The sporting event that transfixes millions of Americans every March is the result of a game invented by a native Canadian who preferred wrestling and gymnastics.
James Naismith would probably be surprised by the popularity of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament long known as March Madness, or that the championship game attracted nearly 18 million viewers last year. He certainly could not have foreseen that journalists would be writing about the sport just a year after he invented “basket ball” in 1891.
The physical education instructor at the YMCA in Springfield, Massachusetts, Naismith was tasked with conceiving a safe and healthful exercise that could take place indoors during the Northeast’s often brutal winters. His idea: two teams of nine players apiece who tried to throw a soccer ball into two peach baskets nailed to a 10-foot elevated track. On Dec. 21, 1891, he pinned its 13 basic rules outside the gymnasium, with a heavy emphasis on safety and sportsmanship (five of the rules mention fouls).
“Basketball doesn’t build character; it reveals it,” Naismith said. “Be strong in body, clean in mind, lofty in ideals.”
Those enduring principles and the rules’ eternal impact on the game were dramatically illustrated in 2010, when University of Kansas alumnus David Booth paid $4.3 million for the original rules in an auction conducted by Sotheby’s in New York City. The rules, sold by the Naismith International Basketball Foundation, surpassed the $3.7 million figure at the same auction for a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation that was signed by Abraham Lincoln and purchased by Robert Kennedy.
First Game a ‘Free-for-All’
Orphaned at age 9 and raised by his uncle, Naismith was active in football, soccer, lacrosse, rugby and gymnastics at McGill University in Montreal. He served as director of athletics there and earned a bachelor’s degree in physical education.
Naismith was 28 when he went to teach at YMCA International Training College in Springfield. In the winter of 1891, “We had a real New England blizzard,” Naismith said in a 1939 radio broadcast discovered by the University of Kansas, where he established the first basketball program. “For days, the students couldn’t go outdoors so they began roughhousing in the halls. We tried everything to keep them quiet. We tried playing a modified form of football in the gymnasium, but they got bored with that. Something had to be done.
“One day, I had an idea. I called the boys to the gym, divided them up into teams of nine and gave them an old soccer ball. I showed them two peach baskets I had nailed up at each end of the gym, and I told them the idea was to throw the ball into the opposing team’s peach basket. I blew a whistle, and the first game of basketball began.”
Naismith quickly learned that this wasn’t the game he had in mind. There weren’t enough rules. “That’s where I made my big mistake,” he said. “The boys began tackling, kicking and punching in the clinches. They ended up in a free-for-all in the middle of the gym floor. Before I could pull them apart, one boy was knocked out, several of them with black eyes, and one had a dislocated shoulder. It certainly was murder.
“Well, after that first match, I was afraid they’d kill each other. But they kept nagging me to let them play again, so I made up some more rules (the 13 that are now famous). The most important one was that there should be no running with the ball. That stopped tackling and slugging. We tried out the game with those rules and we didn’t have one casualty. We had a fine, clean sport. Ten years later, basketball was being played all over the country.”
Though Naismith is universally known as the inventor of basketball, his breakthrough wasn’t an invention in the formal sense because his idea for the game has no patent (U.S. Patent 1,718,305 was granted to G.L. Pierce on June 25, 1929 for the basketball used in the game). But his creation fit the classic invention model to a T: He identified a need, conceived a plan, provided the basic elements, and made the necessary refinements. “The invention of basketball was not an accident,” the quotable Naismith said. “It was developed to meet a need. Those boys simply would not play ‘Drop the Handkerchief.’”
Huge Two-Sport Impact
It may not be a stretch to say that Naismith had more of an impact on both basketball and football than anyone. In addition to being the unquestioned inventor of basketball, he is also credited with designing the first football helmet.
But he will forever be most associated with basketball. At the 1936 Summer Olympic Games, three years before Naismith died, basketball was included in the competition for the first time. Naismith went to Berlin to present medals to the winning teams of the three North American countries: the United States (gold), Canada (silver) and Mexico (bronze). He was named honorary president of the International Basketball Federation.
“And the whole thing started with a couple of peach baskets I put up in a little gym 48 years ago,” he said in the broadcast interview 10 months before his passing. “I guess it just goes to show what you can do if you have to.”
NAISMITH’S ORIGINAL 13 BASKETBALL RULES
Many of James Naismith’s basic rules still apply. Updates or changes are noted by the National Basketball Association.
- The ball may be thrown in any direction with one or both hands. Update: Once the ball has crossed midcourt, it cannot be passed behind the midcourt line unless touched by a defensive player first.
- The ball may be batted in any direction with one or both hands (never with the fist). Update: There is no penalty for using one’s fist to hit the ball.
- A player cannot run with the ball. The player must throw it from the spot on which he catches it, allowance to be made for a man who catches the ball when running at a good speed if he tries to stop. (This still applies—though many critics claim referees long ago became lax on traveling violations, especially on dunks.)
- The ball must be held in or between the hands; the arms or body must not be used for holding it. Update: The ball can only be held in the hands or the arms of a player.
- No shouldering, holding, pushing, tripping, or striking in any way the person of an opponent shall be allowed; the first infringement of this rule by any player shall count as a foul, the second shall disqualify him until the next goal is made, or, if there was evident intent to injure the person, for the whole of the game, no substitute allowed. Update: A flagrant foul is unnecessary or excessive contact against an opponent that results in two shots and possession of the ball.
- A foul is striking at the ball with the fist, violation of Rules 3,4, and such as described in Rule 5. Update: No longer applies.
- If either side makes three consecutive fouls, it shall count a goal for the opponents (consecutive means without the opponents in the mean time making a foul). Update: No longer applies.
- A goal shall be made when the ball is thrown or batted from the grounds into the basket and stays there, providing those defending the goal do not touch or disturb the goal. If the ball rests on the edges, and the opponent moves the basket, it shall count as a goal. Update: Because there is now a hole at the bottom of the goal, this no longer applies. But touching the ball while it’s on the rim is a violation.
- When the ball goes out of bounds, it shall be thrown into the field of play by the person first touching it. In case of a dispute, the umpire shall throw it straight into the field. The thrower-in is allowed five seconds; if he holds it longer, it shall go to the opponent. If any side persists in delaying the game, the umpire shall call a foul on that side. Update: Only a player can throw a ball into the field. The five-second rule still applies.
- The umpire shall be judge of the men and shall note the fouls and notify the referee when three consecutive fouls have been made. He shall have power to disqualify men according to Rule 5. Update: In the NBA, there are now three referees in a game.
- The referee shall be judge of the ball and shall decide when the ball is in play, in bounds, to which side it belongs, and shall keep the time. He shall decide when a goal has been made, and keep account of the goals with any other duties that are usually performed by a referee. Update: There are now separate timekeepers who monitor the game clock and check substitute players into a game. A scorekeeper keeps the statistics of a game such as the score, individual statistics and fouls.
- The time shall be two 15-minute halves, with five minutes’ rest between. Update: NBA games consist of two halves with four 12-minute quarters, with a 15-minute break at halftime. NCAA games have two 20-minute halves.
- The side making the most goals in that time shall be declared the winner. In case of a draw, the game may, by agreement of the captains, be continued until another goal is made. Update: The team with the most points at the end of the game is declared the winner.