Skip to main content
Select Source:

Naismith, James

James Naismith

1861-1939

Canadian physical education teacher

The Canadian-born physical education instructor James Naismith made an indelible mark on sports history when he invented the game of basketball in Springfield, Massachusetts, in December 1891. With a soccer ball, two peach baskets, a ladder, and ten written rules, Naismith created the sport within two weeks, after he was asked to come up with an indoor game to keep students active during the severe New England winter. Word about "basket ball," as it was originally called, spread quickly, and by 1900 the game had gained popularity at universities across the country. Although Naismith had played the game only a handful of times, he lived to see his brainchild become an international sport, making its Olympic debut in 1936, three years before his death.

Combined Sports and Spirituality

The eldest son of Scottish immigrant John Naismith and his Scottish-Canadian wife, Margaret, James Naismith was born on November 6, 1861, near Almonte, Ontario, Canada. One of three children, eight-year-old Naismith moved with his family to a milling community in Grand Calumet, where his father took work as a sawhand. Loss was a theme of his early childhood, as he was orphaned at age ten, when his parents succumbed to typhoid fever within three weeks of each other. Naismith and his siblings then lived in the Upper Canadian village of Bennie's Corners with their maternal grandmother. When she died only two years later, an uncle, Peter Young, took over care of the Naismith children.

Young Naismith, whose athletic strength surpassed his early academic performance, attended Bennie's Corners' one-room schoolhouse. He attended Almonte High School initially for only two years, and dropped out, but four years later he returned and eventually graduated. Before and after school he worked on the Young family farm, and passed his free time playing sports with friends. In the winter, he and his peers enjoyed snowshoeing,

ice hockey, skating, and tobogganing; in summer, they swam in the Indian and Mississippi Rivers.

In 1883 Naismith entered McGill University in Montreal, Quebec, where he applied himself to his studies and became a strong student. To keep fit, he participated in football, rugby, lacrosse, and gymnastics. Completing a Bachelor of Arts degree in Philosophy and Hebrew, he graduated in the top ten in his class in 1887, and went on to study at McGill's theological school, Presbyterian College. Although he was a good theological student and won scholarships for his achievements, Naismith aggravated his professors by continuing to participate in sports. The theologians disapproved particularly of lacrosse, which some even referred to as "legalized murder." Yet Naismith held to his belief that one could pursue both an athletic and a spiritual life.

Living in Montreal, Naismith became acquainted with the Young Men's Christian Association (Y.M.C.A.), which had been founded in London around 1800 and established branches in Montreal and Boston in 1851. At the Montreal Y.M.C.A., Naismith approached the administrators with a desire to become an instructor who combined spirituality and athletics in a program for young athletes. The general secretary, D. A. Budge, told Naismith about an international training school in Springfield, Massachusetts, which trained Y.M.C.A. youth leaders. After obtaining his diploma from McGill's Presbyterian College of Theology, and becoming an unordained minister, Naismith departed for Massachusetts in the late summer of 1890.

Created a New Indoor Sport

At the Y.M.C.A. International Training School in Springfield, Naismith took courses that combined his two chief interests: spiritual and physical development. He also taught physical education to local youths, and played rugby with the Y.M.C.A.'s team. In the summer months, Y.M.C.A. youths enjoyed a wide range of sports, including football, baseball, and track and field, which peaked in interest in the 1870s and '80s. But the athletes' winter optionsmainly calisthenics, gymnastics, and drillswere much more limited.

In the winter of 1891, during his second year with the Springfield Y.M.C.A., Naismith found himself in charge of the indoor physical education program. His students consisted primarily of bored, troublemaking youths and of mature men who had begun to tire of the indoor sports options. Realizing that interest in the indoor program was beginning to wane, the head physical education instructor, Luther Gulick, charged Naismith and his co-trainees with the task of developing new indoor games. Gulick gave the trainees two weeks to come up with their new games, and to submit proposals for them. Naismith rose to the challenge.

To create a new sport, Naismith looked for inspiration to outdoor sports like soccer, lacrosse, and football, and attempted to modify them to suit an indoor format. But since the game would be played on a hardwood floor, sports involving excessive running, tackling, and rough-housing were out of the question. Brainstorming for other ideas, Naismith recalled a childhood game called "duck on the rock," which involved throwing balls into empty boxes or baskets. Realizing that the baskets or boxes, placed at opposite ends of a court, would make good goals, he adopted them for his new game. To pose more of a challenge to players, and to emphasize skill instead of force as a key to winning, Naismith decided to raise the goals above the players' heads.

