The founding document of Basketball, one of the most popular spectator and participant sports in the world.
James Naismith's original set of rules that he posted in the Springfield YMCA gym the day that he first introduced his invention to his students.
A document that transcends sports, being the genesis of a creation of American culture that has become as influential as jazz and as pervasive as Hollywood.
"The ball to be an ordinary Association foot ball." So begins the most significant original document in the history of world sport: James Naismith's founding rules for basketball. Moreover, the key to the significance of this document is to be found in this bland preamble.
Football—one of the most popular spectator and participant sports in the world—began no-one-quite-knows when and no-one-quite-knows where. We do know that by the time James Naismith matriculated at McGill University in 1883, three styles of football were widely known in North America, the first two of which were played across the English-speaking world: association football, rugby football, and collegiate, or American, football. Gaelic football and Victorian, or Australian, Rules football had both also been contested for several decades at this point, and rugby football was very shortly to split, amoeba-fashion, into rugby league and rugby union.
These myriad games had developed organically from ancestral ball sports whose origins are lost in the mists of the Middle Ages, if not actually Antiquity. The paper trail of each of these versions of football begins with a modern clarification, amplification, and codification of the conventions by which the games were played on the field. The Cambridge Rules of 1848 was only the first of several competing sets of regulations under which association football could be played in nineteenth-century Great Britain, and it was not until 1886 that the International Football Association Board essentially standardized the "Laws of the Game."
All of which is by way of explanation why Naismith could not simply write "The ball to be an ordinary foot ball." An association football not only had to be specified, Naismith thought it prudent to underscore it.
The number of sorts of footballs that were (and are) available is a reflection of how that sport developed, evolving and splintering in many directions, due in large part to the lack of a standard system of rules. In this vital respect, basketball stands in contrast to football and every other major team sport, most especially baseball. The same is true of most individual sports as well. The modern version of golf developed in Scotland during the fifteenth century, but the first rules of the game were not written down until 1744.
The origin of basketball is not a matter of speculation, nor is the source of the sport shrouded in mystery. Basketball burst fully formed, like Athena, from the head of James Naismith, a thirty-year-old physical education teacher at the Young Men's Christian Association Training College in Springfield, Massachusetts, in December 1891.
Naismith's game has certainly not remained static during the past twelve decades; basketball has embraced many developments, including the introduction of a bespoke ball in 1894. But neither has the sport splintered. So constant to its beginnings has basketball remained that a contemporary sports innovator could preface the rules of a new game with the injunction "The ball to be an ordinary basketball," and no further clarification or explanation would be needed.
James Naismith arrived in Springfield after seven years studying in Montreal, first at McGill and then for three years at the Presbyterian College affiliated with the University. A committed Christian of the "muscular" persuasion, Naismith had excelled in the gymnasium and on the playing field as both an undergraduate and a "theolog," participating in acrobatics and gymnastics, as well as rugby and lacrosse.
Naismith completed the two-year course to become a YMCA physical director in a single year, and in 1891 he was offered a faculty position by the Dean of the Training College, Dr. Luther Gulick. That autumn Gulick taught a new seminar in psychology for upperclassmen and young faculty. Among the topics discussed by the class—whose few students included, in addition to Naismith, the legendary Amos Alonzo Stagg—was the pressing need for a new game that could be played during the winter months, indoors and with artificial light. In his own history of his game, Basketball: Its Origins and Development, Naismith admits that while everyone in the class was supremely confident that he could easily devise such a game, when the seminar convened the following week, "none of us had anything to offer."
The end of the season for fall sports highlighted the want of a winter sport. With football season over—the collegiate variety, which Stagg had successfully introduced to Springfield—the students had no outlet for their competitive instincts until the spring brought baseball and track and field. The Y College still had a physical education requirement during winter term, and classes consisted of calisthenics, training with apparatus like medicine balls and Indian clubs, tumbling and other rudimentary gymnastics, and even juvenile diversions such as sack races.
