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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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In 1931 James's youngest son, Jimmy, had a hunch that the original rules might someday be worth something. He asked his dad to authenticate them with his signature. So, in ink at the bottom of the second page, Naismith added his name and the date: "6-28-31." He also erased "Feb. 1892" and penned in "Dec. 1891," to make clear that these two pages constituted the document hung in the gym before the first game.

Of James and Maude Naismith's five children, none grew closer to his father than Jimmy. When his dad spent his dotage preaching on a circuit of churches in small towns in eastern Kansas, Jimmy would often drive him from congregation to congregation. Shortly before his death Doc Naismith turned the rules over to Jimmy with the charge that he be "caretaker of the game."

For the next few years Jimmy and his wife, Frances Pomeroy Naismith, kept the rules in the dining room of their home in Corpus Christi, in a secret drawer of a huge mahogany sideboard that Doc Naismith himself had roughed out with an ax. "I remember my parents pulling the rules out and showing them to us and telling us never to tell anyone where they were kept," says Frances Ann Boatright, Ian's sister. "Of course we didn't. We were very obedient children." After World War II broke out, Jimmy joined the Navy and served as commander of a munitions ship in the Pacific. With money tight and the occasional enemy submarine spotted in Corpus Christi's harbor, Frances shuttled their children—Jim, Frances Ann and Ian—from relative to relative in the Plains states. Every time the four of them moved, the rules went with them. To a farm in Holton, Kans.; to a house in the mining town of Gilman, Colo.; to a ranch in Westcliffe, Colo. After the war the Naismiths reunited in Corpus Christi, their heirloom still in tow. Ian remembers his dad mentioning around the breakfast table in the early 1950s that he had just put the rules in a safe-deposit box at a local bank.

In 1961, the centennial of James Naismith's birth, Springfield College broke ground on a building to house the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. Early that year Jimmy passed through Springfield to meet with the same Edward Hickox who had shown no interest in the rules almost 30 years earlier. Now, as executive secretary of the committee charged with establishing basketball's first shrine, he had apparently changed his attitude. "I am discussing the disposition of the Rules with my children," Jimmy wrote Hickox in a follow-up letter, "and will let you know when we have reached an agreement."

For seven years Hickox's committee scrounged for money to fill what had become known around town as the Hole of Fame. By the time the Hall finally opened in 1968, in an unlovely two-story brick building, Hickox and Jimmy had struck a deal to lend the rules to the Hall. The one-page loan agreement stipulated that the rules "are the property of the Party of the First Part [ James Sherman Naismith] and shall so remain." But the agreement said nothing about displaying or not displaying the rules—only that "the Party of the Second Part [the Hall of Fame] shall use reasonable care in guarding and preserving said Rules."

Eleven years later, after Jack Naismith sent the Hall of Fame those recollections of the 1932 road trip that he, his dad and the rules had taken, Williams wrote back: "Your special memory regarding the original rules was interesting for, as you know, we do now have them in our possession and proudly display them."

Only this wasn't strictly true. While a framed replica hung in the main lobby, the original never left the safe in Williams's office, according to several surviving Hall of Fame employees of that era, including Florence Vickers, Williams's longtime secretary.

Why would the Hall have the original rules for almost three decades and never display them? "The buildings weren't the most secure, and a display would have been prohibitively expensive," says Joe O'Brien, who succeeded Williams as executive director in 1985, when the Hall moved into new quarters.

Ian Naismith is still furious that the rules were never displayed. "[The Hall] told us if we wanted to donate a display case, it would cost $7,300," Ian says. "I don't think so."

The Hall's failure to exhibit the rules had made its way onto a lengthening list of family grievances. Near the top was the absence of "Naismith Memorial" on the facade of the building when the shrine moved into its new digs, hard by Interstate 91 in downtown Springfield. In the mid-1990s Ian told O'Brien that if the signage on the still newer building O'Brien was planning failed to include the inventor's name, Ian would remedy the oversight himself, with orange spray paint.

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