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Jan 15 - The invention of Basketball

Updated: Jun 7, 2021

Today in 1892 the chaplain and teacher James Naismith published the rules of basketball. This is the story of how he invented it at the Springfield YMCA in Massachusetts to survive a harsh New England winter. It is now an Olympic sport played by over 300 million people!


After studying at The Presbyterian College, Montreal, where he was awarded a Silver medal. the second highest award for work in Theology, Naismith had moved across the border to work at the Springfield YMCA in Massachusetts. One harsh New England winter, he was struggling with a rowdy class that was confined to indoor games. His boss, Dr. Luther Gulick, could see Naismith was finding it tough and was perpetually short-tempered. Gulick decided he needed a challenge and Naismith was given 14 days to create an indoor game that would provide an "athletic distraction". Gulick gave him three conditions. Firstly, that it would not take up much room, Secondly that it could help its track athletes to keep in shape, and Finally that it was to be made fair for all players and not therefore was not too rough.

Remembering his childhood enthusiasm for a game called Duck on a rock, growing up on a farm in Canada, Naismith started to plan this new game which would end up as Olympic Sport by 1924 and is now worth billions of dollars. Duck on a Rock was a medieval game that his ancestors brought over from Scotland, that combined tag and marksmanship. It is played by placing a large stone (known as a "duck") upon a a tree stump. One player stays near the stone to guard it. The other players throw stones at the duck in an attempt to knock it off of the platform. Once it is knocked off, the throwers all rush to retrieve their stones. If a player is tagged before returning to the throwing line with their stone, they become the guard. Only until the guard puts the duck back into place can they tag other player.

Adapting these ideas, Naismith nailed a peach basket onto an elevated track. In contrast with modern basketball nets, this peach basket retained its bottom. Using a soccer ball he soon realised that as the balls had to be retrieved manually after each "basket" he needed to remove the bottom of the basket, allowing the balls to be poked out each time. Remembering the first game, Naismith recalled I showed them two peach baskets I'd 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. ... 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. [The injury toll: several black eyes, one separated shoulder, and one player knocked unconscious.] "It certainly was murder."

Remembering the third challenge of Gulick was to make the game fair for all players and not too rough, Naismith adapted the rules, to no running with the ball, which stopped tackling and fighting. We tried out the game with those [new] rules which I would call fouls, and we didn't have one casualty. Today, on January 15th, Naismith wrote the original 13 rules of this sport; today the NBA rule book is 66 pages long! Other adaptions followed, the old soccer balls with laces would cause bounce passes and dribbling to be unpredictable, so a lace-free ball was invented, but it was only in the late 1950s that Tony Hinkle, searching for a ball that would be more visible to players and spectators alike, introduced the orange ball that is now in common use. Dribbling was not part of the original game except for the "bounce pass". Dribbling was introduced and was common by 1896, with a rule against the double dribble by 1898.

After working as a chaplain for the First Kansan Infantry during the First World War, Naismith eventually died of old age at the age of 78 years, 8 months after the birth of the NCAA Basketball Championship, which today has evolved to one of the biggest sports events in North America. It is estimated now that 300million people around the world play basketball.


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