I had just finished watching Game 6 of the NBA finals – the game in Oakland where the Raptors prevailed over the Golden State Warriors, thus winning their first NBA championship – when I decided to dig a little deeper into basketball and came across a 1939 radio interview featuring Dr. James Naismith. Dr. Naismith told the story of a cold winter in 1891 in Springfield, MA where he was teaching at the Springfield YMCA. He was instructed by the head of the physical education department to come up with an indoor game that would distract the badly behaved young men at the “Y.” He placed a “basket” (peach basket) at either end of an indoor court, and play began with a soccer ball. The baskets were placed out of reach (10 feet) and the ball was passed rather than dribbled. There were 9 players on each team. After each “goal,” a jump ball was taken at the middle of the court, making for a low-scoring game. Naismith named the game “basket ball” and came up with 13 rules; such as, “The ball may be batted in any direction with one or both hands, but never with the fist.” (still a rule); and, “No shouldering, holding, pushing, tripping or striking in any way the person of an opponent shall be allowed …” (based on NBA games, this rule is open to interpretation). It is noteworthy that in 2010 Naismith’s rules were sold at auction for $4.3 million to the billionaire David Booth and wife Suzanne, and subsequently given over to Mr. Booth’s alma mater, the University of Kansas where the rules are on display. That’s Mr. Booth below with the “Rules of Basket Ball.”
Had Dr. Naismith not invented basketball, he is still worthy of our attention. James Naismith was born in Almonte, Ontario in 1861. (Yes, a Canadian invented basketball). When he was not yet 10 years of age, his parents died of typhoid fever and he and his siblings went to live with an uncle. An indifferent student, Naismith left high school to do rough work, eventually getting his high school equivalency before entering McGill University in Montreal at the age of 21. While at McGill he played rugby, lacrosse, soccer and gymnastics, and graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree. He went on to study theology while teaching physical education at McGill. In 1891, he left Montreal to train as a YMCA Physical Education Director at the International YMCA Training School in Springfield, MA (the school later to become Springfield College). He could have stopped there, with his invention of basket ball.
In 1895 he (newly married) moved to Denver, CO to work as a physical education director while pursuing a medical degree at the University of Colorado. Then, in 1898, he was off to the University of Kansas as an associate professor and to create the university’s men’s basketball program. Ironically, through the storied history of the UK basketball Jayhawks, only one coach has had a losing record – Dr. James Naismith.
But that aside, there is more to the Naismith story. The good doctor volunteered as a chaplain for the Kansas Army National Guard and in 1916 was part of a patrol along the border with Mexico, following a raid by Pancho Villa (That border!! What can one do? A wall maybe?). In 1917 he spent time in Paris during the Great War. Dr. Naismith returned to the University of Kansas, where he served as campus physician and director of athletics until the age of 76.
During his interview Dr. Naismith sounded very proud of the fact that basketball made its debut at the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games. And well he should. Dr. James Naismith passed away in 1939. I am thinking; maybe when I pass I might like to be bronzed. Sit me on a bench at the golf course. Scare the sh*t out of unsuspecting green fee players.
So far has basketball come?
What started with some imagination in humble surroundings has grown into the second most popular sport in the world (after what we know as soccer, and the rest of the world knows as football). Basketball has become the most popular sport in Toronto, with hockey well down the list, as the Leafs are more than 50 years removed from a Stanley Cup, and with no relief in sight.
As much as I have been intrigued by the NBA final, I am more of a fan of NCAA basketball, especially when its “March Madness” rolls around each year. The NBA was relatively slow to include non-white players, with the first African-Americans appearing in 1950. By comparison, integration of major league baseball began in 1947, when Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers.
In the period leading up to 1947, few African-Americans played basketball at the major college level, with at least one notable exception – Jackie Robinson. Jackie played for UCLA from 1939 to 1941. Besides playing basketball well, he was a champion long jumper (it was called broad jumping when I went to high school – and it was probably wise to change the name), an All-American halfback in football, as well as a baseball shortstop. Here is Jackie as a collegiate basketball star.
And now, almost 70 years after the NBA integrated, African-Americans comprise about three-quarters of the player base.
Watching March Madness this year, and the NBA finals, I am reminded at the level of athleticism that is on display. Players who are equally adept with either hand, whether dribbling, passing or shooting. None more adept than Kawhi Leonard, the Raptor’s leader and the NBA playoffs most valuable player. And now, sadly for Toronto, and all of Canada of that matter, Kawhi has signed a contract with the LA Clippers.