Born in Alimonte, Ontario in 1861, Dr. James Naismith started his post-secondary education as a major in Physical Education at Montreal’s McGill University. He found employment at the YMCA Training School (later Springfield College), in Springfield, Massachusetts, where in the winter of 1891, he was put in charge of a class of bored and increasingly cranky undergraduates.
In desperation, his boss gave him a two week ultimatum to produce an indoor, athletic distraction that would dissipate the excess energies of his surly students, but in a manner that would prevent injuries, e.g. by limiting body contact.
One way to accomplish this was to put the goal too high for anyone to guard. This was neatly accomplished by having Mr. Stubbins, the school custodian, mount bottomless peach baskets 10 feet high on the railing of the gym gallery. Thirteen basic rules were posted on the bulletin board (though the one about not tackling didn’t catch on at first). Soccer balls were chosen for game-play, since they were the right size and the least likely to cause injury. At first, dribbling was not a part of the sport, and players simply threw the ball up and down over their heads.
Though not quite in the form that it is now played today, basketball thus became the only major sport that was custom-designed by a future physician!
By 1892, the sport was the campus rage and by 1893 it was being promulgated internationally by the YMCA movement. Naismith modestly refused to allow the sport to be named ‘Naismith Ball’ (probably just as well – somehow a team named the “Harlem Naismithball Trotters” doesn’t really work). He didn’t dally in Springfield for long, however, abandoning his presumably no-longer-cranky students to playing the new sport of ‘basketball’ in pursuit of a medical degree in Denver.
In 1898, Naismith, moved west to join the University of Kansas, oddly as its basketball coach, not in a medical capacity. Ironically, he coached the team to the only losing season in its history, which may be why he was subsequently “promoted” to Professor and University Physician in 1909. He must have been forgiven by the world for this gaffe, because he was voted into numerous sports halls of fame.
From 1914 to 1917, Naismith served as a captain and chaplain for the First Kansas Infantry and from 1917 to 1919, he was a lecturer on Moral Conditions and Sex Education in France. He rejoined the University of Kansas as Athletic Director, a position he held from 1919 until his retirement in 1937. In November 1939, Dr. Naismith passed away from a massive stroke shortly after his 78th birthday. It must have given him great satisfaction to have lived long enough to see his game become an official sport of the 1936 Olympics.
Thank you, Dr. Naismith, for basketball.
Photos from Wikipedia Commons – Public Domain