Basketball is the only major modern sport that was"invented" by an individual. It did not evolve from another sport, such as football and soccer did, but rather was created in almost the identical form that it is played in today by a man named James Naismith (1861-1939).
James Naismith (who had no middle name but later adopted the initial "A") was born on November 6, 1861, in Almonte, Ontario, Canada. His parents, John and
Margaret (Young) Naismith, were Scottish immigrants who died in a typhoid epidemic when Naismith was nine years old, leaving him an orphan. He was raised by his strict, religious grandmother and later by a bachelor uncle. Naismith enjoyed hunting, the outdoors, and sports. He dropped out of high school to work as a logger in lumber camp for five years, then returned to finish his secondary education and entered McGill University in Montreal in 1883. He graduated in 1887 with an A.B. degree in theology. Intending to be a minister, he continued his theology studies at Presbyterian College in Montreal for three years and graduated from there in 1890.
Naismith had always been an athlete. He played football and lacrosse at McGill and directed undergraduate gymnastics classes during his last year at Presbyterian College. His interest in athletics contributed to his decision to go into physical education rather than the ministry; he decided he could do more good working with youth on the athletic field than he could as a clergyman. So in 1890 he enrolled in a two-year course in physical training at the new Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA) Training School in Springfield, Massachusetts. He served as the director of physical education at that school from 1890-1895.
From Peach Baskets to the Olympics
It was at Springfield that Naismith came up with the idea for basketball. One of his assignments as a student there, given by Luther Halsey Gulick, superintendent of the physical education department, was to create a game that would occupy the students during the wintertime, between the seasons for football and baseball in the fall and lacrosse in the spring. Naismith worked out a game that prohibited the roughness of football and eliminated the bunching of players around a goal, such as in hockey or soccer. Basing the game on the tossing principle, he tacked up a peach basket at each end of the gymnasium, 10 feet off the ground, and devised 13 simple rules for a game that involved throwing a soccer ball into the baskets. The class of 18 split into two teams of 9, and the first game of basketball was played in December 1891. Naismith did not want the game named after him-he thought the label "Naismith Ball" would be a severe detriment to the game's popularity. He approved of a name that seemed appropriate to its initial creation using peach baskets: "basketball."
Many of the same rules that Naismith created in 1891 apply to the game today, and 10 feet is still the standard basket height. Some changes that occurred included, in 1895, the standardization of number of players per team— five for men, six for women-and the introduction of dribbling in 1900 (originally, Naismith required only that the ball be passed before a shot). Another change that came about occurred somewhat accidentally when Naismith attended one of the first women's games at Smith College. The coach for the team was using Naismith's original rulebook, which contained a diagram of the playing court. On the diagram, Naismith had drawn three dotted lines, only to simplify the picture. The coach, however, had interpreted the lines as indicators of playing areas, and the women were playing on only half the court. When Naismith realized what the coach was doing, he decided that even though this was not his original intention, it made sense (women in the 1890s were not particularly athletic, as a general rule) and said that the division of field rule applied to women, but not to men. Thus the division-of-the-field rule was added.
Other changes to the game were put in place by a rules committee later, such as the initiation of a time limit of ten seconds for the defensive team to move the ball beyond midcourt (in 1932), and the elimination of the center jump after each score (in 1937). Naismith was not thrilled with these changes to the game, especially the elimination of the center jump, which he felt gave a disadvantage to the team that had scored. Naismith did suggest some revisions that he thought would help move the game along and make it more exciting. Two of these suggestions later were enacted as the modern shot clock, which allows a team only a certain amount of time to shoot the ball, and the three-point shot, granted for baskets made outside a certain boundary. Naismith told Bob Broeg of the Saturday Evening Post about what he thought was vital to the game. "Scoring is important," he said, "but not all-consuming. I think speed is. Speed, passing, and the unexpected."
The game also evolved physically; for instance, within two years the peach baskets had been replaced by a wire cylinder, and by 1894 soccer balls had been replaced by regulation-size basketballs. At one point chicken-wire netting under the cylinder caught the ball, which then of course required manual retrieval; later the basketball net was put in, which allowed the ball to fall through the cylinder but stay in the same general area. In 1895, backboards, as a safeguard to keep the ball from flying into the audience, were initiated.
