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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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Several hours later Mahan returned the rules to the inventor in his office.

Mahan would figure in one more historical footnote. After Christmas break, with the game growing in popularity but still in search of a formal name, The Triangle, the school newspaper, printed the rules under the headline A NEW GAME. Mahan went to Naismith to insist that his divertissement needed a catchy handle. He proposed "Naismith ball."

Naismith laughed. "That name would kill any game," he said.

"Why not call it basket ball?" Mahan replied.

Naismith rather liked the sound of that, so with a fountain pen he wrote "Basket Ball" at the top of the first page of Miss Lyons's typescript. At the bottom of page 2 he added, "First draft of Basket Ball rules. Hung in the gym that the boys might learn the rules. Feb. 1892."

From the day he invented basket ball, Naismith would declare, 13 was no longer his unlucky number. The game spread instantly, as training-school graduates embarked on missions all over the world, copies of the rules packed with their Bibles. Naismith would eventually collect translations into almost 50 languages or dialects. But for most of the rest of his life the original two pages sat, folded, in a desk drawer in his office—first at the Denver YMCA, where he served as an instructor from 1895 to 1898 while attending medical school; then in Robinson Gym at the University of Kansas, where he taught until shortly before his death in 1939.

Sometime around 1926 Naismith mounted the rules with glue on two pieces of cardboard, with the intention of framing them for the wall of his office. Yet for some reason he never hung them. The rules went back into a drawer, mercifully safe from the sunlight that would have caused the typescript to fade. That mounting job also kept the edges from fraying further.

If Naismith at first didn't realize the historical significance of the rules, he surely did by the 1930s, when the Smithsonian and the British Museum expressed interest in acquiring them. (Though he eventually became a U.S. citizen, Naismith had come up with the game as a subject of the Queen.) But he showed no inclination to surrender the document until 1932, when he and his eldest son, Jack, took a road trip back East in Jack's Graham Paige sedan. The archives of the Hall of Fame contain a note that Jack dictated in 1979 to send to Hall of Fame executive director Lee Williams: "I took the car and went to YMCA College in Springfield, Mass. Dr. James Naismith was with me. He took original rules of basket ball. We went to the Y College and [Edward Hickox, the basketball coach at Springfield College, which had evolved from the YMCA training school], he didn't want the rules. Then we went to McGill University in Canada. McGill University didn't want the rules either. Dad laughed at them. I guess they are not good for anything."

It's not clear what or whom Jack or Jack's dad regarded as "not good for anything"—basketball's seminal document or the officials at Springfield and McGill who showed no interest in it. But there's a similar vagueness built into the rules themselves, which has lent the game a remarkable protean quality. Few sports have more nimbly changed with the times, adding shot clocks and three-point lines, discarding basket bottoms and center jumps, as players have become more capable, coaches have insisted on more influence, and fans have expected more entertainment.

The genius of the original rules lies almost as much in what isn't stipulated as in what is. For instance they make no mention of the dribble, but almost from the game's inception clever players figured out that while Rule No. 3 prohibited running with the ball, you could roll or drop it, move, then retrieve it. The dribble is really just a series of drops and retrievals, and as long as an offensive player didn't use it to charge wantonly into a defender, Naismith conferred on it his blessing as "one of the sweetest, prettiest plays in the whole bunch." By 1898 the dribble would be formally written into the rules.

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