His new game was beginning to take shape, and the head instructor, Gulick, was beginning to take notice. In fact, Gulick chose Naismith's plan over the other trainees' proposals, and helped him develop some rules for a promising new indoor sport. Four basic rules were the among the first to be adopted: (1) no running with the ball in hand (hence the practice of "dribbling"), (2) no tackling or rough body contact, (3) a horizontal goal above players' heads, and (4) freedom of any player to obtain the ball and score at any time.

With the help of a janitor, Naismith found two empty peach baskets that were about 15 inches in diameter around the top. With a hammer and nails, he secured them to the rails of two lower balconies on opposite ends of the gymnasium, about ten feet above the floor. (In these early days, the basket retained its bottom, and a step ladder was placed next to the basket for retrieval of the ball.) He was then ready to try out his new game with his students, who at the time did not realize they were making sports history. On that day in December 1891, they were players in the first-ever game of basketball. The new sport was an instant hit.

Chronology

1861 Born November 6 in Almonte, Ontario, Canada
1890 Arrives in Springfield, Massachusetts, to take courses in spiritual and physical development at a Y.M.C.A. training school at the School for Christian Workers (now Springfield College)
1891 Invents the game of basketball at the Y.M.C.A. in Springfield
1894 Marries Maude Shermann
1895 Becomes PE director at a Y.M.C.A. in Denver, Colorado
1898 Obtains medical degree from University of Colorado Medical School
1898 Becomes assistant gymnasium director at Kansas University
1909 Becomes a professor and doctor at Kansas University
1914 Serves as captain in Kansas First Infantry regiment
1915 Becomes a Presbyterian minister
1917 Serves 19-month post in France as Y.M.C.A. Secretary
1919 Becomes director of Kansas University's PE section
1925 Takes American citizenship
1936 Sees basketball become an official international sport at the Olympic Games in Berlin
1939 Dies on November 28 in Lawrence, Kansas

Awards and Accomplishments

1885 Silver medal for best all-around athlete, McGill University
1887 Gold medal for best all-around athlete, McGill University
1890 Silver medal for work in theology, Presbyterian College, Montreal
1910 Honorary Master's Degree in Physical Education, Kansas University
1939 Honorary Doctor of Divinity Degree, Presbyterian College, Montreal
1941 Posthumously elected to the American Academy of Physical Education
1959 Enshrined as the first member of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame

News about the game spread quickly, as the Y.M.C.A.'s nationwide newspaper, the Triangle, printed an article about the new game, along with thirteen formal rules, in January 1892. American military and naval academies also adopted the game, and arranged tournaments at home and abroad. And since the Springfield Y.M.C.A. was an international training school, trainees from around the world got wind of "basket ball," and took the game with them to their home countries. Within only two years, basketball had made its debut in more than a dozen countries.

Recognized as the Father of Basketball

Always humble and never self-promotional, Naismith avoided drawing attention to himself as the inventor of a popular new sport. Although his students had suggested he dub the game "Naismith-ball," their instructor laughed off the idea, choosing the simpler name of basket ball. Mainly a coach and teacher, Naismith played only two official basketball games in his lifetime: a public match in Springfield in 1892, and a game at the University of Kansas, where he became the assistant gymnasium director, in 1898.

After setting his new sport in motion, Naismith went on to pursue the career he had envisioned for himself, combining fitness and spirituality for a healthy body and a healthy mind. After completing his training in Springfield, he served as the physical education director at a Y.M.C.A. in Denver, Colorado. Here he attended University of Colorado Medical School, obtaining a medical degree in 1898. With his wife, Maude, he then relocated to the University of Kansas, where he first directed activities at the gymnasium, and then became a professor and doctor. Among the academic papers he published was his 1911 piece, "A Modern College."

Upon American involvement in the First World War, Naismith served as a captain in the Kansas First Infantry regiment from 1914 to 1917. Becoming an ordained Presbyterian minister in 1915, he soon added "chaplain" to his army responsibilities. In 1916 he and his regiment served for four months on the Mexican border. Upon the war's end, Naismith was nominated Y.M.C.A. Secretary, and served a nineteen-month post in France before returning to Kansas University in 1919. He became an American citizen in 1925, and he served as Kansas University's director of physical education until 1937.

