NAISMITH’S HANG-UP : On 14th Day, He Invented Lasting Game : What Would He Think of Basketball Today?

The year before James Naismith invented basketball here 97 winters ago, he was a 29-year-old college student who played center on his school’s football team, which was coached by a new teacher, Amos Alonzo Stagg.

In time, Naismith was to become a medical doctor, but as an 1890 student he wore only three hats.

He was an ordained Presbyterian minister and a physical training specialist as well as a star lineman who played in football’s first indoor game--against Yale at New York’s Madison Square Garden. Actually, he had invented the football hat himself, the game’s first helmet.


Canadian born and a resident of Canada his first 28 years, Naismith loved all contact sports and enjoyed the life of an American football player. He just couldn’t understand why Stagg wanted him at center. So one day, as Naismith recorded in a book he wrote at 85, three years before he died, he asked the coach for an explanation.

Stagg told him: “Jim, I play you at center because you can do the meanest things in the most gentlemanly manner.”

Plainly, Naismith played to win. It was the story of his athletic career.

It follows that when he got around to creating a new sport, he created a winner--a game that was to join tennis and soccer as one of the three most widely played in the world.

Today more Americans play basketball than any other sport--by many thousands when you count pro, playground, college, high school and other players, young and old, male and female. In total attendance, too, basketball ranks first among all U.S. games.

“The crowds always surprised him,” Naismith’s grandson, civil engineer James P. Naismith, said the other day from Texas. “He would never have believed that the Final Four could become one of the biggest spectacles in the world. He thought a game was something to be played, not seen.”

He was, in fact, a physical fitness nut who originated basketball in response to what might have been the first student protest movement on an American campus--his school’s 1891 revolt against the boredom of compulsory gym classes.

The school is Springfield College, whose present campus stretches pleasantly along the shores of tree-lined Lake Massasoit. In Naismith’s day, the school was in a single 4-story building nearby--in Winchester Square--and it wasn’t yet known as Springfield College.

To its 1885 founders, it was the School for Christian Workers. To students it was the YMCA college, a reminder of its affiliation with the Young Men’s Christian Assn.

To other Springfield citizens, it was simply the Armory Hill YMCA--a dingy, blocky building near the armory where Springfield rifles had been manufactured since the Civil War.

There, on a cold December day in 1891, Naismith invented basketball. He did it in the school’s basement gymnasium, which could be reached from the side door by a flight of steps. These days, those steps are all remaining of the historic building, which was replaced by a parking lot several years ago.

When the Armory Hill Y fell victim to the peculiar American fancy for change over tradition, the steps were carried out to the new Springfield College campus and dumped near the lake.

But they’ll be back.

An executive of basketball’s only hall of fame has so promised. He is Jerry Healy, public relations director of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary at Springfield in this year that the Final Four is celebrating its 50th anniversary at Kansas City.

“We want the steps for an exhibit,” Healy said. “We’ve had it planned all along.”

He said the exhibit will be in place well before 1991, when basketball, the world’s youngest big-time game, will observe the centennial of an invention that was unprecedented in these unique respects:

--Of America’s major sports, basketball was, and remains, the only intrinsic American game. The nation’s other pastimes all evolved slowly from sports played in other lands. Football, for instance, is rooted in soccer, whose beginnings are unclear.

Baseball, often credited to Abner Doubleday in 1839, was played earlier than that and almost certainly evolved from the old English game of rounders. Hockey is a variation of field hockey, which was played in ancient Greece, and no doubt earlier, elsewhere.

Tennis was the original sport of kings, probably French kings. Golf, long associated with Scotland, most likely grew out of a game taken there by the conquering Romans, or it might have begun in Sweden. And so on. They all grew haphazardly, over a period of many decades, in some instances over centuries.

--In 1891, by contrast, basketball was deliberately made in America by one man in one brief time period--about 24 hours.

Before Naismith, every interesting American game was geared to the outdoors. There was nothing for any athletically inclined person to do--either outside or inside--when the wind chill factor made even an afternoon walk unbearable.

Since Naismith, the difference that basketball has made to the United States is incalculable.

Basketball is everywhere today, in every town and school, in nearly every neighborhood. And no one has ever been able to improve on it, or even match it, as an indoor game.

