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The Olden Rules
Alexander Wolff
November 25, 2002
When James Naismith first committed to paper his 13 precepts of basketball in 1891, he could not have foreseen how well those commandments would hold up—or how fiercely the document itself would be coveted
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November 25, 2002

The Olden Rules

When James Naismith first committed to paper his 13 precepts of basketball in 1891, he could not have foreseen how well those commandments would hold up—or how fiercely the document itself would be coveted

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Naismith now had a point to his game, at least in theory. The next morning he had tangible goals: peach baskets, fetched from a basement storeroom by Mr. Stebbins, the custodian.

"The first game," Naismith later said, "was played in my head the night before." So clearly had he envisioned it that he needed less than an hour that morning to write out the rules. Around 11 he turned his handwritten notes over to Miss Lyons, the departmental secretary, to type up. Class was set for 11:30.

In fact the person Naismith had to satisfy wasn't his boss so much as a burly student from North Carolina, a football tackle named Frank Mahan, who had led the class in rejecting every other attempt at an indoor game. Sell it to him, Naismith knew, and the others would fall in line.

That morning Mahan spotted the rules thumbtacked to the bulletin board. He noticed baskets fastened to both ends of the gymnasium balcony. He saw Naismith with a soccer ball wedged under one arm. "Harrumph," Mahan said. "Another new game."

Naismith's heart sank. Mahan's reaction sounded like "a death knell," he would recall. But that first game proved to be a hit, even if it featured 18 pinballing players, excessive fouling and only one field goal, by a player named William Chase. "The only difficulty I had was to drive them out when the hour closed," Naismith said.

He had no idea how thoroughly he had won over his greatest skeptic. Unbeknownst to the inventor, Mahan pilfered the rules from the bulletin board and hid them in a trunk in his room. Shortly after returning from Christmas break, Mahan approached Naismith before class. "You remember the rules that were put on the bulletin board?"

"Yes, I do."

"They disappeared."

"I know it."

"Well, I took them. I knew that this game is going to go, and I thought that they would be a good souvenir, but I think you ought to have them."

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