The History of basketball, a game that started with 18 men in a YMCA gymnasium in Springfield, Mass., has grown into a game that more than 300 million people play worldwide. The man who created this instantly successful sport was Dr. James Naismith.
Under orders from Dr. Luther Gulick, head of Physical Education at the School for Christian Workers. Naismith had 14 days to create an indoor game that would provide an “athletic distraction” for a rowdy class through the brutal New England winter.
Naismith’s invention didn’t come easily. Getting close to the deadline, he struggled to keep the class’ faith. His first intention was to bring outdoor games indoors, i. e., soccer and lacrosse. These games proved too physical and cumbersome.
At his wits’ end, Naismith recalled a childhood game that required players to use finesse and accuracy to become successful. After brainstorming this new idea, Naismith developed basketball’s original 13 rules and consequently, the game of basketball.
As basketball’s popularity grew, Naismith neither sought publicity nor engaged in self-promotion. He was first and foremost a physical educator who embraced recreational sport but shied away from the glory of competitive athletics.
Naismith was an intense student, collecting four degrees in the diverse fields of Philosophy, Religion, Physical Education and Medicine. Although he never had the opportunity to see the game become the astonishing spectacle it is today, Naismith’s biggest thrill came when he was sponsored by the National Association of Basketball Coaches to witness basketball become an Olympic sport at the 1936 Games held in Berlin.
Naismith became famous for creating the game of basketball, a stroke of genius that never brought him fame or fortune during his lifetime, but enormous recognition following his passing in 1939.
For his historic invention, Naismith’s name adorns the world’s only Basketball Hall of Fame, a tribute that forever makes James Naismith synonymous with basketball.
Abner Doubleday, who didn’t invent baseball, is probably a more widely recognized name than Naismith, who did invent basketball. And even those who know about him continue to learn more about the man who invented a sport designed for offseason physical exercise, which began with his own 13 basic rules, but which has grown to become a game not for a specific culture or nation or ethnic group, but for an entire planet to share and enjoy.
Naismith is the only coach in University of Kansas men’s basketball history to own a losing record. Naismith was 55-60 from 1898 to 1907, which mattered little to him only in that one of his most famous quotes was that basketball was never meant to be coached, anyway, only to be played.
The new game was explained by 13 basic rules and was played with a soccer ball, peach baskets and nine to a side. There have been major changes to the game since that first contest, which is believed to have been played Dec. 21, 1891.
But perhaps what is most amazing about Naismith’s creation, other than the fact that few sports that are purposely invented actually stand the test of time, is that the essence of basketball-throwing a ball into an elevated goal-has remained the focus from day one.
Today, Naismith would be universally recognized as a genius, a Bill Gates of sport. And in all likelihood, the opportunity would exist for him to become a multi-millionaire.
But if Naismith was The Basketball Man, he was not The Money Man, and life in 1891 was far different than in 1991 or 2001.
But if Naismith’s invention did not lead to profit, it did lead to huge popularity for basketball. Even in the final years of the 19th century, with communication and transportation that was primitive by today’s standards, the game’s growth was palpable, immediate and widespread.
James Naismith had changed the face of sport, not so much for the 19th century, but the 20th, and it is now clear, the 21st. All in an effort to keep unruly students at bay.