James Naismith Put His Faith Into Action And Created Basketball

He was a theologically trained medical doctor with a love of competitive sports. So the University of Kansas hired him as both chapel director and physical education teacher.

But he brought an added bonus. The new faculty member founded and coached KU’s first men’s basketball team. That made perfect sense.

The man was James Naismith, and he invented basketball.

“What does James Naismith mean to the sport?” reflected John Doleva, CEO of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. “In baseball or football, no one really knows who invented the game, wrote down the rules, where the first game was played. With Naismith and basketball, there is a unique and singular point in history where one of the major global sports can pinpoint who, when, where and why the game was invented.”

In a remarkable 78 years, Naismith (1861-1939):

Invented the global phenomenon of basketball, the world’s fastest-growing sport, according to the Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass.

Lifted himself up from high school dropout to medical doctor, college faculty member and athletic director.

Coached Phog Allen, called the Father of Basketball Coaching, who then coached Adolph Rupp and Dean Smith — all of whom are Hall of Famers.

Made history at the 1936 Berlin Olympics presenting the first gold, silver and bronze medals for basketball as an official Olympic sport. North America swept the contest, with the U.S. first, Canada second, and Mexico third.

A term like “quiet determination” is overused, but Naismith embodied it.

Rise North Of The Border

Born in Ontario, Canada, he had it rough early. Typhoid fever killed both his parents, making him an orphan at age 9. He and two siblings moved in with their grandmother, who also died. A bachelor uncle ultimately raised the trio.

After two years of high school, Naismith considered himself a man “more in need of a man’s job than an education,” his grandson, Jim Naismith, told IBD.

So he joined his Uncle Pete in the lumber industry, hauling logs over frozen ground, and became quite a fixture at a local bar.

“The story in our family is he was at a bar on payday drinking too much,” Jim Naismith said. “A man asked, ‘Are you Margaret’s son?’ He said, ‘Yes.’ ‘She’d roll over in her grave if she saw you now,’ the man said.”

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It was then, at age 20, Naismith rebounded. He went back to high school, where administrators accepted him on one condition: He would have to repeat his first two years and complete three years in all. He did that in two.

“It tells you something about his determination,” the grandson said.

Enrolling at McGill University in Montreal, Naismith earned a four-year degree in physical education and was a standout, multisport athlete. He followed that with three years of theological study and a diploma from Presbyterian College, also in Montreal.

On To The States

In 1891, with a life back on track, a love of sports and two degrees in hand, Naismith traveled to Springfield, Mass., to became a graduate student and instructor at the International YMCA Training School. Today it’s known as Springfield College, the birthplace of basketball.

The training school’s athletic director had an assignment for Naismith: Develop a winter game that would keep the young men, who were cooped up inside and bored, from tearing up the facilities and themselves.

What happened on Dec. 21, 1891, is best explained by Naismith himself. The quote comes from the only known recording of him, from an interview on a New York radio station in 1939.

“It was in the winter of 1891, when I was physical instructor at Springfield College in Massachusetts. We had a real New England blizzard. For days the students couldn’t go outdoors, so they began roughhousing in the halls. We tried everything to keep them quiet. We tried playing a modified form of football in the gymnasium, but they got board with that.

“Something had to be done. One day I had an idea. I called the boys to the gym and divided them into two teams of nine and gave them an old soccer ball. I showed them two peach baskets I had nailed at each end of the gym, and I told them the idea was to throw the ball into the other team’s peach basket.”

The interviewer asked Naismith about the rules, and he replied, “Well, I didn’t have enough.”

That first game devolved into a tackling, kicking, punching free-for-all, with one boy knocked out, others with black eyes and one with a dislocated shoulder.

“So I made up some more rules,” Naismith said.

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The Game Plan

He finally settled on 13 rules. The most important: no running while holding the ball. That put an end to rugby-style contact, and the next game was played without an injury.

The spread of the sport — which Naismith called “basket ball” — is nothing short of amazing.

Less than a month later, teams were playing at the YMCA in Albany, N.Y. Women at Smith College were playing three months after Naismith created the sport. Three years later, teams were squaring off in China.

“Graduates of the YMCA Training School got on boats with peach baskets and a soccer ball and took the game around the world,” Doleva said.

The first professional game was played in Trenton, N.J., in 1896. It spread to colleges along the East Coast and soon across the country.

And while basketball has evolved — five-member teams, dribbling to advance the ball — the core of the sport remains as Naismith envisioned it.

And yet if some of Naismith’s Canadian countrymen had their way, he wouldn’t have envisioned the game at all.

Faith Vs. Basketball

In his university and graduate school years, two things mattered to Naismith: faith and sports. And that was a problem.

“Some students at Presbyterian College came to his room to pray for him because of his involvement in rough sports like rugby,” Jim Naismith said. “I can see him smiling to himself that these young man were so concerned about him they came to pray for him. What he would have said was, ‘There are problems here, but you better go look in the mirror because I think I found some of them.’ ”

Many of his fellow students felt rough competition was incompatible with Christian faith. But the creator of basketball believed in a “muscular Christianity,” Jim Naismith said. “He came from a strong Scottish Presbyterian heritage. Strong mind. Strong body. Strong spirit. If you develop those, he believed, you were going to have a much better life than you would have otherwise.”

Jim Naismith has seen his grandfather’s paperwork to the YMCA Training School.

“It says on his application that he was applying to develop Christian principals in young people’s lives,” he said. “He had this strange idea that competitive sports would be more helpful to young people than talking or preaching to them.”

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Marriages And Legacy

By 1895, Naismith was married to Maude Sherman — with whom he would have five children — and relocated to Denver, where he worked at the YMCA and earned his medical degree.

Kansas hired him in 1898, and except for interruptions for military service, he worked at KU until retirement in 1937 — including 18 years as athletic director. Maude died the year he retired, and he married Florence Kincaid in June 1939. Naismith died of a brain hemorrhage five months later.

The worldwide sport of basketball is his legacy. Enjoy March Madness, the Olympic Dream Team, the NBA? Thank Naismith.

But he remained humble about his contribution and was even said to prefer other sports, such as gymnastics and wrestling, to the one he invented. He never sought recognition, but he got it. He’s in numerous halls of fame, but the one that really matters is the one named after him — of which he was the first inductee.

In December this year, the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame will mark the 125th anniversary of the first game created by its namesake.

There’s a persistent mistake regarding the Naismith name. In many instances, you see his name as James A. Naismith. His grandson says no one knows where the “A” came from and that he had no middle initial. Jim has seen a signature from his grandfather where he abbreviated James as Jas, and the way it’s written looks a bit like J.A. He surmises that’s where the mistake was born.

That’s one bit of irony from an otherwise straightforward life. Naismith not only founded what would become the storied basketball team at the University of Kansas — he also has the distinction of being the only coach in Jayhawks history with a losing record.

Naismith’s Keys

Combined faith and a love of competitive sports to create basketball as a game to play indoors in winter and saw it grow to be played around the world and in the Olympics.

Overcame: Childhood tragedy and young-adult mistakes.

Lesson: Be humble. Be faithful. Give your best to all you do.

“It’s always good to learn from experience, especially someone else’s experience.”

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