November 6, 2012
On Nov. 6, 1861, James Naismith was born in Almonte, Canada. He saw athletics as a more effective ministry for helping young men than any efforts from a pulpit; along the way he created the game eventually called basketball, inspired the inventor of volleyball, and fostered sportsmanship in favor of gamesmanship.
“My attention was directed to the fact that there were other ways of influencing young people than preaching. In games it was easily seen that the man who took his part in a manly way and yet kept his thoughts and conduct clean had the respect and the confidence of the most careless. It was a short step to the conclusion that hard clean athletics could be used to seat a high standard of living for the young.” Naismith wrote in a 1928 letter saved by his granddaughter.
Naismith was orphaned when he was nine, and raised on his grandmother’s farm. Though she soon passed away as well, and Naismith, his brother and sister moved in with uncle. He initially was not enamored of school, preferring the reward of hard labor in the fields and lumber camps, and the joy of games with his friends, and he quit. His uncle Peter pushed him to return to school, and at age 19, Naismith entered high school, in the ninth grade. He graduated in two years. His uncle offered to pay for college, provided Naismith would come home and work the farm during breaks. Naismith went to McGill University in Montreal to study medicine, but quickly switched to studying theology.
Though his fellow theology students were scandalized by his interest in sports, which they thought were a tool of the devil, Naismith became a star athlete for McGill, playing lacrosse, football, rugby, gymnastics and wrestling. His earlier interest in medicine combined with theology studies led him to see the importance of nurturing the mind, body and spirit.
He received a degree in physical education from McGill in 1888, and, in 1890, his diploma in theology from the Presbyterian College. He then attended the relatively new YMCA International Training School in Springfield, Mass., where he entered the physical education program run by Dr. Luther Gulick Jr., who also designed of the YMCA inverted triangle logo, mind, body and spirit. Naismith entered the program along with Amos Alonzo Stagg, the famous Yale University athletic hero, divinity school student and future iconic football coach. They became lifelong friends, and both graduated from the two-year program in one. They were asked to join the faculty, probably to continue playing on Gulick’s football team that he had encouraged Stagg to coach. Naismith tired of the hits to his head, and his developing cauliflower ear, and developed the precursor of the football helmet out of cotton muslin and leather from an old rugby ball.
Naismith was assigned to deal with a class of “incorrigibles,” and Gulick challenged Naismith to find or invent a game to occupy them. Gulick is quoted in Rob Rains’ biography of Naismith: “We need a new game to exercise our students, a competitive game, like football or lacrosse, but it must be a game that can be played indoors. … without roughness or damage to players and equipment.”
Naismith struggled for weeks to develop a new game, and finally, when the class was about to break, thought up a game. He wrote down 13 rules; posted the rules on a bulletin board for the class; asked the maintenance manager for a couple of boxes, got peach baskets instead; nailed the baskets on the lower rail of the elevated track, and set the 18 young men to play.
It worked, beyond expectation. Within weeks upwards of 200 folks crammed the gym to watch the new game. Women at the Training School picked up the game as well. Teams were formed and competition began with other schools and organizations. Naismith himself only ever played in two games.
One of his students at the school was W. G. Morgan; inspired by the new game, he invented a game called “mintonette” while working at the YMCA in Holyoke, Mass. It is called volleyball today.
He married a fellow student, and decided to go to medical school in Denver.
When he graduated he was offered the position as director of the chapel at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, and a teaching position in the physical education department, but not as basketball coach.
Naismith did take over the basketball team, but is the only Kansas basketball coach with a losing record. His teams were 55-60 during the 10 years he coached (he often refereed the games his team played), and Naismith was far more interested in his players and men and students than as players.
He did nurture one player who went on to become the dean of basketball coaches, Forrest “Phog” Allen. Allen played for one season under Naismith, and later became the legendary Kansas coach. The apocryphal story is that Naismith told Allen, when he was offered the coaching job at Baker College, “You can’t coach basketball, you just play it.”
The rules of basketball, and the nature of sports in America changed, much to the dismay of the man who saw sports as a path for personal and spiritual development. In a 1911 speech, Naismith decried the commercialism of sports and the deleterious impact it would have, concluding “athletics have an educational value and this should be their aim in an educational institution.”
Naismith was a popular teacher, teaching the freshman hygiene class. He fostered the development of many sports programs at the University of Kansas, as athletic director. He also became a National Guard chaplain during World War I, ran very popular Sunday school classes, and spoke out against the commercialization of sports in America.
In 1936, he attended the Olympic Games in Berlin, where basketball was first played as a medal sport.
He died on Nov. 28, 1939 in Lawrence.