James Naismith, who was my father-in-law, didn't think of everything. He invented the game of basketball in December, 1891, but it was a while before he realized that the goals (baskets) should be bottomless. The early drawing of the game at left was made at The School for Christian Workers, a YMCA institution at Springfield, Mass. A Japanese student, G. S. Ishikawa, drew it and it shows a janitor sitting atop a ladder, ready to take the ball out of the peach-basket and put it back into play.
Still, Jim was a thinking man. He was a Presbyterian minister, a professor and an M.D. He had 11 degrees, he told me, including one in Greek and one in music. He is, of course, remembered chiefly because he originated basketball. But his chief interest was not in the game itself; it lay in the people who played it. This I know because I found Jim Naismith easy to talk with. He looked like the highly moral—but in no sense stuffy—man that he was. His blue eyes were kind, with crinkles at the corners. He had a heavy mustache, which looked prickly. His head was a bit square, as was his stocky, straight body. He had cauliflower ears, squashed from much boxing.
Jim told me quite a bit about himself. During adolescence he worked on his uncle's Ontario farm, driving teams, chopping trees and sawing logs. He believed this strenuous work developed his strong body. His recreation helped, too: hunting, hiking through the woods and skating. But after five years on the farm, he was dissatisfied with himself. He wanted to do for others and he suddenly realized he couldn't accomplish much in the world without a good education. He resolved to finish high school (which he had abandoned at the age of 14) and enter McGill University at Montreal with a view to becoming a minister.
By the time he graduated A.B. in 1887 Jim owned the highest awards given at McGill for all-round gym work. After graduation he became McGill's physical education director, thus assuring a source of income while he continued his studies. He graduated from the Presbyterian Theological College in Montreal in 1890.
In those days religion and athletics were an unusual combination. A football player named "Drunken" Donegan once called Jim a sissy for studying his Bible instead of going out on a spree. Naismith promptly knocked him flat. However, he was troubled by the rowdyism in sports which Donegan exemplified. Jim was beginning to wonder whether he could preach better in a gymnasium than from a pulpit. Sports, he thought, could be used to help boys from 16 to 21 who wanted to do things and found relatively little to do in a good environment. Finally, Jim decided to forgo a pastorate; he would, instead, teach clean living through sports. For this purpose, he entered the YMCA school in Springfield.
There he played football under Coach Amos Alonzo Stagg, and though he weighed only 160 he must have made an impression. Jim asked Stagg one day why he had been put at center. "Jim," Stagg answered in a serious voice, "I play you at center because you can do the meanest things in the most gentlemanly way."
In school at the time were 18 gentlemen who were the despair of the physical education department. They were training to become secretaries to YMCA executives, but they resisted all exercise which was neither baseball nor football, maintaining that the gym work assigned to them in winter was an outrageous bore. Because Naismith had casually mentioned that a "new sport for winter" should be invented, he was asked to take over the recalcitrants and invent a sport for them. The challenge was made half in jest, but Naismith accepted it seriously. He had just two weeks in which to produce a solution to a problem which two other instructors had found insoluble.
After trying to adapt football to indoor play and discovering that tackling made it far too rugged a proposition, he conceived of a sport in which the ball would be passed instead of carried. The game of duck on the rock, in which a stone was knocked off a pedestal by throwing another stone, had been one of Jim's favorite childhood pastimes. Recollection of it suggested sending the ball toward the goal in a high curve. Jim conceived of placing a goal 10 feet above the floor at each end of the indoor playing area. But what to use for goals? He studied the problem for a while and then asked the superintendent of buildings at Springfield, a Yankee named Stebbins, to see if he could find a couple of boxes about 18 inches square.
"What for?" Stebbins demanded, not unreasonably.
"I'm figuring out a game," Jim said, "and I need the boxes to put on poles, so that a large ball can be thrown in them." A while later Stebbins returned with two empty peach baskets. From them the game derived its name.