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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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Of all the what-if exercises in sports, few are more delicious to contemplate than the question of what Dr. James Naismith—divinity-school graduate, muscular Christian, drum major for clean living—would have thought if he knew that the fate of his original 13 rules of basketball, the Magna Carta of his most far-reaching creation, rested, however briefly, with a Hooters waitress named Brooklyn. Naismith had set down the rules on two typewritten pages in December 1891, posting them in the gym at the YMCA International Training School in Springfield, Mass., shortly before the first game ever played. More than a century later one of the inventor's grandsons, Ian Alan Naismith, set down those same pages—pressed now between two pieces of plate glass inside a fireproof, combination-locked, golden metal briefcase—somewhere. He just wasn't sure where. He thought he had put them between the front seats of his Dodge conversion van upon leaving that Hooters, just off Interstate 435 in Kansas City, Kans. But now, more than an hour away in Lawrence, he wondered if he hadn't left them at his table. Or by the pay phone. Or in the men's room. All he knew for certain was that the rules were missing, his waitress had been Brooklyn, and he had better dial Hooters, fast.

Naismith, 63, has good reason to carry that briefcase now as if it were the nuclear football. In 1968 a private collector, surprised to learn that the rules weren't in the YMCA's archives, offered Ian's father, James Sherman (Jimmy) Naismith, $1 million for them. Five years later another collector bid $2 million. In 1997 Ian had the rules appraised at $5 million—though consultations with auction houses have persuaded him that they would fetch twice that if put up to bid. They're uninsured, because no company will write a policy unless they are to go into a vault. But even then the premium would be $25,000 a year, and besides, Ian Naismith reasons, what good would they do if no one could see them?

For nearly all the time that has passed since Naismith committed them to paper, the rules have languished in drawers and lockboxes, far from a public that Ian believes needs to be reminded of the inventor's original intent. For 27 years the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, in Springfield, had them on loan from the Naismith family yet never displayed them. When the Hall of Fame opened its new, $103 million quarters on Sept. 28, the rules were formally exhibited for the first time, in a stand-alone display case. But last weekend Ian reclaimed them for his own purposes, which are twofold: to use the rules as the centerpiece of his ongoing Naismith Sportsmanship Tour, through which he hopes to restore the spirit of the game as his grandfather intended it be played; and, ideally, to consummate the sale of the rules by his nonprofit Naismith International Basketball Foundation, which technically owns them, to the Smithsonian, which hopes to find a benefactor so that it might add the rules to its permanent collection. Naismith is asking $5 million, a sum that he says would help the foundation promote, through visits to schools and basketball events, such old-fashioned hoops values as mutual respect, teamwork and fair play. "That's not my money," he says. "It's Doc's money, and it needs to go back into the game. If we don't do something, if we don't take a stand, the game is going to implode."

This is Ian Naismith boilerplate, the Presbyterian moralism of the grandfather rendered in plainspoken Texan. Ian (pronounced yan) wears a pinky ring, gold as that briefcase, with diamond studs describing the letter N. He walks with the switching gait of an Old West sheriff. Bluff and broad-shouldered, he booms when he vows, "The Naismith family will not stand idly by and watch this great game be destroyed." He adds, "The family hasn't made a penny off the game. By today's standards I guess that makes us three generations of stupid." But no Naismith in any generation had been quite so stupid as to lose the rules.

Where baseball evolved from cricket and rounders, and football from rugby and soccer, basketball sprang whole, during a tortured all-nighter, from one man's mind. Thus the original rules are to hoops what the 95 Theses are to Protestantism—the source of it all. "From a historical perspective you could use the word iconic," says Allan Stypeck of Rockville, Md., the professional appraiser who came up with the $5 million figure. "I got goose bumps just handling them."

James Naismith was a 30-year-old instructor at the YMCA training school when his boss, Dr. Luther Gulick, gave him two weeks to win over a restless class of future Y executive secretaries who were grudgingly fulfilling a wintertime phys-ed requirement. Naismith had tried indoor adaptations of soccer, lacrosse and football, but each led only to something being broken—windows, gymnastics apparatus, players' bones. The students' growing skepticism about each new activity had long since given way to cynicism.

At the end of that fortnight, with the class set to meet the next morning, Naismith sat hunched at his desk with pencil and notepad. A reformer who disdained the ruffianism rampant in football and rugby, he asked himself what it was about those sports that inspired such behavior. The answer: tackling. Why did those games entail tackling? Because players could run with the ball. Ban running, and you could ban tackling—and with it the source of roughness. Alone at his desk Naismith snapped his fingers and said, "I've got it!" If there's a cornerstone to basketball, it's the rule that would become No. 3: "A player cannot run with the ball. The player must throw it from the spot on which he catches it; allowance to be made for a man who catches the ball when running at a good speed."

All else tumbled forth, one rule upon the next, over the next several hours. If a player couldn't run with the ball, what could he do with it? It would be laid out in Rules No. 1 and No. 2: He could throw it or bat it in any direction, but never—ruffians, begone!—with his fist.

At this point Naismith's idea had only "progressed to the point where it was 'keep-away,' " as he later put it. He needed an objective—a goal. Football, hockey, lacrosse, rugby and soccer all had earthbound goals or goal lines, but players would rush them to score, and those assaults, again, invited roughness.

Naismith thought back to his childhood in Almonte, Ont., to a game that he and his buddies had played at a waist-high boulder behind a blacksmith's shop. The game, called duck on a rock, involved trying to knock a stone off that boulder with smaller ones, each tossed by a player who, if he missed, had to retrieve his "duck" before the designated guardian of the rock could tag him. "Force, which made for roughness, would have no value," Naismith wrote. "Accuracy was more effective." To keep a defender from stationing himself on top of the goal, he called for the goals in his new game to be raised above the playing area.

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