I was one year old when James died. I never had the honor or privilege of meeting him. I do, however, know his life story as though it were my own.
Canadian James Naismith was a true sportsman.
James was born in 1861 on a small family farm in rural Canada. Both parents died when he was nine years old. A relative rescued James, along with his sister and brother, by sleigh. The three orphans were raised by an uncle and other relatives.
At the age of ten, James went to work in the lumber camps and surrounding farms to help support the family. By the time he was 15, he saw no need to stay in school and dropped out of high school.
For the next four years, James worked as a lumberjack. At the age of 19, he walked into a local bar and ordered whiskey. A man standing next to him, cap pulled low over his eyes, spoke to James without turning his head.
“Ye’re Margret Young’s son, aren’t ye?”
“Aye,” James replied, reaching for his drink.
“She’d turn over in her grave to see ye.”
James set the whiskey down–never to drink again. That night, he made a silent vow to his dead mother that she would never again be ashamed of him.
At the age of 20, James returned to high school. He received a diploma two years later.
Shortly thereafter, James was accepted at McGill University and studied to become a Presbyterian minister. While at McGill, James developed a passion for sports that lasted the rest of his life. He was a dedicated athlete and was excellent at lacrosse, rugby, football, golf and fencing. During a particularly rough rugby game, while a senior in theology school, the lineman used some angry profanity. Then, turning to James said, “I beg your pardon, James. I forgot you were there.” This simple incident changed the course of his life. He was suddenly aware that he might help men more effectively through athletics than from the pulpit.
Upon graduation from McGill, James accepted a position as an instructor at the YMCA in Springfield, Massachusetts. He remained in Springfield for five years. In 1895, he accepted a similar position at the YMCA in Denver, Colorado. While in Denver for three years, he worked and attended medical school at Gross Medical School. A life-long student, this orphan and high school dropout earned no less than four Doctorate degrees. At age 35, James had already achieved more than most men do in a lifetime. And, he was just getting started.
In 1898, the University of Kansas was searching for a combination school pastor and athletic director. Kansas University asked Amos Alonzo Staag, a friend and ex-teammate of James, if he could recommend such a person. Staag quickly fired back, “James is a medical doctor, Presbyterian minister, Tee-Totaler, all-around athlete, nonsmoker, and owner of a vocabulary without cuss words.”
James accepted the position at Kansas University where he remained until his death 41 years later. While at Kansas University, his duties included pastor, coach, athletic director and professor. His door was always open to students with help and advice.
During his tenure at Kansas University, James took two extended leaves of absence. The first was in 1916, when at the age of 55, James volunteered to ride with General Pershing on the Mexican border of Texas during the war with the Mexican General, Pancho Villa, and his troops. The second was in 1917. At age 56, he volunteered to fight in France as a Military Chaplain in World War I. He was in France for two years until the war ended in 1919. His friends tried to persuade him to not go to war, but as a Kansas City Star reporter wrote, “…they reckoned not on the spirit that is “Doc” Naismith.”
As though his accomplishments had not been enough, the “Doc” made time to preach numerous sermons every Sunday. The small rural Kansas churches often could not afford a full-time preacher. Thus, they would combine their services to allow James time to drive his old Dodge from church to church. You see, the “Doc” did not charge for most of his preaching or medical practice either. When asked why he continued his hectic preaching schedule at age 72, he responded, “I owe the world more than it owes me.”
The rest of the story, as Paul Harvey would say, is that this orphan, high school drop out, lumberjack, medical doctor, military chaplain, coach and four-time Doctorate was Dr. James A. Naismith. Dr. Naismith, armed with a mission, incredible foresight, two peach baskets, a soccer ball, and a never-give-up attitude, invented the game of basketball in Springfield, Massachusetts in 1891. By the way, he did not charge for that either.
Dr. Naismith, who was 30 when he invented the game, continued to be involved in basketball for the next 48 years. He served as a lifetime member of the International Rules Committee. He also introduced basketball to the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.
Above all, Dr. Naismith was a true sportsman. Good sportsmanship does not just pertain to sporting games, but should be a driving force and fundamental core value in everyday life.
Dr. Naismith lived his life with the goal to help his fellow man and to leave the world a better place. Not only did he achieve these desires, but his mother was never ashamed of him again. The silent vow was honored
Ian Naismith is the grandson of Dr. James A. Naismith. Ian is currently the Founder and Director of the Naismith International Basketball Foundation, headquartered in Chicago, Illinois.