Before Naismith died at age seventy-eight in 1939, he witnessed basketball's acceptance as an official international sport at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. Although he generally shied away from public acknowledgement, Naismith accepted an invitation to the Games' inaugural ceremony, and agreed to throw the ball for the Games' first-ever basketball match.

The Early Days of Basketball

The uniform on that historic day in December was long gray trousers, short sleeved jerseys and a pair of gym shoes. The team consisted of nine playersa goalkeeper, two guards (right and left), three centres (right centre, left centre, and centre), two wings (right and left) and a home man, stationed in this order from the goal. The rules called for a refereeand an umpire. With the bottoms remaining in the basket, a step ladder was placed beside the basket for retrieval.

From the eighteen members of his class, Naismith soon organized a team of nine, led by Frank Mahan as captain, for competition against teams in the eastern states. This group of nine is usually recognized as the first basketball team in history.

Source: The Early Days of Basketball." Canada's Digital Collections. http://collections.ic.gc.ca/naismith/james/basketball/early_days.htm (October 15, 2002).

Naismith never sought fame or fortune for his invention of the popular sport, and it was not until after his death that this accomplished figurewho over his lifetime received degrees in philosophy, religion, physical education, and medicineachieved true recognition for his contribution to sports history. In 1941 he was posthumously elected to the American Academy of Physical Education, and in 1959 Naismith, his name now synonymous with the Father of Basketball, was enshrined as the first member of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

FURTHER INFORMATION

Other

"Dr. James Naismith." Canada's Digital Collections. http://collections.ic.gc.ca/naismith/ (October 15, 2002).

"Dr. James Naismith." Kansas Sports Hall of Fame Web Site. http://www.kshof.org/inductees/naismith.html (October 15, 2002).

"James Naismith." Basketball Hall of Fame Web Site. http://www.hoophall.com/halloffamers/Naismith.htm (October 15, 2002).

"James Naismith: Canadian Inventor of Basketball." http://www.allsands.com/Entertainment/People/jamesnaismith_byx_gn.htm (October 15, 2002).

"Naismith's Sport Resulted in 'Basket Ball Fever.'" HawkZone.com. http://www.hawkzone.com/stories/111500/bas_fever.shtml (October 15, 2002).

Sketch by Wendy Kagan

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Naismith, James." Notable Sports Figures. . Encyclopedia.com. 14 Dec. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Naismith, James." Notable Sports Figures. . Encyclopedia.com. (December 14, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/sports/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/naismith-james

"Naismith, James." Notable Sports Figures. . Retrieved December 14, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/sports/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/naismith-james

James Naismith

James Naismith

Basketball is the only major modern sport that was"invented" by an individual. It did not evolve from another sport, such as football and soccer did, but rather was created in almost the identical form that it is played in today by a man named James Naismith (1861-1939).

James Naismith (who had no middle name but later adopted the initial "A") was born on November 6, 1861, in Almonte, Ontario, Canada. His parents, John and

Margaret (Young) Naismith, were Scottish immigrants who died in a typhoid epidemic when Naismith was nine years old, leaving him an orphan. He was raised by his strict, religious grandmother and later by a bachelor uncle. Naismith enjoyed hunting, the outdoors, and sports. He dropped out of high school to work as a logger in lumber camp for five years, then returned to finish his secondary education and entered McGill University in Montreal in 1883. He graduated in 1887 with an A.B. degree in theology. Intending to be a minister, he continued his theology studies at Presbyterian College in Montreal for three years and graduated from there in 1890.

Naismith had always been an athlete. He played football and lacrosse at McGill and directed undergraduate gymnastics classes during his last year at Presbyterian College. His interest in athletics contributed to his decision to go into physical education rather than the ministry; he decided he could do more good working with youth on the athletic field than he could as a clergyman. So in 1890 he enrolled in a two-year course in physical training at the new Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA) Training School in Springfield, Massachusetts. He served as the director of physical education at that school from 1890-1895.

