A Short History of Basketball – Indiana Edition
From the Book:
The Invention of Basketball
The athletic director at the YMCA Training School in Springfield, Massachusetts, James Naismith, invented the game of basketball in 1891.
James Naismith (November 6, 1861 – November 28, 1939)
The son of John and Margaret Young Naismith. James was native to Mississippi Mills in Ontario, Canada. His parents died of typhoid fever while he was young, leaving him and his siblings orphans. Their uncle, Peter Young, who lived in nearby Bennie’s Corners, took them in. He had attended school in a one-room schoolhouse at Mississippi Mills, and Almonte High School, near his uncle’s home. Struggling in school, he quit in 1875 to work on his uncle’s farm during the summers and at a logging camp in the winter. He returned to high school in 1881 and graduated in 1883.
His boyhood years he spent attending a one room school house. Naismith and his friends spent as much time as possible outside playing games. One of he games they played was a game they called Duck on a Rock. In this game players place a stone, called a duck, on top of a larger rock, tree stump or post. One player guards the rock while other players tried to knock the stone off by throwing stones at it. When someone knocked it off, all the players must retrieve their stone before the guard taged them. The first player tagged becomes the guard. The guard must replace the duck on the rock before he can chase and tag anyone. In order to get the stone they were throwing at the duck over the head of the guard, the boys developed a high, lobbing throw to get it over his head. This game, and the high lobbing throw, probably influenced Naismith when he invented his game of basketball later in life. In 1883 he enrolled at McGill University in Montréal, Canada.
At McGill he studied philosophy and Hebrew and proved his prowess in several sports that included lacrosse, football, rugby, soccer and gymnastics. He also played football at the university as a starter for three years. During his college years at McGill he earned several athletic awards. He graduated in 1887 with a Bachelor of Arts Degree.
After his graduation from McGill University, Naismith attended Presbyterian College to study theology. He took a job at nearby McGill University teaching Phys Ed. The job enabled him to earn money to pay his tuition at Presbyterian College. McGill hired him to work as their first full time athletic director in 1889. He earned a theology degree when he graduated from Presbyterian College in 1890. At this point, Naismith decided to embark on a career in sports and enrolled at the YMCA Training School in Springfield Massachusetts, which later became Springfield College.
Founded by George Williams in London on June 6, 1844, the YMCA’s purpose was to provide a safe haven for young men to live off of the streets of London. The Industrial Revolution, which began around 1750 and ended around 1850, had caused the migration of rural British men to the cities to find work. The growth of the railroad, industry and commerce in general led to a need for workers. These men often worked ten to twelve hours per day, six days a week. They usually lived in rooms above their workplace or boarding houses. Conditions were unsanitary and privacy did not exist. The streets of the city at the time were horrendous, with open sewers, pickpockets and other criminals roaming about the crowded sidewalks. Prostitutes, thousands of abandoned children, drunks and other unfortunates also populated these streets. The streets were dangerous and foul, so living in a room over the business was preferable to living on the streets.
Sir George Williams (October 11, 1821 – November 6, 1905)
The son of Amos and Elizabeth Williams, George was native to a farm near Dulverton, Somersetshire, England. When he reached twenty years old, Williams migrated to London to find work. He soon found an apprenticeship with a draper firm, the George Hitchcock and Company. A draper served as a wholesaler or retailer of cloth used mainly for clothing. Williams learned the business and lived in a room above the shop with many of the other employees. He later described himself as a “careless, thoughtless, godless, swearing young fellow”. He converted to Christianity in 1837, becoming involved with the Zion Congregational Church. The living conditions on the streets appalled him, thus he and some of his fellow employees started the Young Men’s Christian Association to provide a safe place for young men to live and study the bible. His employer, George Hitchcock, became one of his first converts. Williams would later marry Hitchcock’s daughter, Helen Jane Maunder Hitchcock. The couple would have one son. Queen Victoria knighted Williams in 1894 for his work.
The concept of the YMCA proved popular and soon more chapters opened. By 1851 there were twenty four Y’s in Britain. The same year, the first Y opened in Montreal, Canada and Boston on December 29, 1851 in the Old South Church. The YMCA held its first international convention in 1854. By this time there were over 30,000 members in 397 chapters in seven countries.