Accordingly, 127 years after he was born near Bennie’s Corners, Ontario, Naismith continues to be the most underrated figure in modern sports. Considering what this naturalized American has meant to the America of any winter or early spring, his was the greatest invention by any individual in sports history.

The achievement was, nonetheless, consistent with the man. Only a bright and resourceful person could have become a doctor of theology as well as a medical doctor--and above all a ranking expert in physical education--in his time and circumstances.

A farm boy orphaned at 8, Naismith had displayed his venturesome nature as early as grade school, when, one winter afternoon, he took a horse-drawn sleigh out on an errand for his guardian, Peter Young, an uncle.

Seeing a shortcut across what seemed to be a frozen river, Naismith unexpectedly drove the horses onto thin ice, where they crashed through and foundered in the deep water.

At the risk of his life, the youngster jumped in and loosened the reins, then pulled first one horse and then the other to safety.

"(As) I sat down on the bank to rest a minute, I turned to see if the horses were all right,” Naismith reported many years later. “My uncle (was) standing back in the trees, watching me.”

So he wasn’t alone after all. But he had thought he was alone, and he had acted boldly--and effectively--on his own. It was a confidence-building lesson that he never forgot.


Possibly the most remarkable thing about basketball is that it was scientifically created. Each essential of the game was systematically thought out by Naismith before the first tipoff, including, for instance, the tipoff itself and even the height of the basket, which he decided to place an even 10 feet above the floor--where it has remained.

Of Naismith’s original 13 rules, 12, astonishingly, are still applicable.

In the beginning, there was nothing but a need for a new game, and the need was most urgently felt at Springfield in the 1890s.

As a school for sports-minded YMCA workers, Springfield, specializing in a new field, had enrolled the nation’s largest congregation of gym teachers and coaches, who were all experienced in calisthenics, gymnastics, apparatus exercises and related indoor activities, and who, therefore, were tired of them all.

Instead, they wanted to play a game. All fall they had played football. All spring they would play baseball. Now, with snow a foot deep outside, they wanted somebody to give them a comparably entertaining game that could be played inside all winter.

As a first step, the Springfield faculty researched and discussed the problem at length under a leader named Lewis Gullick, a physician who believed that, somehow, elements of older games might be combined in an indoor setting.

Then two experienced teachers were assigned to solve the problem. And when they failed, the assignment was handed to the school’s newest, youngest and wisest teacher, Jim Naismith, 30.

Thus was basketball invented as a school assignment.

The inventor had moved from Canada to America only the year before. With a theology degree from McGill University in Montreal, he was changing professions. He had come to Springfield for a physical education degree, and a year later he was on the faculty.

In December of 1891 Naismith’s department head, Dr. Gullick, gave him two weeks to work up a satisfactory indoor game before the Christmas holidays.

During the next 13 days, with only Sundays off, Naismith made one effort after another to interest the students in the modifications he devised for them in children’s games, sailors’ games, football games, lacrosse and others. All were pretty good adaptations. All failed to amuse the class.

And on the 14th day, Naismith created basketball.

If he couldn’t update an old game, he would come up with a new one--working alone in his small office near the school gym.

Years later, in speeches and magazine articles, and a somewhat unsatisfactory book, he described the invention process, step by step:

--First, reminding himself that most games were played with a ball, Naismith reasoned that he would have to choose between a small ball of the sort used in baseball or tennis and a larger football or soccer ball.

--Second, for a game for the masses, he shortly ruled out small balls because in each instance--from baseball or golf to hockey and squash or lacrosse--a stick or racket was required. And skill in wielding such an implement must be developed. “The game we sought would be played by many,” he said. “Therefore, it must be easy to learn.”

--Thus, third, he would use either a football or soccer ball. He told himself he would decide that later.

--Fourth, Naismith ranked the games he had played in the order of their appeal, placing rugby football first. But on an indoor floor, he knew, the physical contact essential to rugby couldn’t be allowed. Though he had decided on a rugby-sized ball, he seemed otherwise to have reached a dead end.

--Fifth, realizing suddenly that tackling could be outlawed by merely outlawing ball carrying, Naismith came to a turning-point conclusion. In his new game, he would prohibit running with the ball.