From Peach Baskets to the Olympics

It was at Springfield that Naismith came up with the idea for basketball. One of his assignments as a student there, given by Luther Halsey Gulick, superintendent of the physical education department, was to create a game that would occupy the students during the wintertime, between the seasons for football and baseball in the fall and lacrosse in the spring. Naismith worked out a game that prohibited the roughness of football and eliminated the bunching of players around a goal, such as in hockey or soccer. Basing the game on the tossing principle, he tacked up a peach basket at each end of the gymnasium, 10 feet off the ground, and devised 13 simple rules for a game that involved throwing a soccer ball into the baskets. The class of 18 split into two teams of 9, and the first game of basketball was played in December 1891. Naismith did not want the game named after him-he thought the label "Naismith Ball" would be a severe detriment to the game's popularity. He approved of a name that seemed appropriate to its initial creation using peach baskets: "basketball."

Many of the same rules that Naismith created in 1891 apply to the game today, and 10 feet is still the standard basket height. Some changes that occurred included, in 1895, the standardization of number of players per team— five for men, six for women-and the introduction of dribbling in 1900 (originally, Naismith required only that the ball be passed before a shot). Another change that came about occurred somewhat accidentally when Naismith attended one of the first women's games at Smith College. The coach for the team was using Naismith's original rulebook, which contained a diagram of the playing court. On the diagram, Naismith had drawn three dotted lines, only to simplify the picture. The coach, however, had interpreted the lines as indicators of playing areas, and the women were playing on only half the court. When Naismith realized what the coach was doing, he decided that even though this was not his original intention, it made sense (women in the 1890s were not particularly athletic, as a general rule) and said that the division of field rule applied to women, but not to men. Thus the division-of-the-field rule was added.

Other changes to the game were put in place by a rules committee later, such as the initiation of a time limit of ten seconds for the defensive team to move the ball beyond midcourt (in 1932), and the elimination of the center jump after each score (in 1937). Naismith was not thrilled with these changes to the game, especially the elimination of the center jump, which he felt gave a disadvantage to the team that had scored. Naismith did suggest some revisions that he thought would help move the game along and make it more exciting. Two of these suggestions later were enacted as the modern shot clock, which allows a team only a certain amount of time to shoot the ball, and the three-point shot, granted for baskets made outside a certain boundary. Naismith told Bob Broeg of the Saturday Evening Post about what he thought was vital to the game. "Scoring is important," he said, "but not all-consuming. I think speed is. Speed, passing, and the unexpected."

The game also evolved physically; for instance, within two years the peach baskets had been replaced by a wire cylinder, and by 1894 soccer balls had been replaced by regulation-size basketballs. At one point chicken-wire netting under the cylinder caught the ball, which then of course required manual retrieval; later the basketball net was put in, which allowed the ball to fall through the cylinder but stay in the same general area. In 1895, backboards, as a safeguard to keep the ball from flying into the audience, were initiated.

The game's popularity spread rapidly, and by 1939 almost every high school and college in America had a basketball team. Nineteen thirty-nine was also the year the National Collegiate Athletic Association began its annual postseason tournament, now know as the Final Four, which has become one of the most watched television sports events in the United States. In 1936 basketball was included as one of the Olympic games, held in Berlin, thanks in large part to the efforts of a former student of Naismith's and later a highly successful basketball coach at the University of Kansas, Forrest "Phog" Allen. Allen insisted that Naismith attend the first Olympic basketball game as guest of honor, and the National Association of Basketball Coaches agreed. To raise the money to send Naismith, the coaches urged colleges and universities to charge an extra penny for admission to their 1935-36 basketball games. Enough was raised to send Naismith to the game, who proclaimed it as "the happiest moment of my life." In the rainy outdoor game, the Americans won against the Canadians by a modest score of 19-8. Naismith stated after his trip to Berlin that basketball had "grown tremendously [overseas]" and predicted that it would continue to grow "perhaps not in this country, but in foreign countries." He was partly right. Basketball is now played competitively in more than 120 countries but is also a major sport in the United States.

An Interest in Body and Soul

While at Springfield, in 1894, Naismith married Maude Evelyn Sherman, with whom he would have five children: Margaret Mason, Hellen Carolyn, John Edwin, Maude Annie, and James Sherman. They moved to Colorado in 1895, where Naismith attended the Gross Medical College (later the University of Colorado Medical School) in Denver. While working on his M.D., which he received in 1898, he served as physical director for the Denver YMCA. After receiving his medical degree, he was hired as the first physical education instructor at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. Although he coached the University's basketball and track teams until 1905, his focus while at Kansas was more on intramural sports, and he maintained the belief that basketball should be played for fun, not taken as a serious competition. He was interested in sports' contribution toward a healthy body and soul, and he conducted physical exams and maintained medical records for all male undergraduates. He was also responsible for creating a comprehensive student health service.