While even the students in the physical directors program found this winter regime repetitive and boring, the students in the Y's secretarial (or administrative) training program threatened to incite a full-fledged revolution. Gulick had assigned this recalcitrant class to a number of his graduate assistants, who had tried to ease the monotony by introducing marching and various European schools of calisthenics. These activities provided exercise for the students, but they did not provide enjoyment or enthusiasm.
Although Naismith was carrying a full teaching load that included Biblical study and psychology in addition to boxing, wrestling, and canoeing, Gulick gave him charge of the troublesome class of administrative trainees. Perhaps Gulick had remembered that when he had once jokingly accused his cherished pupil of being an obstructionist, Naismith had replied, "I am not an obstructionist, but a pathfinder."
While Naismith was not initially pleased with the assignment, he had in some ways brought it on himself. Although he failed to design a new game as part of Gulick's seminar earlier in the fall, he had then stated that the key to such an invention was "to take the factors of our known games and recombine them. ..." He had also defended the disorderly secretarial students at a faculty meeting, pointing out that "The trouble is not with the men but with the system we are using. This kind of work for this particular class should be of a recreational nature, something that would appeal to their play instincts." Moreover, something about Gulick's order engaged Naismith's own competitive sense, and so he accepted the challenge.
Naismith tried, in turn, to modify American football, soccer, and lacrosse for indoor play; all of these modifications, Naismith later recalled, had similar results: "The beginners were injured and the experts were disgusted; [and] another game went into the discard." Two weeks of failure left Naismith discouraged, but also determined. As he wrote in Basketball, "All the stubbornness of my Scotch ancestry was aroused; all my pride of achievement urged me on. ..."
He began now to think seriously of devising an entirely new game, having recognized that by modifying already popular sports, he was simply inciting the antagonism of their followers. He began with a few basic premises: that virtually all team sports use a ball; that large balls tend to be easier to catch and handle, while small balls tend to require a intermediate piece of equipment—bat, stick, racquet—to handle them; that the game must be relatively simple, since it would be played by a large number of participants; and that tackling and other physical contact would have to be abolished because of the small and indoor playing area.
Continuing to ponder these general concepts, Naismith hit on what he considered the key principle of creating a new game that would not violate the traditions of any established sport. So taken was he with his idea, Naismith wrote, that he sat up at his desk, snapped his fingers, and spoke out loud. Tackling was necessary in football and rugby to stop the runner from advancing the ball. But if the player with the ball "can't run with the ball, we don't have to tackle; and if we don't have to tackle, the roughness will be eliminated."
Since the ball could not be advanced by running, Naismith determined that it could be passed or batted in any direction, including forward, which anticipated the forward pass in American football by some fifteen years. The final major component Naismith figured out was his most innovative. In order to keep his new game from devolving into keep-away, he needed a goal for the ball. Naismith feared, however, that a large net target like those used in soccer or lacrosse would encourage defenders to bunch around the goal and also invite shooters to throw the ball at the goal with maximum power, either of which could lead to the sort of roughness that he wanted to keep out of the gymnasium.
He was inspired to recall a game he had played as a boy in Ontario, Canada, "Duck on the Rock." It is somewhat ironic to read Naismith's nostalgic description of this boyhood pursuit, since "Duck on the Rock" would undoubtedly strike today's phys ed instructors with horror. "Each of us would get a 'duck,' a stone about as large as our two doubled fists. About twenty feet from [a] large rock we would draw a base line, and then in various manners we would choose one of the group to be guard, or 'it.' To start the game, the guard placed his duck on the rock, and we behind the base line attempted to knock it off by throwing our ducks. More often than not, when we threw our ducks we missed, and if we went to retrieve them, the guard tagged us; then one of us had to change places with him."
While Naismith fortunately did not introduce into his new game the throwing of stones as large as the doubled fists of the competitors, he did recall that players who tossed their ducks in an arc, rather than simply as straight and hard as they could, had a distinct advantage. So, with "Duck on the Rock" in his mind, Naismith realized "that if the goal were horizontal instead of vertical, the players would be compelled to throw the ball in arc; and force, which made for roughness, would be of no value." To keep defenders from ringing the goal, Naismith decided that it would be placed above the players' heads.