Students at the Training School participated in a wide range of sports like Lacrosse, football and soccer. Naismith played football while at the Training Center. The rough nature of football caused Naismith to develop cauliflower ears, which is a deformity caused by severe trauma to the ears. The nature of the injury blocks the blood vessels that lead to the ear which in turn leads to tissue damage. If the condition is not treated the ears develop a lumpy appearance that resemble cauliflower. To protect his ears, Naismith developed a method of wrapping that protected his ears and has led many to crediting him with the invention of the football helmet. However there is little or no evidence that other players adopted his headgear, so the results are unclear. At any rate, the cold, difficult winters in New England made it difficult for the athletes to stay in shape during the long, frigid months. Thus, the director of sports at the school, Dr. Luther Gulick, asked Naismith to come up with a game the athletes could play in the gymnasium during the cold weather. His only request on the nature of the game was, “make it fair for all players, and free of rough play.”
Historical lore relates that Naismith used his childhood game of “duck on a rock,” as a model for his new game.
He asked the school custodian, Pop Stebbins, for two boxes, however Stebbins had no boxes. He gave Naismith two peach baskets, instead. He chose a soft soccer ball for players to use to play the game. The soft nature of the ball would minimize injury. The goal would be for players to toss the ball into the baskets placed on opposing ends of the gymnasium. First he placed the baskets on the floor, but realized that players could guard the baskets too easily, making it almost impossible to score as well as increasing the chances of body contact and injury. On December 21, 1891 he drafted a set of rules for his new game, posted them on the gymnasium walls, fastened the baskets on balcony railings that were ten feet above the gym’s floor in the morning and waited until later in the day when the game would begin.
When it was time to start the game, Naismith divided the boys into two teams of nine each. This first game quickly evolved into a free for all as the boys tackled, punched and kicked each other. One boy was knocked unconscious and several sported black eyes before Naismith could end the game. Realizing he had not provided enough rules, he revised them, ending up with the game’s first thirteen formal rules.
Naismith named his new game Basket Ball. At first each time someone scored a basket, the players had to wait for the janitor to remove the ball from the basket with the stepladder. After a while, someone poked a small hole in the bottom of the basket so someone could knock the ball out with a pole. At some point, players removed the bottom of the basket altogether so it would fall through. No one replaced the basket with a metal rim and net until 1906. The basket shaped net mimics the original basket Naismith used in those first games. To score, players developed the now familiar lobbing throw to get the ball over the outstretched hands of defensive players guarding the basket.
Naismith and Maude E. Sherman, a native of Springfield, Massachusetts, married on June 20, 1894. The couple would have five children. After publishing the game’s rules in the “American Sports Publishing Company.” He moved to Denver, Colorado in 1895 to become the Physical Education director at the YMCA there. He enrolled at the University of Colorado Medical School to obtain a medical degree.
After graduating with a medical degree in 1898 Naismith took a position as associate professor of physical culture and chapel director at the University of Kansas in 1898. He established the basketball program at the University the same year. During the years he coached the team he acquired a compiled a 55–60 record, the only Kansas coach to have a losing record.
During the Mexican Revolution, which lasted from about 1910 – 1920, Mexican revolutionary general Pancho Villa began staging raids in the United States. The United States organized a unit to patrol the border and repel Villa. Naismith volunteered to join this force as a chaplain in 1916 and traveled to the Mexican border. During his service he organized sports leagues for the soldier, conducted religious services and counseled soldiers in need of guidance. He volunteered to serve as a chaplain in World War I as an “overseas secretary” of the YMCA. His task was to oversee the social hygiene of the doughboys stationed in Europe. He received a station in Paris where he remained until March 1919.
After his stint in the war, Naismith returned to the University of Kansas where he took the positions of campus physician and director of athletics. He retired in 1937 and passed away at his residence in Lawrence, Kansas. After his death Naismith was interred at Memorial Park Cemetery, Lawrence, Douglas County, Kansas.
Prior to the first basketball game, Naismith had posted the rules to his new game on the gymnasium in the morning of December 21, 1891 and fastened two peach baskets to the lower rail of the balconies that overlooked both ends of the gym. Later that night he arrived at the gym to find 18 boys awaiting him. He divided the boys into two teams of nine and play commenced.
The slow paced game ended when William Chase became the first basketball player to score a goal when he hit a 25 foot shot. The ball stayed in the peach basket, ending the game at 1 – 0.
As more games took place Springfield residents began gathering to watch the teams play. Word of mouth advertising spread the message about the fascinating new game that Naismith had devised.
The sport gained in popularity from the time Naismith invented it in 1891. More YMCA centers picked up the sport and by 1895 several women’s high schools picked up the sport. By 1898 there were college teams, professional teams and amateur sports club teams. The National Basketball League formed in 1898 as the first professional league. Naismith went on to found the basketball program at University of Kansas.
This story is excerpted from my book, A Short History of Basketball – Indiana Edition, a part of the Indiana History Series.
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