As a Christian moralist, Naismith's interest was in sports and moral development. He believed athletics could lead people toward both spiritual and physical development and away from immoral conduct. As one of his students said, "With him, questions of physical development inevitably led to questions of moral development, and vice versa." His views led to the publication of several articles in physical education journals and a chapter on athletics in the book The Modern High School (1916). He also wrote two books: The Basis of Clean Living (1919) and Basketball: Its Origin and Development, published posthumously in 1941.

In 1916 he was ordained as a Presbyterian minister, and he directed daily chapel services at the University of Kansas for several years. During World War I, in 1916, he spent four months as chaplain and chief hygienic officer for the First Kansas Regiment (National Guard), which was stationed on the Mexican border, and from 1917 to 1919 he served a similar capacity in the YMCA. In his latter stint, he spent time at U.S. army bases and 19 months in France, using hygiene training and athletics to help maintain and protect U.S. soldiers' morale. Naismith was naturalized as a U.S. citizen in 1925.

Naismith remained at Kansas as a faculty member until his retirement as professor emeritus in 1937. He is remembered by his students and colleagues there as a kind-hearted and considerate professor, albeit somewhat rough around the edges intellectually and not especially adept at practical matters such as money managing. He lost two houses to foreclosure, and the royalties he received from a basketball named for him later in life did not cover what he had spent. Shortly after Naismith's retirement from Kansas, his wife died, and two years later he married Florence Mae (Kinsley) Kincaid, a widow friend. Naismith died in Lawrence, Kansas, of a heart attack on November 28, 1939.

Naismith created other games besides basketball later in his life, but none gained popularity; however, he is credited for designing the first safety headgear used in football. He served in honorary capacities as head of the International Basketball Federation, the Basketball Coaches Association, and the Basketball Rules Committee. The Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts, named in his honor, enshrined him as a charter member in 1959. Naismith's contribution involved not just the creation of a universally popular game but also his influence on thousands of young people who came into contact with him. The eulogy that appeared in Journal of Health and Physical Education called Naismith "a physician who encouraged healthful living through participation through vigorous activities" and a builder of "character in the hearts of young men."

Books

American National Biography. edited by John A. Garranty and Mark C. Carnes. Oxford University Press, 1999.

Contemporary Authors. edited by Hal May, Gale Research, 1986.

Dictionary of American Biography, Supplements 1-2: To 1940.American Council of Learned Societies, 1944-1958.

World of Invention. edited by Bridget Travers, Gale Research, 1994.

Periodicals

American Scholar, Winter 1948-49: 87-925.

Maclean's, September 4, 2000: 35.

Saturday Evening Post, 261 (April 1989): 58-62.

Online

"James Naismith," Contemporary Authors Online, The Gale Group, 2000. http://www.galenet.com. (December 18, 2000). □

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"James Naismith." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. 14 Dec. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"James Naismith." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (December 14, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/james-naismith

"James Naismith." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved December 14, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/james-naismith

Naismith, James

James Naismith (nā´smĬth), 1861–1939, American athletic director, inventor (1891) of basketball, b. Almonte, Ontario. While an instructor of physical education at the International YMCA Training School (now Springfield College) at Springfield, Mass., he originated basketball as a gymnasium sport. The game was originally played with a soccer ball and two peach bushel baskets, from which the game took its name. Twelve of the thirteen rules Naismith created are still basic to the game. Naismith was later (1898–1937) director of physical education at the Univ. of Kansas.

See biography by B. L. Webb (1973).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Naismith, James." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. 14 Dec. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Naismith, James." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (December 14, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/naismith-james

"Naismith, James." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved December 14, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/naismith-james

Naismith, James

Naismith, James (1861–1939) US sportsman and inventor of basketball, b. Canada. Many of his rules are still in use today.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Naismith, James." World Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. 14 Dec. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Naismith, James." World Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. (December 14, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/naismith-james

"Naismith, James." World Encyclopedia. . Retrieved December 14, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/naismith-james