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  • Writer's pictureLew Freedman

Game has come a long way since Naismith, 125 years ago

Places don’t invent things, people do. Springfield, Mass., should send thank-you cards to Dr. James Naismith’s heirs every day of the week and twice on holidays.

A muscular Christian who wore glasses and a thick mustache, Naismith did not drink, swear or smoke. When he was a young farm laborer in Ontario, Naismith tossed large rocks around the way that future generations would throw basketballs around the court. After they learned what basketballs are.

As the world begins a year-long celebration in 2016 to acknowledge Naismith’s famous creation of the sport of basketball 125 years ago, it seems appropriate to ruminate about his life. Unless he can be contacted by séance, Naismith, who died 76 years ago, is not giving any interviews.

For starters, although he is frequently referred to as James A. Naismith, the man never legally possessed either a middle name or middle initial. It cannot be determined if he thought it was cool or not that others attributed the A to him, but that’s not how he signed autographs.

Naismith, Canadian and all, holds down a special place in American sports history. Nobody can tell you the name of the guy who invented football. Not a soul can single out a fella for the invention of hockey. Yes, for decades, baseball fans credited Abner Doubleday for the establishment of their game in Cooperstown, N.Y. Ultimately, it was shown that Doubleday never set foot in Cooperstown and might not have even recognized a baseball if one conked him on the head.

It cannot be said that Naismith did not know what he was doing when he scribbled the original 13 rules of basketball. He was very purposeful in inventing a game that he hoped would be a remedy for boredom.

This is where Springfield comes in. Springfield, one of many across the United States, but not the one where the Simpsons live, was founded in 1636 on the banks of the Connecticut River when Pilgrims still roamed the earth. It is located a short traveling violation from Hartford, Conn.

It was also burned to the ground by irate Native-Americans in 1675 and that took care of the original huts. By the time Naismith showed up in 1891 at the International YMCA Training School, moving from Montreal to teach physical education, he was 30.

The YMCA where Naismith taught (later renamed Springfield College) stuck him with an unruly class of men who disliked being essentially incarcerated in the gymnasium on account of snow. Naismith huddled with the forgotten man in this tale, Dr. Luther Gulick. Gulick was his boss and displeased with the bad attitude of the students. He ordered Naismith put on his thinking cap and come up with a new, vigorous activity within 14 days.

So the invention of basketball was no accident, but an assignment. Naismith said so himself, noting, “It was developed to meet a need. Those boys simply would not play ‘Drop The Handkerchief.’” By then, football, baseball, soccer, lacrosse, hockey and rugby had been invented by somebody else, so he reviewed what made them successful. He had played several of them at McGill University, too.

Maybe Naismith earned the A as a middle initial because he earned an A on his homework, but on Dec. 21, 1891, he unveiled a new game he called Basket Ball.

Since there were no basketballs out there, even in the hands of Spalding’s Sporting Goods, founded by Hall of Fame pitcher Albert Spalding in 1876, Naismith handed his students a soccer ball.

The first game was a little flexible, it might be said, since the inaugural contest was nine-on-nine. Although he had devised the concept of the sport, Naismith needed the assistance of a janitor to round up peach baskets to serve as hoops and nail them to walls.

After informing the players they were to shoot at the opposite side’s peach basket to score, Naismith reported, “I blew a whistle and the first game of basketball began. The boys began tackling, kicking and punching in the clinches. They ended up in a free-for-all in the middle of the gym floor.”

Naismith needed a penalty box. The NCAA office in Indianapolis would have thrown them all out and suspended them until next year’s Men Who Speak Up Main Event or the Paradise Jam.

It took some time for the fundamentals of the sport to evolve into the way it is played 125 years later. Many changes have been added and subtracted since 1891, or the NCAA manual wouldn’t be like 500 pages long.

Right from the beginning it was illegal to run with the ball. It was illegal to smack the ball with a fist. If a shot landed in the basket it was a good “goal” on the scoreboard. There were two 15-minute halves with a five-minute halftime. Presumably, no bands serenaded the players as they sipped water.

It took almost no time for basketball to catch on. In 1892, the school paper got wind of “A New Game” and publicized it. Rather startlingly, international basketball began in 1893, spread by YMCAs overseas.

Nine of the rules remain the same and others of the baker’s dozen have been modified. Yet Naismith’s original rules paper is the Magna Carta of the sport. He would have fainted if he learned the original rules sold by his grandson for $4,338,500 million at auction in 2010.

Naismith grew famous enough late in life, but he always turned down endorsement opportunities. It wasn’t until 1931 that his son prevailed upon him to sign the original rules document. He might have been the only one back then who thought it could become valuable. At the time, Naismith didn’t have enough money to travel to special basketball tournaments without fund-raising campaigns to pay for his transportation.

In 1898, Naismith was hired as a coach for the new program at Kansas University. He remained in that job until 1907. The Jayhawks did not become a dynasty under his mentorship. In nine seasons, Naismith’s record was 55-60 with just two winning seasons. The inventor of basketball is the only coach in Kansas history with a losing record.

Once, some years ago, when current Jayhawks coach Bill Self was disappointed in his team’s play, he said, “It was the worst team Kansas has ever put on the floor since Dr. Naismith was there. I think he had some bad teams and lost to the YMCA the first couple of years.”

Still, they’re pretty darned proud of Naismith in Lawrence, Kan. these days, where Wilt Chamberlain, Clyde Lovelette and Danny Manning played. Naismith begat Phog Allen, and ever since the 1950s, the Jayhawks have been a national power. They have won three NCAA titles in 44 tournament appearances and won two others in the 1920s before there was a tournament. Adolph Rupp and Dean Smith, who gained coaching fame at other colleges, also played there.

Long-time Kansas coach Roy Williams, who left for North Carolina, said of the Midwestern school, “I think it’s the best place there is to play college basketball.”

The basketball Hall of Fame, responsible for major tourism back in Springfield, is called The Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. There is also a street named Naismith Drive on campus in Lawrence.

Naismith lived long enough to see the blossoming Indiana High School tournament. While viewing the hysteria leading to a championship, he said loud enough to make Hoosiers beam, “This is the way I envisioned it could be.” For the rest of his life, Naismith got a kick out of seeing a basket erected on a tree or wall when passing remote places.

Basketball made its debut in the Summer Olympics in 1936, a very prideful moment for Naismith before his death in 1939 at 78. Earlier that same year, Naismith attended a doubleheader at Madison Square Garden and granted a radio interview to broadcaster Gabriel Heatter, which is now in the custody of Kansas U. In part, Naismith reflected on the original roughhousing, saying, “I thought they would kill each other.”

Over the ensuing decades, basketball only grew more popular in the United States and across the world. The amazing athleticism brought to the game with dunks and alley-oops and long-range shots would leave Naismith agog.

Since he was known as a moral man, Naismith would have frowned at college cheating scandals. His motto was, “Be strong in body, clean in mind, lofty in ideals.”

James Naismith is buried in Lawrence, Kan. where his headstone and tombstone is about the size of Lenin’s tomb in Moscow. Likely, he would blink his eyes in stupefaction upon viewing an ESPN highlight reel. But as someone who appreciated the progress in the sport in his own lifetime, he probably would dig the show.


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