Dr. James Naismith was about more than just basketball. He was a minister, a doctor, an educator, and most of all, a man with a huge heart.
By Ron Chimelis
The Ontario telephone operator pauses, unable at first glance to find the listing for the Naismith Foundation in Almonte.
The anecdote is telling if only because not everyone in the United States knows that the inventor of basketball-a sport that symbolized the future in the latter stages of the 20th century-was born in Canada. Or that his life involved not just basketball but the ministry, medicine, education and much more.
Abner Doubleday, who didn't invent baseball, is probably a more widely recognized name than Naismith, who did invent basketball. And even those who know about him continue to learn more about the man who invented a sport designed for offseason physical exercise, which began with his own 13 basic rules, but which has grown to become a game not for a specific culture or nation or ethnic group, but for an entire planet to share and enjoy.
"There are many myths about James Naismith," says Steven Jansen, director of the Watkins Community Museum in Lawrence, Kan., and a man whose passion is debunking those myths. "And one of them was that he was not a competitive person."
According to Jansen, all many people in Lawrence know about Naismith is that he is the only coach in University of Kansas men's basketball history to own a losing record. Naismith was 55-60 from 1898 to 1907, which mattered little to him only in that one of his most famous quotes was that basketball was never meant to be coached, anyway, only to be played.
Sure enough, documentation exists that Kansas played some games in some locations while Naismith was away, refereeing in others. But that didn't mean he wasn't serious about excellence.
"He wanted to play Yale, which at that time was the best team in the country, in 1899," Jansen said. "He said his boys could stand up against the best, but with the money involved, the game could never be arranged."
Much of Naismith's Kansas legacy has been passed on by word of mouth, and many of the words came from the mouth of Phog Allen. If Naismith was the George Washington of college basketball, Allen was its Thomas Jefferson, coaching the Jayhawks from 1907 to 1909 and again from 1920 to 1956, and lending a voice to its early years long after Naismith died in 1939.
Allen's voice was often heard on the after-dinner circuit, and according to Jansen, a fair number of liberties were taken in the name of a good story. There is irony to that, for if Allen was a man of some flair, Naismith was in many ways a stickler for accuracy.
"Phog was something of the Knute Rockne of basketball, but he lived so long he was even more than that," Jansen said. "He lasted through three or four generations, and a lot of what we know about James Naismith has been filtered through Phog."
We know more, though. We know from Bernice Larson Webb's authoritative 1973 book The Basketball Man that Naismith's assignment to develop a new game was not one he was originally enthused about undertaking.
The process began at what is now known as Springfield College, in Springfield, Mass., under the direction of physical education superintendent Luther H. Gulick. It was Gulick who believed, among other things, that there was "nothing new under the sun," and that meant a new indoor game would most likely be developed by combining aspects of different existing games.
And by 1891, when Naismith undertook this task, a new game was needed. Gymnastics supplied the primary activity of winter, and many students, especially older ones, were becoming bored to the point of unruliness.
Naismith was then only 30, and assigned to deal with one especially recalcitrant group of older students, some older than himself. They were clearly restless about what winter physical education activity had come to represent, and too old to occupy with what were best known as children's games. Naismith was given two weeks to work with the group, and the failure of his early efforts to improve their attitudes chipped at his own sense of self-worth.
But in a way that procrastinators of all stripes can appreciate, Naismith rallied on the final day of his two-week assignment, when he did most of the work in designing his new game. Part of his last-ditch effort to succeed was based on curiosity, part by a determination not to fail and part by a stubborn refusal not to give in to his own students, who could not foresee the history that was unfolding in their midst.
The new game was explained by 13 basic rules and was played with a soccer ball, peach baskets and nine to a side. There have been major changes to the game since that first contest, which is believed to have been played Dec. 21, 1891. But perhaps what is most amazing about Naismith's creation, other than the fact that few sports that are purposely invented actually stand the test of time, is that the essence of basketball-throwing a ball into an elevated goal-has remained the focus from day one.
Today, Naismith would be universally recognized as a genius, a Bill Gates of sport. And in all likelihood, the opportunity would exist for him to become a multi-millionaire.
But if Naismith was The Basketball Man, he was not The Money Man, and life in 1891 was far different than in 1991 or 1999.
"I don't think any Naismith ever had two nickels to rub together," says Stuart Naismith of Binghamton, N.Y., one of the inventor's 14 surviving grandchildren.
The opportunity to profit from his invention never really surfaced until toward the end of Naismith's life, and a combination of factors kept it from happening even then. The biggest was his own sense of ethics, which caused him to turn down an endorsement offer from a tobacco company after the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, where basketball was added to the Olympic agenda for the first time.
With Naismith having attended the Games and his name back in the news, he was offered anywhere from $75,000 to $500,000, according to The Basketball Man. But he was a man ahead of his time even then, and committed to his belief that tobacco was harmful to young people, he turned it down.
He also began writing a book at about that time, not so much for money but for whatever historical value it offered. But Phog Allen was writing a book at the time, too, and Allen got to the publisher first, in 1937. The inevitable duplication of material doomed Naismith's project, which upset his wife, Maude, more than it upset him.
But if Naismith's invention did not lead to profit, it did lead to huge popularity for basketball. Even in the final years of the 19th century, with communication and transportation that was primitive by today's standards, the game's growth was palpable, immediate and widespread.
James Naismith had changed the face of sport, not so much for the 19th century, but the 20th, and it is now clear, the 21st. All in an effort to keep unruly students at bay.
The end of the 20th century has produced a renewed interest in the history of it, and that, to some degree, has brought Naismith back into public consciousness. One 1995 book ranked him fourth among the 100 most influential American sports figures of the century, delighting even such ardent supporters as John Gosset, who believes Naismith still doesn't get the credit he deserves.
