletic Grounds welcomed it as “A New Game of Ball,” “A Substitute for Football without its Rough Features.” The game found enthusiastic players and supporters throughout the city and leagues quickly formed. Before basketball was even a year old Dr. Gulick wrote in October of 1892, “It is doubtful whether a gymnastic game has ever spread so rapidly over the continent as has basketball. It is played from New York to San Francisco and from Maine to Texas by hundreds of teams and associations, athletic clubs and schools.”

James Naismith left the Springfield YMCA three years later. He went on teach and serve as chapel director and first basketball coach at the University of Kansas at Lawrence where he spent the remainder of his academic career. Ironically, the only losing record in Kansas University basketball history belongs to Naismith.

In 1936, coaches of the NCAA began the National Naismith Fund. Over five thousand dollars was raised to send James Naismith to the 1936 Olympic games in Berlin, Germany. Naismith would witness the sport he created played in Olympic competition for the very first time. 52 Nations were represented on the stadium field on opening day and 22 of them brought basketball teams, the largest number entered in any Olympic team competition that year.

During those opening ceremonies, as James Naismith walked past each of those 22 national teams, rousing cheers began, “Alabeebo” from Mexico and “Banzai” from Japan. After he paused to greet each nation’s team captain, their national flag dipped to him. Naismith’s eyes filled with tears and he confessed later that it had been the greatest moment of his life.

During the games he tossed up the ball to start the very first game of Olympic basketball between France and Estonia. And later he watched from the stands at the United States beat his home country Canada in the gold medal match 19-8.

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