Naismith, James (1861-1939)

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Naismith, James (1861-1939)

Dr. James Naismith would no doubt be astounded to see the degree to which the game he invented in the late nineteenth century has changed and evolved. As it was, Naismith—during his remarkable life—saw the game transformed from one in which people tried to throw a ball into a peach basket to one in which athletic players competed at an extremely high level. As Glenn Dickey has noted in his book The History of Professional Basketball Since 1896, basket-ball is "the only true American game," as there existed nothing even remotely resembling basketball until Naismith invented the game in 1891 in Springfield, Massachusetts. Naismith's invention grew out a need to help fulfill a curriculum requirement at the Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA) Training School where he taught; students there were required to exercise for one hour per day. While students played football in the fall and baseball in the spring, they had no winter sport and had to resort to one hour per day of calisthenics, which was extremely unpopular. Little did Naismith know that he would not only fill that hour with a more enjoyable activity, but he would also create one of the twentieth century's most popular sports.

Naismith's life prior to landing in Springfield was a rather bumpy one. He was born in Ontario, Canada, and dropped out of high school in his mid-teens, feeling that further education was not necessary for his future. He began working as a lumberjack to support his brother and sister. After five years of work, Naismith decided that he needed to return to school to advance himself and, in 1881, he reentered high school, beginning with his second year. After graduation from high school, he decided to enter a university, despite family opposition. His uncle, who had taken over care of the Naismith children following the death of both of their parents from typhoid fever in 1870, wanted James to stay and help run the family farm.

Despite his uncle's opposition, Naismith attended McGill University in Montreal, where he became involved in athletics, particularly rugby. Naismith also excelled in academics, graduating with a degree in philosophy and Hebrew in 1887; he was named one of the top ten students in his class. Following his graduation, Naismith decided to pursue a theological education at Presbyterian College, a school which was affiliated with McGill. Upon finishing his theological work, Naismith decided, in 1890, to move to Springfield to take part in the recently founded International Young Men's Christian Association Training School, created to train laymen in the promotion of Christian ideas.

As Bernice Larson Webb notes in her book The Basketball Man: James Naismith, the guiding ideas of the YMCA Training School were "A sound mind in a sound body," and that sports could be used to build character. According to Webb, Naismith wholeheartedly agreed with this philosophy and ardently wanted to be one of the men who spread it. Naismith took a position as a physical education instructor in Springfield, where he taught until the summer of 1895, after which he moved to Denver, Colorado, to serve as physical education director for the Denver YMCA.

Naismith first began to formulate the principles of basketball in an attempt to help satisfy the needs of a group of students in a class in the Training School's Secretarial Department—many of the older men in the class became bored with the exercises they were forced to do to fulfill the school's physical education requirement. Because the activity had to take place indoors, Naismith realized that he needed to a create a game in which running, due to lack of space, and tackling, because of wooden floors, were kept to a minimum. To solve this dilemma, he came up with the idea that players should try to throw a ball into a peach basket, with passing the ball between players used to replace tackling. While the rules of basketball evolved to a great extent, Naismith had come up with the game's basic principles.

Following his YMCA career in Denver and Springfield, Naismith became the first in a long line of famous coaches at the University of Kansas, which has had one of the most successful basketball programs in the country. When Naismith arrived in 1898 as the University's physical education and religious director, the school did not yet have a basketball program. He coached the Jayhawks from 1898 to 1907, where he had the dubious honor of being the only coach in Kansas history to compile a losing record; his teams won 55 games and lost 60.

Because he had an interest in helping to promote other sports programs at Kansas and never became obsessed with basketball, Naismith handed the coaching reins over to F.C. "Phog" Allen in 1907. Additionally, according to his biographer Bernice Webb, Naismith was "noticeably uninterested" in coaching basketball and was more concerned with building players' character and physical fortitude than he was with winning games. Naismith was apparently also unhappy with many of the changes which were occurring in the game he invented. He is quoted in the "Century of Basketball" section of the University of Kansas basketball webpage as saying "Oh, my gracious. They are murdering my game … " in response to the physical play he witnessed in a 1910 game between Kansas and Missouri.

In addition to the inventing the game of basketball, Naismith also invented the football helmet. When playing football in Spring-field, he frequently complained of receiving ear bruises. To help alleviate the problem, he cut a football lengthwise and began wearing it on his head. The innovation not only prevented injuries, but more significantly it fostered the further development of the game of football.

Naismith and his wife Maude, whom he married in June 1894, had three daughters. Naismith retired from the University of Kansas faculty in 1937. He died in 1939 at the age of 78. The National Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield is named for Naismith, and he was inducted into the Hall in 1959.

—Jason George

Further Reading:

"The Beginnings—Dr. James Naismith." University of Kansas Men's Basketball Homepage. April 1999.

Dickey, Glenn. The History of Professional Basketball since 1896. New York, Stein and Day, 1982.

"Dr. James Naismith: Head Coach, 1898-1907." University of Kansas Men's Basketball Homepage. April 1999.

Webb, Bernice Larson. The Basketball Man: James Naismith. Lawrence, The University Press of Kansas, 1973.