James A. Naismith




James Naismith invented basketball in 1891 to provide an outlet for some energetic male students at the Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA) Training School (now Springfield College) in Springfield, Massachusetts. The simplicity and the athleticism inherent in Naismith's creation remains the essence of modern basketball, one of the true world games.

Naismith's roots extend into both Canada and the United States. Born at Almonte, Ontario, a small village located near the Canadian capital of Ottawa, Naismith's first athletic success was achieved while he was a well regarded undergraduate student at Montreal's McGill University, beginning in 1883. Naismith was a classic all round athlete, a success in sports as diverse as rugby, gymnastics, and lacrosse. Naismith played for McGill in at least one of the early rugby football games against Princeton University, contests that were the forerunners to modern American football.

When Naismith beganed graduate studies in theology, Naismith's professors disapproved of his active athletic career. However, Naismith advocated that it was possible, and even desirable, to encourage young men to pursue both an athletic and a spiritual life. This philosophy was central to much of what Naismith accomplished throughout his later career in athletics.

While attending university in Montreal, Naismith became acquainted with the YMCA, an organization that had been founded in London in the early 1800s. The YMCA established branches in Montreal and Boston in 1851. At the Montreal YMCA, Naismith approached the Association administrators regarding his desire to become a physical education instructor who combined spirituality and physical training in a program for young athletes.

It was as a result of these discussions that Naismith joined the faculty at the international YMCA training school located at Springfield, Massachusetts in 1890. In the winter of 1891, during his second year at Springfield, Naismith was placed in charge of the indoor physical education program. His students consisted primarily of bored but otherwise active older teenagers and mature men who had tired of available winter indoor sports options, primarily gymnastics. The senior physical education instructor directed Naismith and his colleagues to develop a new indoor game to occupy their students; two weeks was the timeline permitted to create the new game.

To create a new sport, Naismith sought inspiration from the outdoor sports with which he was familiar, such as soccer, lacrosse, and rugby football, with modifications to suit an indoor format. As the new game would be played on an unforgiving hardwood floor, a new sport that involved tackling or excessive physical contact was not feasible. As Naismith considered other ideas, he recalled a childhood game called 'duck on the rock', where the players threw balls into empty boxes or baskets. Naismith's first creative step towards the invention of basketball was to place peach baskets placed at opposite ends of a court. To pose a greater challenge to the players, Naismith raised the goals above the height of the court. As the gymnasium at Springfield had an indoor running track situated 10 ft (3 m) above the floor of the gymnasium, Naismith selected this height as the position of his basket goals, goals that Naismith attached directly to the facing of the indoor track.

It is one of the legends associated with Naismith and the development of basketball that the gymnasium janitor became very upset with Naismith for having the bottom of the janitor's valuable peach baskets removed to save Naismith's players the time and the trouble of climbing a ladder to retrieve the ball.

With his concept now given a rudimentary physical structure, Naismith, with the assistance of several colleagues, devised a set of 13 rules to govern the play of the created game. Among the first rules were several important concepts, each of which has survived in one form or another in the modern game. These fundamental concepts were: (1) no running with the ball in hand (a rule which that lead to the codification of the rules respecting dribbling the ball); (2) no tackling or rough body contact; (3) the freedom of any player to obtain the ball and score at any time.

In December 1891, Naismith's students were the participants in the first ever game of basketball. The score was 1-0, and the new sport was an instant success.

Basketball quickly spread to other countries through the national and international structure of the YMCA. Basketball was played in at least 12 countries within two years of its invention. On a local level, Naismith passed along his knowledge to Senda Berenson Abbott, the head physical education instructor at near by Smith College, a female institution, where Abbott modified the rules of the game for her female students, with the first games played at Smith in 1893.

Naismith was humble regarding the success of basketball. He was pleased that he had created a popular and beneficial sport. Naismith was apparently content to let his game evolve as it might, and he left Springfield to obtain a medical degree at the University of Colorado in 1898. Naismith soon after became the assistant athletic director at the University of Kansas. He left Kansas to serve as a captain and an Army chaplain with the United States forces in World War I. In 1918 he served as the YMCA Secretary in France, before returning to the University of Kansas as its Director of Athletics from 1919 until 1937.

Naismith was a part of two important developments in the history of basketball in his tenure at Kansas. The first was his influence on the career of Forrest (Phog) Allen (1885–1974), the legendary University of Kansas coach, a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame, and one of the great college coaches, innovators, and tacticians in the early development of basketball.

The second development occurred shortly before Naismith died at age 78 in 1939. Naismith was on hand to witness the introduction of basketball as an official Olympic sport at the 1936 Summer Games in Berlin. Although he generally shied away from public acknowledgement with respect to his role in the creation of basketball, Naismith accepted an invitation to the Games' inaugural ceremony, and he agreed to throw the ball up for the opening tip-off at the first Olympic basketball game.

Naismith has received considerable posthumous fame for his creation of the sport of basketball. His game has evolved dramatically since 1891, but basketball, with its freedom of movement and its emphasis on skill and execution, has remained true to the spirit of Naismith's creation. He was the initial inductee into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1959.

SEE ALSO Basketball; International Olympic Committee (IOC); Sports coaching.