In December 1891, a two-page typed document comprising a set of 13 rules to a new game was tacked up in a Springfield, Massachusetts YMCA gym – and “Basket Ball” was born. The game was the invention of a 30-year old physical educator teacher named James Naismith, created to entertain a restless class of students during the winter months.
History shows Naismith’s game was an instant success among the YMCA students, and they quickly carried “basket ball” across the country and around the world – to China by 1895, the Olympics in 1936, the formation of the NBA in 1949, the first FIBA World Championship in 1950, the arrival of the WNBA in 1997 and with more than an estimated 450 million playing today.
The rules have survived in remarkably good shape.
An auction of James Naismith’s personal effects from a life of coaching and teaching, were uncovered in 2006 in the basement of Ian Naismith’s cousin, Helen Carpenter. The sale, conducted by Heritage Galleries, generated or over $700,000 in the fall of that year.
Unlike other sports, basketball did not evolve from earlier games. Naismith, a physical education teacher at the Young Men’s Christian Association Training College in Springfield, Massachusetts, created the game on his own.
Naismith, who would later become an ordained Presbyterian minister as well as a medical doctor, was already a committed Christian of the “muscular” persuasion – one who believed that physical fitness was an imperative part of spiritual development. The long winter months between football and baseball season left Naismith’s students with little to do beyond repetitive and boring calisthenics.
Challenged to come up with a team sport that could be played indoors, Naismith took inspiration for an elevated goal from a game he had played as a boy in Ontario, Canada, “Duck on the Rock”. He then added a smattering of elements from soccer, lacrosse, and rugby, eliminated physical contact, and set down the original 13 rules of “basket ball” in December 1891 (the name of the game was spelled in two words until 1921).
The first game was played with a soccer ball and peach baskets – the goals went though several modifications, but by 1906 they were well established as metal hoops with backboards – which had first been adopted to keep fans from interfering with the flight of the ball.
Women’s basketball followed that same year and almost immediately, the new game was a sensation. Club and pro leagues began popping up all over the country and the world, and Naismith, who died in 1940, lived to see his invention adopted as an Olympic sport in 1936.
Naismith was also instrumental in establishing college basketball. News of his new game was spread by word of mouth and the media, and the game was quickly introduced on college campuses by colleagues and students of Naismith. Naismith himself brought the game to the University of Kansas in the fall of 1898 and the first NCAA college basketball tournament, now known as March Madness, was played in 1939 with 8 teams. In 2011 it will be a 68-team tournament.
“Dr. Naismith’s goal in life was to leave the world better off than he found it,” added Leila Dunbar, Sotheby’s Collectibles consultant and former department head. “In inventing basketball, he gave the world one of its greatest sports. Dr. Naismith’s legacy is further enhanced by his lifetime of teaching principles of character to his many pupils, such as sportsmanship, selflessness and equality, through sport; principles that remain relevant today.”
The original rules were a mere two pages; the official rules published by FIBA in 2010 are 80 pages. In his own history of the game, Basketball: Its Origin and Development (1940), Naismith proudly and correctly states that the fundamental principles that he planned for the game “are still the unchanging factors of basketball.” Naismith recognized as the biggest change in the play of the sport was 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.” In fact, Naismith’s greatest innovation might have been that he did not overburden his new game with rules and restrictions. The players were able to adapt the game according to their own ingenuity. As Naismith himself noted, “Many of the plays and maneuvers that we often consider recent developments were really executed from the first.”