He next decided that the game would begin with the ball being tossed between a single player from each the two teams, and figuring, rather nonchalantly, that any other difficulties could be solved during the course of play, Naismith put his yet-unnamed new sport out of his mind. He did not think of it again until late that evening when, he later claimed, he became "the first person who ever played basketball; and although I used the bed for a court, I certainly played a hard game that night."
It would be interesting to know what the game that Naismith conjured up in his imagination looked like, for he later wrote that it was not until the next day that he chose to use a soccer ball rather than a rugby ball. It was also on the morning of the first game that the type and height of goal was decided upon. Naismith asked "Pop" Stebbins, the custodian at the Training College, if he had two boxes approximately eighteen inches square. Fate perhaps intervened, for Stebbins had no such boxes, but told Naismith that he did "have two old peach baskets down in the store room, if they will do you any good." Naismith took the two half-bushel baskets and nailed them, at opposite ends, to the lower rail of the gymnasium's balcony, which was ten feet high.
Only then, just a few moments before his class was to meet, did Naismith recognize that he "needed a set of rules, in order that the men might have some guide" to his new game. So fully in his mind had he thought out the game, that in a less than an hour he had his set of rules sketched out on a scratch pad; this he took to the office of the College's stenographer, Miss Lyons, who helped him type up a complete and legible set of the thirteen rules.
He took the two sheets to the gym and posted them with thumbtacks to a bulletin board just inside the door and then walked around the gym waiting for his students to arrive. "I was sure in my own mind," Naismith recalled, "that the game was good, but it needed a real test. I felt that its success or failure depended largely on the way that first class received it." Naismith divided his eighteen students into two teams of nine, read them the rules, and began play. While the first few minutes were dominated by rough play and many fouls, even the modest Naismith would acknowledge that "The game was a success from the time that the first ball was tossed up. The players were interested and seemed to enjoy the game. Word soon got around that they were having fun in Naismith's gym class, and only a few days after the first game we began to have a gallery."
James Naismith had invented a game that would succeed far beyond its original goal of providing some competitive recreation for winter-term students at the YMCA's Training College. Basketball would almost immediately become a sporting phenomenon, sweeping the country and then the globe, attracting players and audiences of women as well as men, and becoming an icon of American culture as well known and as widely influential as jazz and as pervasive as Hollywood. Naismith, in other words, had done the impossible.
James Naismith was born in Almonte, Ontario, on 6 November 1861 and died in Lawrence, Kansas, on 28 November 1939, and he is probably one of the few people who would say that his greatest accomplishment during those seventy-eight years was not the invention of basketball. The title of Bernice Larson Webb's pioneering biography of Naismith, The Basketball Man, might even have irritated him slightly; he would have preferred to have been known as The Teacher.
Naismith was taught self-reliance not only by his Scots-Presbyterian background but by his own unfortunate circumstances. He was orphaned at the age of eight when a typhoid epidemic killed both of his parents; he and an older sister and younger brother were taken in first by their grandmother and then by a bachelor uncle little older than the children themselves.
At Bennie's Corners, a small town in logging country, Naismith learned the importance of both work and play in a person's development. Depending on the season, he and his friends swam or skated, hunted and fished, canoed, climbed trees, lifted weights, wrestled, tobogganed, snowshoed, and, of course, played "Duck on the Rock." Long after he left Bennie's Corners, Naismith would remember the lessons he learned there.
When Naismith or one of his comrades was given a job, "he was expected to accomplish the task that he had been assigned. If some emergency arose, he was not expected to go to the house and ask for help; if it were at all possible he was expected to fix the trouble himself." Young James was prepared, therefore, when the horse team that he was driving across the frozen Misiwaka River with a sleigh-load of hay was plunged into the water. Without panicking, he unhitched the sleigh, which had not gone into the river, and managed with the reins to guide and pull the horses out of the water. Once the horses were safe, James saw that his uncle had observed the incident but had not rushed to assist him.
