Jim Naismith (1861 – 1939)

One thing you will learn is that I love history. I like to know how things got to be the way they are. I have always had a passion for learning what lies behind everything from our current form of government to who invented paper clips (Samuel Fay in 1867). It is in this spirit that from time to time I will be looking at which people are considered the fathers of some of our favorite sports. Up this week, Jim Naismith, who is said to be the father of modern basketball.

Basketball is everywhere. It is on our TVs, on playgrounds, in gyms, in churches and a million other places. It is estimated that more than 300 million people play the game worldwide. But where did it begin and who started it? The answer is right here in America in a YMCA gym in Springfield, Massachusetts by a man named James Naismith.

James Naismith had humble beginnings. He was born in Canada and had a rough early life, moving in and out of various family members’ houses after the death of his parents when he was very young. Although he worked a tremendous amount as a young man, he always found time to play sports. Some of his favorite games to play were catch, hide-and-seek and “duck on a rock.” To play “duck on a rock,” one team tried to knock down a larger rock by throwing smaller rocks at it while another team guarded the larger rocks. Naismith soon found that lobbing the rocks softly was much more effective than throwing them straight (not to mention less dangerous). It was this realization that set the groundwork for what would later become basketball.

In college, Naismith excelled in many sports, including football, soccer and gymnastics. An interesting side note, Naismith is credited with introducing the first football helmet into regularly played games. After graduating from McGill University in Montreal, Quebec, with a degree in Physical Education, he accepted a position as the physical education teacher at the YMCA in Springfield, Massachusetts.

At the Springfield YMCA, Naismith struggled with a rowdy class which was confined to indoor games because of the very cold New England winters. As the director of physical education, Naismith was given 14 days to create an indoor game that would provide an “athletic distraction” for the young men. The YMCA demanded that it would not take up much room, could help its track athletes to keep in shape, and emphasized that it had to be fair for all players and not too rough.

In coming up with this new indoor game, Naismith was guided by three main thoughts. First, he looked at the most popular sports at that time (lacrosse, baseball and hockey, to name a few) and noticed that there were numerous hazards involving a small, fast-moving ball. He concluded that a bigger, softer ball was safest. Second, he saw that most physical contact occurred while running with the ball, kicking it or hitting it, so he decided that passing the ball from player to player would be safest. Finally, to score goals, he forced the players to throw a soft lobbing shot that had proven effective in his childhood game “duck on a rock.” In all, there were 13 rules that Naismith posted in the gym at the end of the two weeks. He decided to call this new game “Basket Ball.”

That first game in December of 1891 was a little different than what we are used to today. They played nine players on a team (as opposed to five today), they used a soccer ball, there was no dribbling and there was a jump-ball after every made basket. Also, the baskets were literally peach baskets, and someone had to climb a ladder to get the ball out after each made basket.

Naismith went on to become a basketball coach at The University of Kansas, served in World War I, and after the war became the Athletic Director at the University of Kansas. He saw the sport grow from a small YMCA winter activity to a college sport, and eventually saw the game introduced to the Olympics.

If not for that childhood game “duck on a rock” and a group of boys made unruly by the winter weather in New England, basketball never would have been born. Now the next time you see a game being played on TV, in the streets, at a gym or in school, you can tell people you know how it all began.

Until next week,

Coach Michael

Today’s Fun Fact: The elephant is the only mammal that cannot jump.

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