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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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Michael Brooslin, the Hall of Fame's curator since 1987, suggests the dispute over the display of the rules was all a big misunderstanding. "I understood the loan agreement to call for the original to be maintained in the safe," he says. In fact the loan agreement includes nothing about a safe—only the injunction about using "reasonable care in guarding and preserving." Ian says he specifically remembers his father and Williams agreeing that the rules were on loan for display.

With the death of Jimmy Naismith, the original Party of the First Part, ownership fell to his heirs. The family's decision to take back the rules, and Ian's to establish his foundation, dates from a phone conversation in September 1994 between Ian and Frances Ann. She and her husband had recently passed through Springfield and asked to see the document, only to be told that it wouldn't be possible. Says Ian, "My sister asked me what I thought of the game of basketball. I said, 'I think it's beginning to suck, frankly' She said, 'What do you think of the Hall of Fame?' I said it had become a social club for wealthy people in the Springfield area. So she and I met with our brother, Jim. I told him that I'd be taking over everything related to basketball. He said, 'I'm glad.' "

In December 1994 Jimmy's direct heir, Ian's stepmother, Katharine Holmes Naismith, wrote to the Hall, asking it to release the rules to Ian. O'Brien, Ian says, balked. "He was pissed," recalls Ian. "Not frustrated. Pissed. He said nobody denied that we owned the rules but that they'd never leave the Hall of Fame. Well, the Clampetts had just come to Springfield, and he done beat on Jethro."

At first, neither party could locate the loan agreement. Ian's brother finally found a copy in his father's safe-deposit box. There wasn't much ambiguity: "The Party of the Second Part shall return said Rules to the Party of the First Part, or his legal representative, within thirty [30] days upon demand." On Sept. 8, 1995, Ian took possession of the original rules.

" Joe O'Brien cost me $11,000 [in legal and travel fees], two trips to Springfield and untold aggravation," Ian says.

O'Brien retired in 2000. Upon learning that Ian and his siblings hope to sell the rules to the Smithsonian, he said, "I always knew that underlying their concern for the rules not being displayed was a monetary concern."

Building a firebreak—that's the metaphor Ian Naismith likes to use for his Naismith Sportsmanship Tour. It's an image from his ranching days, when he'd fight a brushfire by bulldozing a swath just wide enough to keep the flames from jumping. "We're trying to stop the deterioration of the game," he says.

Recently, as he's taken the rules on tour for a dozen or so stops each year, Ian has heard Moses Malone say, "If it weren't for your granddaddy, I'd be cleaning giraffe ears." Or people—at basketball camps and banquets, or at the interactive fan fests at the NCAA Final Four or NBA All-Star Weekend—testify how the game has allowed them to become doctors and lawyers. Or NBA commissioner David Stern suggests that "you're a loose cannon," then quickly adds, "But you've got the cannon."

"At the Hall you might get a couple hundred people a day to see the rules," says Ian, who lines up a local sponsor to underwrite each stop. "With the tour I get thousands exposed to our concerns [about the deterioration of the game]."

Ian typically sets up at a table, flipping open that gold briefcase when someone comes by. While he's happy to pose with the rules, he won't permit the document to be photographed at close range with flashbulbs, lest they cause damage. After he discovered someone in Florida selling copies on eBay, he went into Jethro mode to get him to cease, then had the rules copyrighted. Now he sells color photostatic reproductions for $25, plus $4.95 for shipping and handling, MasterCard and Visa accepted, at tour stops and by mail order. Doc Naismith's grandson will sign them on request.

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