Similarly, one winter when skating began, James had no skates and was too proud to ask his uncle to buy him a pair. Not wanting to be left out of the fun, he spent that evening in the blacksmith shop and fashioned a pair of serviceable skates made of a pair of old files set into strips of hickory that could tied to the bottom of his boots. Near the end of his life, Naismith wrote that "The use of our own initiative was a great training for us boys, and prepared us to meet our future problems." More specifically, he recalled, with a touch of admissible pride, that "when necessity arose" the "same inventive lad" who cobbled a pair of homemade skates "gave to the world ... the game of basketball."
But the boy in Bennie's Corners was many years and many decisions removed from Springfield, Massachusetts. After finishing his public schooling, Naismith spent five years working on his uncle's farm and in logging camps. Having determined "that the only real satisfaction that [he] would ever derive from life was to help [his] fellow beings," Naismith decided to enter the ministry and enrolled at McGill University, where he had been awarded a fellowship.
Naismith studied hard, but also had time for physical fitness and represented the University in football, rugby, and lacrosse, all of which he continued to play even after he graduated and entered the Presbyterian Seminary. Naismith knew he was flouting convention, and a group of his fellow seminary students actually met to pray that he might be delivered from the attraction of these games of the devil.
The turning point of Naismith's life was a simple remark from a football teammate. As Naismith told the story, "During a hotly contested football game, the guard on my left encountered some difficulty, and losing his temper he made some remarks that, though forceful, are unprintable. When he had cooled a little, he leaned over to me and whispered, 'I beg your pardon, Jim; I forgot you were here.' This surprised me more than a little, I had never said a word about his profanity, and I could not understand why he should have apologized to me. Later, thinking the matter over, the only reason that I could give for the guard's action was that I played the game will all my might and yet held myself under control." This incident anticipated Amos Alonzo Stagg's explanation to Naismith of why he assigned him to the position he did on the Springfield Y's eleven: "Jim, I play you at center because you can do the meanest things in the most gentlemanly manner."
Naismith soon came to believe that "there might be other effective ways of doing good besides preaching," and after consulting with the D. A. Budge, the Secretary of the Montreal YMCA, he changed his career path from the ministry to athletics. The decision may have been made quickly, but it was not easily reached. Naismith recognized that the profession of athletic and physical education "was then in its infancy and rather in disrepute," and he knew that by leaving the ministry he was disappointing both his older sister, Anne, and Peter Young, the uncle who had helped to raise him.
Naismith would eventually receive his ordination as a Presbyterian minister, and he would fill many pulpits as a guest preacher on numerous future Sunday mornings. But he left for Springfield in 1890 convinced that athletics was the best way for him to teach others to unite and integrate the three points of YMCA's curriculum—spirit, mind, and body—to create satisfying and meaningful lives. Naismith's principal goal remained the same as it had been when he entered McGill seven years earlier: to help others and, as he expressed it in a 1932 speech at Y College in Springfield, "to leave the world a little bit better than I found it."
It is not surprising, therefore, that while he undoubtedly could have established a very comfortable sinecure in Springfield, Naismith left the Training College in 1895 to move to Colorado with his recent bride, Maude Sherman, who became one of the first players on the ladies faculty basketball team at the Training College. Maude was instrumental in Naismith's other major contribution to competitive team sports, the invention of a helmet for American football. Although it was James's idea to come up with some sort of protective covering for his battered ears, it was Maude who sewed together the pieces of flannel that made up the first helmet he wore.
After their move West, Naismith directed the physical education programs of the Denver YMCA while studying at the Gross Medical School, which awarded him a medical degree in 1898. He then accepted a faculty appointment at the University of Kansas as that school's very first professor of physical education. He was also the varsity coach for basketball and track and field, but since his true interest was in physical fitness and serving the largest possible number of students, after about a decade he resigned those positions in order to focus his attentions on intramural competitions. He also spent years working with undergraduates on physiological and cardiovascular training and research, areas in which he was a true pioneer.
