Closing Shot: The Father Of Basketball

It was 130 years ago this month that Dr. James Naismith invented an indoor game to distract from winter’s chill. It was a humble beginning for a sport now woven into culture throughout the world.

By Erik Spanberg
Dr. James Naismith holds the ball and peach basket that served as the elements of the original game.getty images

Sure, the Jordans — Michael B. driving the NBA’s 75th anniversary bus, Michael Jeffrey forever in flight — know a thing or two about basketball history, but this month is a time to go all the way back to the beginning.


Beginning, as in peach baskets. In December 1891, 130 years ago, Dr. James Naismith invented basketball while searching for a way to develop an indoor game for people to play during the cold winter months. At the time, Naismith was an instructor at the YMCA in Springfield, Mass.

What has become sacred in the world of hoops was born of necessity.

“The reason the basket’s 10 feet tall is because that’s how tall the railing of the track was around the top of the gymnasium,” Naismith biographer Rob Rains told Sports Business Journal. “So, they nailed the peach basket up there. That’s how high it was, 10 feet. That’s how it happened. It wasn’t a magical [number]. It was just happening because that was what the height was.”

Rains, whose 2009 biography was written with the help of Naismith’s granddaughter, benefited from a collection of family papers and letters that shed light on what the father of basketball was thinking as he created the game, went off to war, became a medical doctor, and embarked on a lifetime of physical, academic, and spiritual coaching and teaching.

According to the Naismith Basketball Foundation, the Canadian-born Naismith earned four doctorate degrees before age 35. His studies included theology, philosophy and Hebrew.

But his most famous legacy remains basketball. What began with those peach baskets in Massachusetts has evolved into a $10 billion enterprise (the NBA), as well as a worldwide game with tentacles stretching across Africa, China, India and just about any other place with room for a backboard, rim and net.

Rains said that, in studying Naismith’s life, he was struck by how much basketball’s inventor “would be thrilled” by its enduring popularity.

It’s easy enough to draw a line from Naismith to Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain, then to Jerry West and Elgin Baylor, and on to the likes of Dr. J, Magic and Bird before cruising into the contemporary era of Air Jordan-Kobe-LeBron-Steph.

With a major caveat. “The one thing that he would have probably not been happy about was how commercialized it’s become,” Rains said.

Naismith went on to become the first men’s basketball coach at the University of Kansas, where his original rulebook for the game is consecrated on the Lawrence campus to the present. (His pupils included Phog Allen, who would go on to coach his alma mater for 39 years and bequeath perhaps the most famous fieldhouse name in the sport.) According to KU, Naismith earned a whopping $1,300 annually as basketball coach. Adjusted for inflation, that’s $43,000 a year, or less than 1% of current Jayhawks coach Bill Self’s pay of $5.41 million.

Rains noted that, for Naismith, basketball was more than a game for boys and men to play. For all the wonders of watching Steph Curry sink endless 3s — which were not part of the original game — it’s likely that the stellar play of Candace Parker and the leadership of Dawn Staley would leave a larger impression with Naismith.

“He thought that it was definitely a game that women could play as well,” Rains said. “And I think he would really be pleased by that.”

Heck, he might even be OK with seeing his name on the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield. What do you say, Dr. Naismith?

Erik Spanberg writes for the Charlotte Business Journal, an affiliated publication.


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