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  • Writer's pictureDave Barend


Rectal anesthesia. What? You didn’t expect this to start with rectal anesthesia? See there’s a rule of humor writing that says never miss a shot to start with rectal anesthesia.

And given that college basketball’s beginning may be directly tied to rectal anesthesia, I’m starting with rectal anesthesia. That’s right, I’m not throwing away my shot, which I think Alexander Hamilton famously said 211 years after his death.

Also, entitling this “Part 1” doesn’t necessitate a second part. Sir Walter Raleigh had a History of The World - Part I with no part II. As did famed historian Mel Brooks. Though Raleigh’s excuse was a bit better - decapitation.

So for years, Geneva College believed it played the first college basketball game on April 8, 1893 against the New Brighton YMCA. Around a decade ago, however, Bill Traughber investigated whether Vanderbilt deserved that claim. He read countless copies of their newspaper,The Hustler. A mere three-letter word prevented very enjoyable research.

Traughber then found an article in The Daily American promoting a February 7, 1893 match-up versus the Nashville YMCA. It noted: “Seats will be placed on the running track for ladies, who are especially urged to be present.” That’s a unique mix of desperation and sexism.

I envision the players having the following conversation:

“Hey guys, imagine if we got some ladies to come.”

“Oh, that would be great.”

“But how?”

“I’ve got it - we could urge them.”

“That’s brilliant!”

“Now I’m just spitballing, but could we also, I don’t know - provide them seats?”

“They’ll love that!”

“Yeah, because their dainty figures could never handle the rigors of standing.”

As I prepared to leap to 1894, Basketball Times publisher, John Akers said I should add “why” the first game was played by Vanderbilt. I explained that I didn’t know why. He then explained the concept of journalism.

I promptly purchased not one but two college basketball encyclopedias and learned two important things: (1) Both encyclopedias predated Traughber’s discovery, and (2) Neither encyclopedia made for a comfortable bathroom read.

Based on all of that arduous journalism, I crafted a couple theories “why” the first college game was played by Vanderbilt:

Though iffy at first, the Vanderbilt team became wildly excited to play upon learning that the YMCA had placed the benches on the baseline.

The Vanderbilt players included an aspiring policeman, cowboy, and construction worker who heard of fundamental joy at the YMCA.

Ahh, such a nice feeling to be done.

That was until Bill Traughber emailed me stating: "It doesn't makes sense that a southern school was the first to organize a team to play a game.” What?!!

How could he, of all people, say that? That would be like Neil Armstrong saying, “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind which may have been taken before.”

Turns out he was right. On November 18, 1892, Cal’s women’s team lost to Miss Head’s School for Girls. If only there was something funny about a school for girls named “Miss Head’s.”

The San Francisco Call’s Albert May reported, “On one end of the hall were nine of handsomest, best-shaped, loveliest coeds in the whole world.” I wonder if Albert May later worked for The Daily American.

He continued, “They were small and short, but - oh my!” Now I wonder if Albert May is related to Jeffery Toobin.

“So Vanderbilt had to be the first men’s team to play a game, right?” Wrong-o. University of Toronto beat the Toronto YMCA on January 25, 1893 according to The Complete Idiot’s Guide To Basketball. Why do I own the The Complete Idiot’s Guide To Basketball, you ask? - I hope. It was actually a gift from my wife which she found hilarious. Interestingly, the laughs ceased when I gave her The Complete Idiot's Guide To Cooking.

“That still leaves Vandy as the first in the U.S., right?” Maybe not. I learned that Naismith toured to Providence, RI with a team in 1892. I, therefore, called Brown University archivist, Peter Mackie, asking if his school could have been the first to play a basketball game. His response - “not inconceivable!” I’m pretty sure the standard is a bit higher than “not inconceivable."

But he enthusiastically explained that it was “not inconceivable” since sports teams began forming at Brown in the 1850s. He mentioned many other reasons why it was “not inconceivable”. A real journalist would have recalled those. Whereas I focused on how he came oh so close to quoting The Princess Bride.

Uh Dave, when are you getting to rectal anesthesia?

