James Naismith: The Canadian Inventor of Basketball

James Naismith, Father of Basketball. Wiki Commons

Dr. James Naismith was the Canadian-born physical education instructor who, inspired by a teaching assignment and his own childhood, invented basketball in 1891.

Naismith was born in Almonte, Ontario and educated at McGill University and Presbyterian College in Montreal. He was the physical education teacher at McGill University (1887 to 1890) and moved to Springfield, Massachusetts in 1890 to work at the Y.M.C.A.

International Training School, which later became Springfield College. Under the direction of American physical-education specialist Luther Halsey Gulick, Naismith was given 14 days to create an indoor game that would provide an "athletic distraction" for a rowdy class through the brutal New England winter. His solution to the problem has become one of the most popular sports in the world, and a multi-billion dollar business.

Struggling to develop a game that would work on wooden floors in an enclosed space, Naismith studied sports like American football, soccer, and lacrosse with little success. Then he remembered a game he played as a child called "Duck on the Rock" that required players to knock a “duck” off a large boulder by throwing rocks at it. "With this game in mind, I thought that if the goal was horizontal instead of vertical, the players would be compelled to throw the ball in an arc; and force, which made for roughness, would be of no value.

A horizontal goal, then, was what I was looking for, and I pictured it in my mind," he said. 

Naismith called the game Basketball—a nod to the fact that two peach baskets, hung ten feet up in the air, provided the goals. The instructor then wrote up 13 Rules.

The first formal rules were devised in 1892.

Initially, players dribbled a soccer ball up and down a court of unspecified dimensions. Points were earned by landing the ball in a peach basket. Iron hoops and a hammock-style basket were introduced in 1893. Another decade passed, however, before the innovation of open-ended nets put an end to the practice of manually retrieving the ball from the basket each time a goal was scored.

Dr. Naismith, who became a medical doctor in 1898, was subsequently hired by the University of Kansas that same year.  He went on to establish one of collegiate basketball’s most storied programs and served as the Athletic Director and faculty member at the university for nearly 40 years, retiring in 1937.

In 1959, James Naismith was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame (called the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame.)