This might have been the most revolutionary decision by anyone in sports since 1823, when, at Rugby School in England, a soccer player had made exactly the opposite decision--running with a soccer ball to create rugby.

--Sixth, Naismith perceived that passing would have to be extensive to compensate for the prohibition on running. Thus he legalized throwing the ball in any direction. This was another revolutionary change for the times--although, a few years later, it prompted football to legalize the forward pass.

--Seventh, meditating at his desk, Naismith sought an objective for the players besides passing the ball around. This, the creation of a scoring play, was the most difficult aspect of his invention.

In the other sports he had analyzed, the objective was to propel a ball across a goal line or kick it over goal posts or knock it over the fence or into a receptacle. These all demanded both strength and accuracy. But in an indoor game, he reasoned, the premium should be almost entirely on accuracy. Strength would lead to the contact and roughness he was trying to avoid. He wanted a scoring play that would require comparatively little muscle.

So he outlawed kicking or smashing the ball with one’s fist, and waited for another burst of inspiration.

--Eighth, keeping accuracy in mind, Naismith finally broke new sports ground intellectually with his most original conception. He would place little boxes at either end of the gym, each about 18 inches square, and compel the players to throw the ball in an accurate arc to get it into the boxes. When it stayed in, it would count as a goal.

--Ninth, mentally picturing the action that was about to result, he realized that defensive players would simply stand around the scoring boxes and prevent all shots on goal. He had to put the boxes somewhere else, and there was only one way to go. That was up--well above the players’ heads.

--Tenth, taking another look at the football that was resting on his office floor next to a soccer ball, “I realized that (the football) was shaped so that it might be carried in the arms,” Naismith reported later. “There was to be no carrying of the ball in this new game, so I walked over, picked up the soccer ball, and started in search of (some receptacles to throw it into).”

The school janitor, asked if he could locate a couple of little boxes, told the inventor: “I haven’t any boxes, but I’ll tell you what I do have. I have two old peach baskets down in the store room.”

And so boxball became basketball when Naismith nailed the peach baskets to the walls. He nailed them 10 feet up.

Eventually, the ball was enlarged slightly. But otherwise, incredibly, there were hardly any loose ends to tidy up.

One of the few was the closed-bottom basket. It is a commentary on the rigidity of the human mind that five years after basketball had been invented--and four years after it had spread throughout the United States--somebody still had to take the ball out of the basket after every field goal and free throw.

By that time, Naismith had lost interest in his game, and had moved on to other pursuits. The peach baskets were also gone. But the peach basket mind-set remained.

Some teams persuaded friends or passers-by to stand on ladders next to the baskets and lift the ball out by hand.

And shortly, equipment companies were competing with one another, building baskets that had pull-down chains. The chain temporarily opened the bottom of the basket, releasing the ball.

The game was so much fun, however, that it survived all this nonsense until somebody finally thought of the obvious: remove the bottoms of the baskets.

In those days, running tracks circled many gymnasiums, considerably above the floor, and the baskets were usually nailed to the outside walls of the running tracks. One night a particularly imaginative team put one of its substitute players up there, next to the basket, and whenever the ball got close, he tapped it in.

This led to another change, the backboard, whose purpose was to put the game out of reach of upstairs substitutes. It also brought in the bank shot.

In still another refinement, dribbling eventually became a science of its own--although Naismith had anticipated the dribble by permitting the ball to be dropped or bounced and caught before it was passed.

He had also anticipated a wealth of players per side. Basketball, in fact, was a game with 9-man teams for several years--for one quaint reason. In the particular gym class that Naismith had taught on the 14th day, there were 18 students. Not wishing to bench anybody, he divided them in half. On each team, he delegated three forwards, three centers and three guards.

Not until 1897, six years after its invention, did basketball officially become a 5-man game. Not even Jim Naismith could think of everything in 24 hours.


James Naismith III, grandson of the inventor as well as father of James IV and grandfather of James V, likes to tell the story about the Battle of Bothwell Bridge in 17th Century Scotland.

That day, the English beat the Scots, who took off in all directions to avoid capture. Before noon, one young soldier seeking refuge in a blacksmith shop was hammering at the anvil so avidly that he fooled the English. But he didn’t fool the Bothwell townspeople.

“You’re nae smith,” one old Scotsman told him.

