How Did the Game of Basketball Get Its Start?
The game of basketball has been around for 129 years. When we look at the history of most other sports it can be very hard to pin down the exact date of when they were invented because they are usually adapted or created from a combination of other existing games. Some sports are so old that there are no real records to prove when they began.
This is not true for the game of basketball. Fortunately, we have records and there were many witnesses to the original creation of the game. In fact, the original 13 rules, created and written by James Naismith, are preserved and on display at the DeBruce Center on the campus of the University of Kansas.
It was the late fall of 1891 in Springfield, Massachusetts where the idea first came about. Springfield College, which back then was known as The International YMCA Training College, had a new program called “Physical Education”. The program’s founding superintendent, Luther Halsey Gulick, was looking for a game that could be played in the off-season after football and lacrosse seasons were over. The game needed to be played indoors due to the cold snowy New England Winters.
Gulick called on his new young instructor James Naismith to come up with something to keep his students active and engaged. Naismith set out to create a game that was athletically challenging but not quite as rough and physical as football, lacrosse or rugby. Since it had to be played in the smaller confined space of an indoor gym, he didn’t want his students to break bones or have other serious injuries.
James Naismith: The Inventor of Basketball
James Naismith (November 6, 1861 – November 28, 1939) was a Canadian-American who invented the game of basketball at the age of 30. He was a physical educator, and also a basketball coach, a physician and a chaplain. He was a true innovator because of the way he was tasked to come up with a new athletic activity and quickly created the game of basketball.
Naismith was born on November 6, 1861. The son of Scottish immigrants, he was raised on a farm near Almonte, Ontario in Canada. As a child, he had difficulties in school but was a competent farm worker and in his free time enjoyed playing games such as catch, hide-and-seek, and duck on a rock with his friends.
He was orphaned early in his life and lived with his aunt and uncle near Almonte, where he attended high school and graduated in 1883. After high school, he attended McGill University in Montreal, where he studied physical education. While at McGill, Naismith was a talented athlete who played football, lacrosse, rugby, soccer and gymnastics.
While playing center for the football team, he used his knowledge and innovation to create a new type of padding or helmet to protect his ears. On the gymnastics team, he won numerous medals for his outstanding performance. He would go on to graduate with a BA in physical education and also received a diploma from the Presbyterian College in Montreal.
The Invention of Basketball
In 1891 Naismith was teaching physical education as a graduate student at the YMCA International Training School in Springfield, Massachusetts. In class discussions, Luther Halsey Gulick had stressed the need for a new indoor game. He called for a game “that would be interesting, easy to learn, and easy to play in the winter and by artificial light.”
Naismith was the only one really listening while Halsey lamented about needing to come up with a new game. Dreading the end of the fall sports season and the mandatory indoor gymnasium work with his class he had the motivation to follow up on Halsey’s request.
The faculty soon met to discuss the problem of the student’s cooped up energy and their disinterest in the required gymnasium work. Naismith had expressed his opinion saying, “the trouble is not with the men, but with the system that we are using.” He wanted to come up with something new and exciting to inspire his young students. He thought the activity “should be of a recreative nature, something that would appeal to their play instincts.”
By the time the meeting was over, Halsey decided to assign this task to the innovative Naismith. “Naismith,” he said. “I want you to take that class and see what you can do with it.” Naismith started working to come up with a game that could be played indoors on any type of surface, by a good number of players all at the same time. He wanted it to provide plenty of exercises, and to require a fair amount of skill, but without the roughness of football, rugby or soccer. He felt that being in a confined space could lead to more injuries.
Naismith began working on a solution and put in a great amount of thought. He used parts of other popular games at the times such as passing and the jump ball from rugby, the use of a goal in lacrosse, and the shape of the ball in soccer. There was one game from his childhood playtime on the farm in Ontario that really influenced his ideas. It was called duck on a rock.
Duck on a rock was a medieval game in which a player would try to guard a large stone from opposing players who would try to knock it down by throwing smaller stones at it. To play it effectively, Naismith found that it was better to lob the stones rather than forcefully throw them directly at the target.
This was a key idea in the creation of basketball. Naismith wanted to create a goal or target in which the ball wasn’t slammed forcefully through but required skill and finesse to hit the target. He, therefore, wanted to have a goal with a horizontal opening high enough so that the ball would need to be tossed into it rather than being thrown.
Naismith asked the school janitor if he could find two 18 inch boxes to use for the goals. The janitor came back with two peach baskets. Naismith took the baskets and nailed them to the lower rail of the gymnasium balcony, which just happened to be 10 feet from the ground. From there Naismith was ready to start the first game.