"I was in Binghamton with Stuart, his grandson," said Gosset, operations manager of the Naismith Foundation at the inventor's birthplace of Almonte, Ontario. "We went into a Barnes and Noble, and found this book.
"I started at the bottom [No. 100 among influential sports figures] and as I went through the names, I was very disappointed not to see James Naismith's," Gosset said. "It was a very American book, so there was very little hockey, but there were athletes, innovators, TV people, commissioners and so forth."
Just as he was about to give up, Gosset saw Naismith's name.
"He was fourth," Gosset said. "That amazed me."
Despite its rural location, the 10-year-old Naismith Foundation in Almonte draws 12,000 people per year. And of course, the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass., honors the man who invented the game at a nearby college campus site.
Gosset said remembering Naismith for more than basketball is important, to capture the true essence of what he represented and believed.
"Our focus is the total man, though basketball was obviously the most-recognized part," he said. "But he was also a chaplain, a man of religious and Christian background, and a man with a medical degree.
"And a man," said Gosset with estimable pride, "of Canadian roots."
Those roots included hard times. Both of Naismith's parents died of disease within three weeks of each other, when he was 9, and he became an orphan. He later graduated from McGill University in Quebec before entering the YMCA Training School in Springfield. That was in 1890, the year before he invented basketball and an exercise bridge between football and baseball seasons.
One of the most widely told stories about the invention suggests it came by accident, which wasn't true. What is true is that the 10-foot height on the baskets came about because the first peach baskets were attached to the edge of an elevated running track that happened to be 10 feet off the floor.
And for 108 years, as players have grown to seven feet tall and beyond, that height has not changed.
Naismith's own ability to watch the growth of his own game is unique, partly because no other major sport was truly invented by just one man, and partly because many sports evolve over decades, generations, even centuries. He was able to witness basketball as an Olympic sport in 1936, some 45 years after he wrote those 13 basic rules and three years before he died at age 78 in 1939.
And because he lived as recently as 60 years ago, first-hand memories of Naismith remain to a dwindling number of those who personally knew him. What they remember isn't always about basketball, either.
"Many of the older people at Kansas remember that he gave the birds-and-bees talk to incoming freshmen," Jansen said. Naismith had replaced the Rev. Hector Cowan, who had been both chaplain and football coach.
Kansas found another coach, and it didn't need an inventor, either. But in 1898, it hired one in Naismith, for a salary of $1,300 a year.
"Naismith wasn't hired by Kansas as James Naismith, inventor of basketball," Jansen said. "He was hired as chapel director and physical education instructor. And he saw his coming to Kansas as a sign of divine providence."
Naismith had left Springfield in 1895, and received his medical degree from Gross Medical College in Denver, Colo. But during his time in Denver, an event took place that convinced him his future, and his destiny, was in Kansas.
Naismith had already received his medical degree when he was shaken by a case in which a young boy fell off a pommel horse, landed on his neck and died. The cruel, unavoidable tragedy, followed by the 1898 offer to come to Kansas, led Naismith to believe his life was being pointed in a direction where he could do the most good.
That story, as much as any other, captures the humanity and faith of the man.
"He was anything but ostentatious," Stuart Naismith said. "My grandfather was a kind, very nice man and a lot of fun.
"We called him Papa Jimmy," Naismith recalled. "I mean, what were we supposed to call our grandfather? Dr. Naismith?"
Naismith's impact can be found in many places-in Springfield, in Almonte and in Lawrence, where he is buried. And as the University of Kansas approached its 100th year of basketball in 1998, a decision to honor him was made by KU athletic director Bob Frederick, whose idea flies in the face of modern corporate decision-making.
Rather than sell the name of the basketball floor at Phog Allen Fieldhouse, the university named it after the man who invented the sport and was KU's first coach.
"I was watching a game on television, and I saw something on the gym floor," Frederick said. "And suddenly, it occurred to me that we should have James Naismith's name on our floor.
"I mentioned it to [Jayhawks coach] Roy Williams the next day, and he said it was a great idea," Frederick said modestly. "It was one of the few original ideas I've had."
Frederick says Kansas can't do enough for its adopted favorite son.
"His memory has always meant a lot here, and it's starting to mean more," he said. "We have a 12-game Jayhawk TV package, and on it we carry what's called a Naismith Moment, where an act of sportsmanship is featured and replayed."
James Naismith believed sportsmanship and competition could and should mix. It has become a major issue in the sport today.
"If he were alive today, I wonder what he'd think about the way the game is sometimes played," Stuart Naismith said. But those who knew him, including family and friends, say Naismith was not a man of the past but of the future, one who not only accepted change but accelerated it.
He developed the first football helmet. He constantly explored ways to enrich the total person not only physically, but intellectually and spiritually. And that message continues to play well, as his 19th and 20th century influence remains as we enter the 21st.
"There's a lot of people who talk about Phog Allen, but as time has passed, I think more people have become aware of James Naismith," Frederick said.
Perhaps the most succinct and poignant opinion of James Naismith comes from his friend, Duke D'Ambra, who had worked with Naismith at Kansas. Naismith retired from the university in 1937, and D'Ambra's friendship was especially important in Naismith's final years.
But as reported in The Basketball Man, D'Ambra found in Naismith far more than one of the great innovative minds in athletics. He found a Renaissance man of sorts, someone who examined the world from a variety of angles and took from it what he thought would make him a better person, in turn enhancing all those around him.
"He was my idea of a man," D'Ambra said. "If I could choose a man by which to make myself, I'd choose him."