While at Kansas, Naismith lost—or, more accurately, gave up—daily contact with his invention of basketball. With Forrest "Phog" Allen succeeding him as varsity coach, there was little chance of Kansas slipping from the top rank of collegiate teams, but more importantly, Naismith had much else to accomplish. He and Maude raised five children; he earned his long-deferred ordination in 1916; he served on the Mexican border with the Kansas National Guard as hygiene officer and chaplain; he continued to work closely with the national YMCA; and he even spent time, as he neared the age of sixty, instructing American troops in France during World War I. Seven years after the armistice, Naismith became a naturalized American citizen.
But even with all this other activity and all these other accomplishments, Naismith still took the most satisfaction in helping others, especially young people. Physical education, though he practiced it himself his entire life, was for him never an end in itself, but a means to building a balanced and spiritual life.
The exponential growth of basketball around the world and the increasing significance that colleges and high schools placed on successful programs seemed to baffle, if not embarrass, Naismith. The idea that 18,000 fans would jam Madison Square Garden for a game that he attended in 1937 left him bewildered and bemused—and quite likely bothered, if the full truth could be known. He was able to both appreciate and enjoy the magnitude of his achievement when he was a special guest at the Berlin Olympics in 1936, where basketball made its debut as an Olympic sport. Fittingly the gold medal game was contested between the United States and Canada, with the former prevailing by a score of 19-8. Ironically, though, given the genesis of Naismith's invention, the basketball games in Berlin were played outside.
The following year Naismith retired from his teaching duties and the University made him a professor emeritus. He died two years later, leaving behind the manuscript of his own account of his early years and that crucial semester at the YMCA Training College, Basketball: Its Origin and Development, which was first published in 1941 under the auspices of the YMCA. Thanks to Naismith's book, we have the remarkable story of basketball's beginnings in the words of its inventor. There is little doubt, however, that Naismith would wish readers to focus on his final chapter, "The Values of Basketball." Here he describes a dozen physical and moral attributes that he believes can be developed by basketball: initiative, agility, accuracy, alertness, cooperation, muscle skill, reflex reaction, speed, self-confidence, self-sacrifice, self-control, and sportsmanship. There is even less doubt that Naismith would consider the final four attributes the most important of the twelve; this is clear from the concluding sentence of his book: "Let us all be able to lose gracefully and to win courteously; to accept criticism as well as praise; and last of all, to appreciate the attitude of the other fellow at all times."
Almost as remarkable as Naismith's single-handed invention of basketball is the survival of the original two typed pages of rules, which, in the words of Alexander Wolff, "are to hoops what the 95 Theses are to Protestantism—the source of it all."
Although Naismith had thumb-tacked the rules to a bulletin board in the gym so that his class could learn how to play the game, they disappeared shortly afterwards. They had been pinched by Frank Mahan, a tackle on the College football team and, according to Naismith, the ringleader of his gym class malcontents. Mahan had not, however, taken the rules out of malice; like the rest of the class he was entranced by the new game, and as he explained to Naismith when he returned them, "I knew that this game would be a success, and I took them as a souvenir, but I think now that you should have them."
They remained a prized possession of Naismith for the remainder of his life, though he typically kept them simply stashed in a desk drawer. Following Naismith's death, the rules were passed to his youngest son, Jimmy, and in turn to Jimmy's son Ian, who transferred ownership to the Naismith International Basketball Foundation, which promotes James Naismith's original values for basketball: sportsmanship and cooperation. During the past seven decades, the rules spent more time in desk drawers, but were also stored in bank vaults and at the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, where they were deposited for twenty-seven years without ever being on public exhibition.
The two typed pages of rules bear three autograph notations by Naismith. Rule 8 was typed as "A goal shall be made when the ball is thrown or batted from the grounds and stays there ..."; Naismith corrected this using a caret to add three words of clarification so that the rule stated "A goal shall be made when the ball is thrown or batted into the basket from the grounds and stays there. ..." This was likely the first emendation added to the original rules.