The game's popularity spread rapidly, and by 1939 almost every high school and college in America had a basketball team. Nineteen thirty-nine was also the year the National Collegiate Athletic Association began its annual postseason tournament, now know as the Final Four, which has become one of the most watched television sports events in the United States. In 1936 basketball was included as one of the Olympic games, held in Berlin, thanks in large part to the efforts of a former student of Naismith's and later a highly successful basketball coach at the University of Kansas, Forrest "Phog" Allen. Allen insisted that Naismith attend the first Olympic basketball game as guest of honor, and the National Association of Basketball Coaches agreed. To raise the money to send Naismith, the coaches urged colleges and universities to charge an extra penny for admission to their 1935-36 basketball games. Enough was raised to send Naismith to the game, who proclaimed it as "the happiest moment of my life." In the rainy outdoor game, the Americans won against the Canadians by a modest score of 19-8. Naismith stated after his trip to Berlin that basketball had "grown tremendously [overseas]" and predicted that it would continue to grow "perhaps not in this country, but in foreign countries." He was partly right. Basketball is now played competitively in more than 120 countries but is also a major sport in the United States.
An Interest in Body and Soul
While at Springfield, in 1894, Naismith married Maude Evelyn Sherman, with whom he would have five children: Margaret Mason, Hellen Carolyn, John Edwin, Maude Annie, and James Sherman. They moved to Colorado in 1895, where Naismith attended the Gross Medical College (later the University of Colorado Medical School) in Denver. While working on his M.D., which he received in 1898, he served as physical director for the Denver YMCA. After receiving his medical degree, he was hired as the first physical education instructor at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. Although he coached the University's basketball and track teams until 1905, his focus while at Kansas was more on intramural sports, and he maintained the belief that basketball should be played for fun, not taken as a serious competition. He was interested in sports' contribution toward a healthy body and soul, and he conducted physical exams and maintained medical records for all male undergraduates. He was also responsible for creating a comprehensive student health service.
As a Christian moralist, Naismith's interest was in sports and moral development. He believed athletics could lead people toward both spiritual and physical development and away from immoral conduct. As one of his students said, "With him, questions of physical development inevitably led to questions of moral development, and vice versa." His views led to the publication of several articles in physical education journals and a chapter on athletics in the book The Modern High School (1916). He also wrote two books: The Basis of Clean Living (1919) and Basketball: Its Origin and Development, published posthumously in 1941.
In 1916 he was ordained as a Presbyterian minister, and he directed daily chapel services at the University of Kansas for several years. During World War I, in 1916, he spent four months as chaplain and chief hygienic officer for the First Kansas Regiment (National Guard), which was stationed on the Mexican border, and from 1917 to 1919 he served a similar capacity in the YMCA. In his latter stint, he spent time at U.S. army bases and 19 months in France, using hygiene training and athletics to help maintain and protect U.S. soldiers' morale. Naismith was naturalized as a U.S. citizen in 1925.
Naismith remained at Kansas as a faculty member until his retirement as professor emeritus in 1937. He is remembered by his students and colleagues there as a kind-hearted and considerate professor, albeit somewhat rough around the edges intellectually and not especially adept at practical matters such as money managing. He lost two houses to foreclosure, and the royalties he received from a basketball named for him later in life did not cover what he had spent. Shortly after Naismith's retirement from Kansas, his wife died, and two years later he married Florence Mae (Kinsley) Kincaid, a widow friend. Naismith died in Lawrence, Kansas, of a heart attack on November 28, 1939.
Naismith created other games besides basketball later in his life, but none gained popularity; however, he is credited for designing the first safety headgear used in football. He served in honorary capacities as head of the International Basketball Federation, the Basketball Coaches Association, and the Basketball Rules Committee. The Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts, named in his honor, enshrined him as a charter member in 1959. Naismith's contribution involved not just the creation of a universally popular game but also his influence on thousands of young people who came into contact with him. The eulogy that appeared in Journal of Health and Physical Education called Naismith "a physician who encouraged healthful living through participation through vigorous activities" and a builder of "character in the hearts of young men."
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