The name stuck. And there have been Naismiths ever since in Scotland, later Canada and the United States. The inventor’s living grandchildren number 15, who estimate that there are 35 other direct descendants.

The grandchild who knew him best, Margaret Stanley Lewis, remembers James as a bright-eyed, erect, muscular man of medium height who was into physical exercise so far that he had the build of a wrestler. He habitually wore a big mustache that turned from black to white over the years.

“He was a very human man,” Lewis said from her ranch near Westcliff, Colo. “He was gentle of manner, and gentle-voiced. Nobody ever heard him use a swear word. He lived the life he wanted his family to live, and he always made time for his friends.”

In Canada in 1869, Naismith’s father and mother had both died of typhoid fever when they were 37 and he was 8. With a brother and sister, he lived with his bachelor uncle until he was 16, when he dropped out of school to go to work as a lumberjack.

Four years later, when he and his new buddies were relaxing in the town saloon one Saturday night, Naismith looked up from his whiskey to catch a disapproving stare from an old family friend.

As James III heard the story from James II, the family friend said: “Yere mother would turn over in her grave to see ye now.”

Stung, Naismith set down his glass, wordlessly took the pledge, and walked out.

He went back to school, and then on to divinity school at McGill. There one fall afternoon he stopped by the athletic grounds to join the idlers watching football practice.

Strangely, despite his gentle and religious nature, the violence instantly appealed to him--even when the center broke his nose, leaving the varsity a man short.

Addressing the idlers, the captain said: “Won’t one of you fellows come in and help out?”

No one budged--except Naismith.

“Throwing off my coat, I volunteered to take his place,” he remembered years later.

That was the start of an athletic career that for a while was to collide sharply with the promise of his ministerial career. For his was an era in which many religious people considered sports irreligious. His guardian uncle, for instance, a devout Presbyterian, never did give him permission to play games.

Thus in the 1880s, as an older McGill University student in his late 20s, Naismith was torn. He wanted two very different careers--Presbyterian preacher and physical education teacher.

The conflict was only resolved at a McGill football game one day when an angry teammate cussed out an opponent loudly and at length.

As Naismith told it later, the teammate eventually cooled off and, regretting the profanity, said sheepishly: “I beg your pardon, Jim. I forgot you were there.”

The incident demonstrated to Naismith that he had peer respect from rough and tumble football players. This pushed him away from the pulpit, and into sports.

He hadn’t changed his life’s ambition--working with and for young people--Naismith said. He could do a good job of it from a parsonage. He could do it better as a gym teacher.

Therefore, hearing about the gym school in the States--the YMCA college at Springfield--he took the cars south. But only after lingering long enough to get his theology degree from McGill.

Unlike Amos Alonzo Stagg--who was making a similar decision about the same time but who left for Springfield without a degree from the Yale Divinity School--Naismith always finished what he started.

He had, for instance, finished grafting basketball onto America before he left for medical school at Denver--after spending only 4 of his 88 years in Springfield. A husband and father, he became a med student at 34 in 1894 and a doctor at 38.

“He never practiced medicine, just as he never held a pastorate,” his grandson, James, said from Corpus Christi, Tex. “He studied anatomy to help him understand and help young men.”

In retrospect, the first half of his life was uncommonly eventful. The last half passed uneventfully at the University of Kansas, where for decade after decade he was the director of physical education--a position he left only to battle prostitution for a year or two in World War I.

“That was in France,” his grandson said. “He was a volunteer YMCA worker over there when he was in his 50s.”

As American soldiers picked up their overnight passes and headed for Paris, Naismith would stand by the gate and shout cheerfully: “Hey, guys, we’ve got boxing here tonight--six great bouts. Stick around.”

This always stopped some of them.

“Doing it that way was typical of (Naismith),” his grandson said. “He didn’t just lecture you on VD or anything else. He gave you an alternative.”

To the snowbound schoolboys of 1891, basketball had been the big alternative. But, curiously, Naismith never cared much for the game himself.

“He only played in two games in his life,” his grandson said. “And he was never a basketball fan. He was a doer, not a watcher.”

Naismith’s granddaughter, Margaret Lewis, said: “What he was interested in was the individual athlete. He wanted to improve the person--the whole person. He thought of basketball as a very small part of the whole.”

It’s quite something else to the country that adopted him.