James Naismith – a Canadian and “The Father of Basketball”
1861-1939 Canadian physical education teacher
The Canadian-born physical education instructor James Naismith made an indelible mark on sports history when he invented the game of basketball in Springfield, Massachusetts, in December 1891. With a soccer ball, two peach baskets, a ladder, and ten written rules, Naismith created the sport within two weeks, after he was asked to come up with an indoor game to keep students active during the severe New England winter. Word about “basket ball,” as it was originally called, spread quickly, and by 1900 the game had gained popularity at universities across the country. Although Naismith had played the game only a handful of times, he lived to see his brainchild become an international sport, making its Olympic debut in 1936, three years before his death.
The eldest son of Scottish immigrant John Naismith and his Scottish-Canadian wife, Margaret, James Naismith was born on November 6, 1861, near Almonte, Ontario, Canada. One of three children, eight-year-old Naismith moved with his family to a milling community in Grand Calumet, where his father took work as a sawhand. Loss was a theme of his early childhood, as he was orphaned at age ten, when his parents succumbed to typhoid fever within three weeks of each other. Naismith and his siblings then lived in the Upper Canadian village of Bennie’s Corners with their maternal grandmother. When she died only two years later, an uncle, Peter Young, took over care of the Naismith children.
Young Naismith, whose athletic strength surpassed his early academic performance, attended Bennie’s Corners’ one-room schoolhouse. He attended Almonte High School initially for only two years, and dropped out, but four years later he returned and eventually graduated. Before and after school he worked on the Young family farm, and passed his free time playing sports with friends. In the winter, he and his peers enjoyed snowshoeing, Ice hockey, skating, and tobogganing; in summer, they swam in the Indian and Mississippi Rivers.
In 1883 Naismith entered McGill University in Montreal, Quebec, where he applied himself to his studies and became a strong student. To keep fit, he participated in football, rugby, lacrosse, and gymnastics. Completing a Bachelor of Arts degree in Philosophy and Hebrew, he graduated in the top ten in his class in 1887, and went on to study at McGill’s theological school, Presbyterian College. Although he was a good theological student and won scholarships for his achievements, Naismith aggravated his professors by continuing to participate in sports. The theologians disapproved particularly of lacrosse, which some even referred to as “legalized murder.” Yet Naismith held to his belief that one could pursue both an athletic and a spiritual life.
Living in Montreal, Naismith became acquainted with the Young Men’s Christian Association (Y.M.C.A.), which had been founded in London around 1800 and established branches in Montreal and Boston in 1851. At the Montreal Y.M.C.A., Naismith approached the administrators with a desire to become an instructor who combined spirituality and athletics in a program for young athletes. The general secretary, D. A. Budge, told Naismith about an international training school in Springfield, Massachusetts, which trained Y.M.C.A. youth leaders. After obtaining his diploma from McGill’s Presbyterian College of Theology, and becoming an unordained minister, Naismith departed for Massachusetts in the late summer of 1890.
In the winter of 1891, during his second year with the Springfield Y.M.C.A., Naismith found himself in charge of the indoor physical education program. His students consisted primarily of bored, troublemaking youths and of mature men who had begun to tire of the indoor sports options. Realizing that interest in the indoor program was beginning to wane, the head physical education instructor, Luther Gulick, charged Naismith and his co-trainees with the task of developing new indoor games. Gulick gave the trainees two weeks to come up with their new games, and to submit proposals for them. Naismith rose to the challenge.
To create a new sport, Naismith looked for inspiration to outdoor sports like soccer, lacrosse, and football, and attempted to modify them to suit an indoor format. But since the game would be played on a hardwood floor, sports involving excessive running, tackling, and rough-housing were out of the question. Brainstorming for other ideas, Naismith recalled a childhood game called “duck on the rock,” which involved throwing balls into empty boxes or baskets. Realizing that the baskets or boxes, placed at opposite ends of a court, would make good goals, he adopted them for his new game. To pose more of a challenge to players, and to emphasize skill instead of force as a key to winning, Naismith decided to raise the goals above the players’ heads.
With the help of a janitor, Naismith found two empty peach baskets that were about 15 inches in diameter around the top. With a hammer and nails, he secured them to the rails of two lower balconies on opposite ends of the gymnasium, about ten feet above the floor. (In these early days, the basket retained its bottom, and a step ladder was placed next to the basket for retrieval of the ball.) He was then ready to try out his new game with his students, who at the time did not realize they were making, sports history. On that day in December 1891, they were players in the first-ever game of basketball. The new sport was an instant hit.
Before Naismith died at age seventy-eight in 1939, he witnessed basketball’s acceptance as an official international sport at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. Although he generally shied away from public acknowledgement, Naismith accepted an invitation to the Games’ inaugural ceremony, and agreed to throw the ball for the Games’ first-ever basketball match.
Naismith never sought fame or fortune for his invention of the popular sport, and it was not until after his death that this accomplished figure—who over his lifetime received degrees in philosophy, religion, physical education, and medicine—achieved true recognition for his contribution to sports history. In 1941 he was posthumously elected to the American Academy of Physical Education, and in 1959 Naismith, his name now synonymous with the Father of Basketball, was enshrined as the first member of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
“Naismith, James.” Notable Sports Figures. . Retrieved March 07, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/sports/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/naismith-james
The invention of basketball was not an accident. It was developed to meet a need. Those boys simply would not play ‘Drop the Handkerchief.’
I am sure that no man can derive more pleasure from money or power than I do from seeing a pair of basketball goals in some out of the way place.
Be strong in body, clean in mind, lofty in ideals.