The second manuscript addition probably came shortly afterwards and, like the survival of the rules themselves, it can be credited to Frank Mahan. As interest in the sport spread throughout the YMCA Training College, students had taken to referring to it as "Naismith's new game." After the College's newspaper, The Triangle, published the rules for the first time in a January 1892 issue under the headline "A New Game," Mahan suggested to his gym teacher that the game be formally christened "Naismith Ball." Naismith demurred, laughing that such a name would kill any game. But Mahan's next suggestion took—"Why not call it basketball?" Despite Naismith's anachronistic spelling of Mahan's question in Basketball: Its Origin and Development, until 1921 the name of the sport was spelled as two words, as Naismith has written at the top of the first page of his rules.
The last written, and longest, of Naismith holograph notes was added in 1931 at the request of Jimmy Naismith, the son who was to become the caretaker of the rules after his father's death. Whether this inscription was meant to authenticate the rules in some way or simply to commemorate them, it has a simple, homey modesty—passive voice and no pronouns—entirely characteristic of Naismith. "First draft of Basket Ball rules. Hung in the gym that the boys might learn the rules, Decr 1891, James Naismith, 6-28-31."
And even though the game has evolved a great deal since James Naismith tacked these thirteen rules to a gymnasium bulletin board, today's basketball is indisputably the same sport that was first played in Springfield in December 1891. In his own history of the game, Naismith proudly and correctly states that the fundamental principles that he planned for the game "are still the unchanging factors of basketball." As enumerated by Naismith, these five principles state that the game ball will be large, light, and handled with the hands; that running with the ball will be prohibited; that all players on both teams are eligible to handle the ball at any time; that the full playing area will be open to all players of both teams but they are to have no physical contact; and that the goal will be horizontal and elevated.
Those principles still define basketball, with the exception of the absolute prohibition of physical contact. And while the degree of contact in today's game would undoubtedly shock Naismith, it is still far less than in the sports that Naismith wished not to emulate, notably football, rugby, and lacrosse. The recurrent theme of the rules is the proscription of rough play; the fifth rule states "No shouldering, holding, pushing, tripping or striking, in any way the person or an opponent shall be allowed. The first infringement of this rule by any person shall count as a foul, the second shall disqualify him until the next goal is made, or if there was evident intent to injure the person, for the whole of the game, no substitute allowed."
Naismith believed that the biggest change in the game during the course of his lifetime was the development of the dribble, which he called "one of the most spectacular and exciting maneuvers in basketball." Interestingly, the dribble was naturally discovered and developed by the earliest players as a way of advancing the ball without violating Naismith's original injunction that a "player cannot run with the ball." Players who were trapped and unable to make a pass to a teammate would deliberately lose possession of the ball by rolling or bouncing it on the floor and then attempting to recover it. Since the rules allowed the batting of the ball with the hand, the purposeful use of the dribble evolved very quickly.
This is one of many examples of the real genius of Naismith's original rules: they were well defined without being too restrictive. The game was allowed to develop based on the skills and innovation of the players without in fact violating the thirteen initial regulations. "Many of the plays and maneuvers that we often consider to be recent developments," Naismith noted in Basketball, "were really executed from the first." His rules described goaltending, fouls, and the five-second rule very closely to the way they are currently observed, and he laid the groundwork for allowing free throws, the bonus, shot-blocking, and fouling out. Significant changes to the game have of course taken place, but many occurred within the first decade and a half of basketball, when Naismith was still closely monitoring the game. By 1906, for example, the goals, which had gone through several modifications, were well established as metal hoops with backboards. Backboards themselves had been adopted early on, not to aid shooters, but to keep fans from interfering with the flight of the ball.
The changes that have occurred in basketball over the past twelve decades are in fact a testament to how skillfully Naismith completed his task of inventing a new game. He was trying to create a recreational game, easy to learn, but with sufficient competitive elements that his students would want to continue to play it on a regular basis. His success in meeting this goal is indisputable, as is the assessment he made near the end of his life that "the greatest change in basketball has taken place in the skill with which the game is played."
