Basketball is played by millions of people around the world each year and watched by even more. But who invented the sport, and why?
James Naismith was a Canadian-American sports teacher who, tasked with coming up with an indoor, contactless sport for his students during the miserable winter months, combined different elements of his favourite games to create a new sport.
With only two peach baskets to hand, little did Naismith know that his new game ‘basket-ball’ would become a national sensation that his name would forever be associated with.
Here are 10 facts about the fascinating life of James Naismith.
1. He was Canadian
James Naismith was born on 6 November 1861 in Almonte, Ontario in Canada. Naismith spent much of his childhood outside playing catch, hide-and-seek or ‘duck on a rock’, a medieval game in which one person guards a large stone from other players, who try to knock it down by throwing smaller stones at it.
2. Naismith was an orphan
His Scottish parents, John Naismith and Margaret Young, died when Naismith was very young. He therefore lived with his aunt and uncle for many years while attending school at Bennies Corners near Almonte.
3. He was a talented athlete
In 1883, Naismith entered McGill University in Montreal. Despite being described as having a slight figure at 5 feet 10 inches tall and weighing 81kg, he was a talented athlete.
Naismith represented McGill in American football, lacrosse, rugby, football and gymnastics. He played centre position on the football team and designed some padded protection for his ears.
4. He scored the first-ever touchdown in indoor football
Naismith taught physical education at McGill, becoming their first director of athletics. Yet he left in 1890 to study at the YMCA International Training School in Springfield, Massachusetts.
While on the Springfield team, Naismith scored the first touchdown of an indoor football game. It was played at the now-iconic sports arena, Madison Square Gardens, then host to boxing matches, orchestral performances, operas, circuses and more.
5. Naismith invented basketball
In the autumn of 1891, the rowdy sports students at Springfield, only allowed to play sports indoors during the harsh weather, were in need of an “athletic distraction”.
Applying his college experience, Naismith selected features of football, American football, field hockey and other outdoor sports for his new game. In theory, he removed any contact between players so it could be played inside. The game also featured 9 players on each side because his class at that time numbered 18 men.
6. He named it ‘basketball’ after the peach baskets originally used
While designing his new game, Naismith had tried to reduce body contact by making the goal tricky to guard. Rather than on the ground, the goal was suspended above the player’s heads, and they would have to score by throwing the ball soft and high, which had worked well in his favourite childhood game ‘duck on a rock’.
He asked the janitor to find him a pair of boxes but the janitor brought peach baskets instead. Naismith called the new game ‘basketball’ and put together 13 basic rules. Naismith’s original rules making walking or running with the ball illegal and limiting contact are still the foundation of the game today.
7. He played in the first public basketball game
On 12 March 1892, Naismith joined his close friend Amos Alonzo Stagg and other Springfield staff in a game against the students. The students won 5-1, with Stagg scoring the only basket for the faculty.
The Springfield Republican reported, “over 200 spectators crammed their necks over the gallery railing of the Christian Workers gymnasium while they watched the game of ‘basket ball’ between the teachers and the students.”
8. He had a medical degree
In 1898, Naismith joined the University of Kansas physical education team at Lawrence. There, he founded the Kansas Jayhawks basketball program, training a long line of prestigious basketball coaches including Phog Allen, who earned the title ‘the father of basketball coaching’.
Naismith continued to work at the University of Kansas until he retired, aged 74.
9. Naismith was not interested in self-promotion or glory
By the early 20th century, enough college teams had been created on the east coast that the first intercollegiate competitions began. In 1936, the sport even became an official event at the Summer Olympics in Berlin.
Yet while the sport continued to grow, Naismith saw basketball more as an interest, favouring gymnastics or wrestling as better types of physical activity.
10. He died in 1939 after a brain haemorrhage
He died nine days later on November 28, 1939, in his Lawrence, Kansas, home at the age of 78.
His work, Basketball – its Origins and Development, was published posthumously in 1941 and the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts, was named in his honour. Naismith’s enduring legacy, of course, was the game of basketball, one of the world’s most popular sports.