Basketball: How It Began – Basketball’s origin is unique among world sports because it was actually invented. Who: Dr. James A Naismith When: December 21, 1891 at 11:30 a.m. Where: The Y.M.C.A Training School located at the comer of State and Sherman in Springfield,Massachusetts Why: “The invention of Basketball was not an accident. It was developed to meet a need. Those boys simply would not play Drop the Handkerchief.” – Dr. James A. Naismith
Dr. Naismith was a young 30-year-old instructor at the Springfield Y.M.C.A Training School when he accepted a challenge from his boss, Dr. Luther Gulick, to invent a winter game to be played indoors. Those “boys” referred to in his quote were a class of 18 rowdy future Y.M.C.A. Directors that two previous instructors had given up on.
Naismith had boasted that he could invent a sport. Now he had two weeks in which to accomplish this challenge before the first class. For 13 days he tried to adapt Rugby, Soccer, American Football and Lacrosse – all sports in which he excelled. This failed because of possible injuries from physical contact. The game started taking shape when he realized that the ball had to be passed or shot at some kind of goal without any running or walking which eliminated tackling. Next, he had to decide on a goal and decided on two 18-inch boxes at either side of the gym. Remembering a childhood game called “Duck on a Rock” where a rock had to be thrown in an arc at an opponent rock, he decided that he must elevate the boxes and put them on a horizontal plane so that the opposing team could not surround them.
Now, with the fundamentals in place, he worked late into this last night and drafted the 13 “Original Rules.”
“The first game of Basketball was played in my bed the night before the first class. “ – Dr. James A. Naismith
Dr. Naismith woke up in the morning and hurried to the Secretary, Mrs. Lyons. Mrs. Lyons was asked to type the “Rules” while he went to the Janitor, Mr. Stebbins, to locate boxes. Mr. Stebbins told Dr. Naismith that he did not have any 18-inch boxes, but that he had two peach baskets in the basement. Naismith and Stebbins nailed the peach baskets to the lower track railing of the gym- which happened to be exactly ten feet from the floor. The height of the basket today is still ten feet. Just think, we could all be playing “BoxBall”!
Then at 11:30 a.m. on December 21, 1891, James pinned the two typed sheets of the “Original Rules” to the bulletin board. The first game of Basketball was played. There were nine men per side and the score was 1 to O. Mr. Stebbins stood on a ladder to retrieve the ball after a goal was made because nobody thought of cutting the bottom out of the baskets.
Basketball caught on like wild fire spreading across the country and overseas in a matter of months. Naismith credited the fact that the game was invented in the Y.M.C.A as a major factor. The students took the game back to their home towns and countries. Basketball was played in China in 1893 and the first women’s game was played at the Springfield, Massachusetts Y.M.C.A. in February 1892. Maude Sherman, James’ future wife, played in the first women’s game. Senda Bernenson introduced a modified version to the girls of Smith College in 1893.
The dribble was always in the game, according to James. When a player caught the ball, he had 15 seconds to shoot or pass. If he could do neither, they would drop the ball and catch it to restart the 15 seconds. Sometimes they would roll the ball on the floor and pick it up to restart the clock. This technique was called “Rollyball.”
Dr. Naismith invented the backboard not to bank the shots, but to protect the basketball from the fingers of the opposing fans that would deflect the ball from the goal.
If you were to see a basketball game played according to the 13 “Original Rules,” the game would look much the same. Much has been added, but little taken away.
Dr. Naismith was a lifetime member of the International Rules Committee and introduced the game to the Olympics in 1936, one of his proudest moments.
I often say that to understand Basketball, you have to understand Dr. Naismith:
“I am sure that no man can derive more pleasure from money or power than I do from seeing a pair of basketball goals in some out of the way place deep in the Wisconsin woods an old barrel hoop nailed to a tree, or’a weather-beaten shed on the Mexican border with a rusty iron hoop nailed to one end. These sights are constant reminders that I have in some measure accomplished the objective that was set years ago.”
“Thousands of times, especially in the last few years. I have been asked whether I ever got anything out of basketball. To answer this question, I can only smile. It would be impossible for me to explain my feelings to the great masses of people who ask this question, as my pay has not been in dollars, but in satisfaction of giving something to the world that is a benefit to masses of people. “ – Dr. James A. Naismith, 1939
This history is written by Ian Naismith. Grandson of Dr. James A. Naismith. Ian is currently the Founder and Director of the Naismith International Basketball Foundation. headquartered in Chicago. Illinois. Phone: (312) 782-8470 Fax: (312) 782-8475.