Naismith invented a game that would be changed most profoundly by the men and women who played it, not by rules committees and sanctioning organizations. "Beginning with no experience," Naismith wrote, "each generation that has played basketball has passed on some new developments to the next. The technique and expertness with which the game is now played are indeed wonderful to me." There is no doubt that much about the contemporary game of basketball would disappoint its founder, but he would surely be filled with an even greater sense of wonder at the skill of today's best players.
The legacy of James Naismith's invention of basketball is two-fold. The first aspect is the immediate and almost unfathomable expansion of the game through its rapid dissemination by Y physical education teachers and missionaries and its quick embrace by women players. No one at the YMCA Training College could have foreseen the far-ranging impact of Naismith's new game: the growth and significance of the sport at the collegiate and high school levels; its inclusion in the Olympic Games just forty-five years after its invention; the formation of club and pro teams around the world, most notably the foundation of the NBA in 1949 and the WNBA in 1997; and the influence of FIBA, the International Basketball Federation, which estimates that basketball can today claim more than 450 million players in some 210 countries.
Such statistics tell only a part of the story, however—and the less exciting part at that. Without Naismith's rules, there would be no March Madness, no Final Four. Without Naismith's rules, there would be no Dream Team, and, at the 1972 Olympic Games, no Sergei Belov. There would be no Showtime, no Detroit Bad Boys, no Stockton to Malone, no Anne Meyers, no Pat Summit. No Jordan and the Bulls, no Louie and Chris Mullen, no Wizard of Westwood. No Lakers vs. Celtics, Wilt vs. Russell, Magic vs. Bird. No Villanova over Georgetown, N.C. State over Houston, UCLA over everybody. No Petro, no Yao Ming, no Valde Divac, no Toni Kukoc, no Steve Nash, Dirk Nowitzki, Hakeem lajuwan. No Lisa Leslie, no Cheryl Miller, no Diana Taurasi, no Anne Donovan. No Kentucky Colonels, San Diego Conquistadors, Virginia Squires, Spirits of St. Louis. No Dr. J, no Artis Gilmore, no Marvin Barnes, no Rick Barry, no Rick Mount. No Hoosiers. No Harlem Globetrotters. No George Mikan, Bob Cousy, Bob Pettit, Oscar Robertson, Connie Hawkins, Shaq, King James, Lew Alcindor—or Kareem Abdul Jabbar. Without Naismith's rules, in other words, there would have been none of the untold millions of hours of recreation, excitement, triumph, and—as always with sport—heartache experienced by hundred of millions of players and fans around the world since 1891.
We can assume that this very brief recitation of great players and great moments in the history of basketball would please Naismith. When asked if he had ever gotten anything out of basketball, Naismith wrote that he could only smile. "It would be impossible for me to explain my feelings to the great mass of people who ask this question, as my pay has not been in dollars but in the satisfaction of giving something to the world that is a benefit to masses of people."
But another aspect of Naismith's legacy has been honored more in the breach than in observation. Basketball is undeniably big business now, and Naismith never expected or wanted that. He created his game for the players, and was initially opposed even to the use of coaches for the sport. Naismith never sought to exploit his game or make money from it; he never sought a patent, and he never endorsed a particular brand of equipment or uniform. Today's $3,000 courtside seats and $300 basketball shoes would undoubtedly make him think that the moneychangers had entered his temple.
And yet much of Naismith's original vision persists. The basics of his game are still easy to learn; the basic equipment for it is still simple and inexpensive. The YMCA and scores of other youth organizations sponsor thousands of leagues around the country for boys and girls where the scores are not that different from those of the first decade of the game. And everywhere there are basketball hoops, which became for Naismith the tangible symbol of his achievement. "I am sure," he wrote, "that no man can derive more pleasure from money or power than I do from seeing a pair of basketball goals in some out of the way place—deep in the Wisconsin woods an old barrel hoop nailed to a tree, or a weather-beaten shed on the Mexican border with a rusty iron hoop nailed to one end. These sights are constant reminders that I have in some measure accomplished the objective that I set up years ago."
It is important to remember that Naismith had another objective besides inventing a new game—"to leave the world a little bit better than I found it." He accomplished both.
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