I then returned to my two college basketball encyclopedias and came across the Premo-Porretta Power Poll - a year by year ranking of teams dating back to 1892. The Power Poll was created by Patrick Premo and Phil Porretta, with substantial assistance from the letter P. I wondered why they didn’t just shorten the name to the PP Power Poll. Then I said it out loud.

Both books noted that Patrick Premo was a professor at St. Bonaventure University. Somewhat amazingly, that’s where I went to college. Even more amazing, I took his class. But most amazing was seeing St. Bonaventure in a book without immediately preceding the words Bob Lanier.

I called St. Bona’s SID hoping for assistance, but feared he might check my donation history.

He kindly connected me to Professor Premo who put me in touch with his power poll partner. Porretta informed me that The Cavalcade of Basketball credits James Tayloe Gwathmey with bringing Vanderbilt the game. My further research revealed Gwathmey got his MD from Vanderbilt and then achieved some acclaim by authoring an article entitled, Painless Childbirth. A scathing critique is in the works by my wife.

Dr. Gwathmey also developed a "rectal ether-oil anesthesia cocktail.” Something to consider when you tire of margaritas. To be clear, his anesthesia was not administered for the rectum, but through the rectum. Just making sure you have the correct visual.

Gwathmey’s work was so ground breaking that he’s known as "the father of modern anesthesiology.” I truly hope that’s inaccurate. I’d like to think that there’s now a better description for his contributions than “modern”.

“What does any of this have to do with basketball, Dave?” Well in 1914, he wrote an internationally acclaimed book on anesthesia brilliantly entitled “Anesthesia.” The chapter on rectal anesthesia was co-written by a guy named Walter Sutton. And I happened upon records that Sutton played for Naismith at Kansas. So there you have it: Basketball made its way from Naismith to Sutton to Gwathmey to Vanderbilt’s first game via rectal anesthesia.

“Wow Dave, that's incredible!” Yes, incredible. And incorrect. I subsequently discovered that Sutton didn’t enter KU until 1896, four years after the Vanderbilt game. Ugh.

I also learned that in addition to reaching the top of the rectal anesthesia world, Gwathmey became an accomplished gymnast. He even toured with a “flying circus”. And in 1915 he penned: Tumbling For Amateurs. If only it had been more widely read, then we might never have been subjected to years of, “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up.”

“Again, what does this have to do with basketball?” Well, I mentioned that Naismith took his team through Providence. And he did so with (pause for dramatic effect) a flying circus!

“Dave, this has to be the connection!” Yes it does! Unless it’s not.

Naismith went on that tour in March of 1892. While Gwathmey performed his acrobatics throughout the 1880s, he cut down to just summers once he married in 1890. The moral of the story is, of course, marriage is a wonderful cure for fun. My wife is not submitting a critique.

Naismith, however, also edited the YMCA’s magazine. And the May 1893 issue praised Gwathmey’s school of physical education at Vanderbilt. This strongly suggests that they knew each other. Then again, I’ve been with Basketball Times for almost a year, and I'm nearly positive nobody associated with this publication could pick me out of a lineup of one.

I had one final hope to clear this all up - contact Gwathmey. No, not James. Come on, he croaked in 1944.

I’m talking about Jazmon Gwathmey who played for JMU then in the WNBA. She grew up in Bealton, Virginia, not too far from Roanoke, James’ hometown. But wait there’s more: His oldest brother and father were both named William. And the name of Jazmon’s dad is - hope you’re sitting - William!

Could it be? Could one of the best female basketball players actually be related to the guy responsible (maybe) for the first college game? I tracked down Jazmon’s email and informed her of what I had found. She promised to reach out to her father and, at no point, accused me of stalking.

I waited and waited while hoping and praying. Days passed, nothing. Then it came. My heart pounded as I stared at my inbox. And there it was in 12-point Helvetica font: “Doesn’t ring a bell.”

“Sorry you didn’t get the ending you wanted, Dave.” Don’t be so sure. See there’s this other rule of humor writing that says that one should never miss a shot to end with rectal anesthesia.

Dave Barend has written for Lindy’s, College Insider and McSweeney’s. He also runs


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