Biography of James Naismith, Inventor of Basketball

The Canadian Who Invented Basketball

James Naismith with the First Basketball Team
Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

James Naismith (1861-1939) was a Canadian sports coach who, in December of 1891, took a soccer ball and a peach basket into the gym at the Springfield, Massachusetts YMCA and invented basketball. Over the course of the next decade, he worked to refine the game and its rules and build its popularity. In 1936, basketball had become an official event at the Olympic Games in Berlin.

Fast Facts: James Naismith

  • Known For: Inventor of the game of basketball
  • Born: November 6, 1861, Almonte, Ontario, Province of Canada
  • Parents: John Naismith, Margaret Young
  • Died: November 28, 1939, in Lawrence, Kansas, U.S.
  • Education: McGill University, Presbyterian College, YMCA Training School, Gross Medical College (M.D.)
  • Published Works: A Modern College in 1911; Essence of a Healthy Life in 1918; Basketball — its Origins and Development in 1941 (posthumous)
  • Awards and Honors:  Canadian Basketball Hall of Fame, Canadian Olympic Hall of Fame, McGill University Sports Hall of Fame, Basketball Hall of Fame
  • Spouses: Maude Evelyn Sherman, Florence B. Kincaid
  • Children: Margaret Mason (Stanley), Helen Carolyn (Dodd), John Edwin, Maude Ann (Dawe), and James Sherman
  • Notable Quote: "The invention of basketball was not an accident. It was developed to meet a need. Those boys simply would not play 'Drop the Handkerchief.'"

Early Life

James Naismith was born in Ramsay township near Ontario, Canada in 1861. It was during his childhood years that developed a love of sports and learned to play a neighborhood game called "Duck on a Rock" which later influenced the development of basketball. According to the Naismith Basketball Foundation:

...“Duck on a Rock” which was a game that combined tag with throwing. Players formed a line from a distance of 15-20 feet from the base stone. Each player used a fist-sized stone. The object was to dislodge the “guards” stone from the top of the base stone, by throwing, taking turns. The guard would be positioned in a neutral area away from the thrower. If one succeeded, they would go to the back of the line. If you missed the guards’ stone, the “chase” would be on and if tagged before the stone was recovered, the players would trade places.
Over time, they discovered that if the stone was hurled like a baseball it would bound far away and increase the likelihood of being caught by the guard. The players developed a lobbed arcing shot that proved to be more controllable, more accurate, and less likely to bounce away, thus increasing their chance of retrieval.

As a young man, Naismith attended McGill University in Montreal, Quebec followed by theological training at Presbyterian College. After serving as McGill's athletic director, Naismith moved on to work at the YMCA Training School in Springfield, Massachusetts, in 1891.

Invention of Basketball

At the YMCA Training School, athletes found themselves at loose ends between the end of the football season and the start of the baseball season. Several trainers were asked to develop a sport to keep students physically active during the down season; the new game was to have two stated objectives: “make it fair for all players, and free of rough play."

After considering the balls and rules of play for several popular sports including rugby, lacrosse, football, and soccer, Naismith developed a basic game which involved throwing a soccer ball into peach baskets. The larger soccer ball, he felt, would slow down play to avoid collisions.

After a few experiments with the game, Naismith realized that rough play was inevitable near the goals and that players carrying the ball would be tackled. He also placed the goals overhead, and opened the bottom of the nets to allow the ball to drop out; in addition, remembering his childhood experience with "Duck on a Rock, he developed a new kind of lobbing toss for the game. Ultimately, he established 13 basic rules for the new game which he dubbed basketball:

  1. The Ball may be thrown in any direction by one or both hands.
  2. The ball may be batted in any direction with one or both hands (never with the fist).
  3. 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 the man who catches the ball when running if he tries to stop.
  4. The ball must be held by the hands; the arms or body must not be used for holding it.
  5. No shouldering, holding, pushing, tripping, or striking in any way the person of an opponent shall be allowed; the first infringement of the 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 game, no substitute allowed.
  6. A foul is striking at the ball with the fist, violation of rules 3, 4, and such as described in rule 5.
  7. If either side makes three consecutive fouls it shall count a goal for the opponents (consecutive means without the opponents in the meantime making a foul.)
  1. 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.
  2. 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 team.
  3. The umpire shall be the judge of the men and shall note the fouls and notify the referee when three consecutive fouls have been made. He shall have the power to disqualify men according to rule 5
  4. The referee shall be the 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 the referee.
  1. The time shall be two 15-minute halves, with 5 minutes rest between.
  2. The side making the most goals in that time shall be declared the winner. In case of a draw, the game may be by mutual agreement, be continued until another goal is made.

First College Basketball Game

Following his time at the YMCA, Naismith went on to work for the University of Kansas, initially as a chaplain. At that time, basketball was played at the college level, but competition was usually between YMCA's. It was Naismith and other Kansas coaches who helped to push the game into greater prominence, though Naismith himself did not seek the spotlight.

The first-ever college basketball game was played on January 18, 1896. On that day, the University of Iowa invited student-athletes from the new University of Chicago for an experimental game. The final score was Chicago 15, Iowa 12, which was very different from the hundred-point scores of today.

Naismith lived to see basketball adopted as an Olympic demonstration sport in 1904 and as an official event at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, as well as the birth of the National Invitation Tournament in 1938 and the NCAA Men's Division I Basketball Championship in 1939.

College basketball games were first broadcast on national TV in 1963, but it wasn't until the 1980s that sports fans ranked basketball as high as football and baseball.

Death

James Naismith died of a brain hemorrhage in 1939 and was interred at Memorial Park Cemetery in Lawrence, Kansas.

Naismith's Legacy

The Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts, is named in his honor. He was an inaugural inductee in 1959. The National Collegiate Athletic Association also rewards its top players and coaches annually with the Naismith Awards, which includes the Naismith College Player of the Year, the Naismith College Coach of the Year and the Naismith Prep Player of the Year.

Naismith was also inducted into the Canadian Basketball Hall of Fame, the Canadian Olympic Hall of Fame, the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame, the Ontario Sports Hall of Fame, the Ottawa Sports Hall of Fame, the McGill University Sports Hall of Fame, the Kansas State Sports Hall of Fame and FIBA Hall of Fame. 

Naismith's hometown of Almonte, Ontario hosts an annual 3-on-3 tournament for all ages and skill levels in his honor. Every year, this event attracts hundreds of participants and involves over 20 half-court games along the main street of the town. 

Sources

  • “Dr. James Naismith's Life.” Naismith Basketball Foundation, 13 Nov. 2014, naismithbasketballfoundation.com/james-naismith-life/.
  • Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “James Naismith.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 1 Feb. 2019, www.britannica.com/biography/James-Naismith.