- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
There is an element of truth in all this, of course, but also as great an element of distortion as there would be in glibly characterizing hockey as a game without patterns and furthermore riddled by senseless rules, football as a game for behemoths only, in which the ball is hidden from the spectator as well as the opposing team, or golf as a game of rigged Calcuttas, baseball as the game of the Black Sox scandal, and so on and so forth. The most intelligent rebuttal to the charges of an antibasketball man (besides taking him to watch Cousy) would be to shanghai him to a high school game in some midwestern town where the whole population turns out to watch and forms a modern Currier and Ives scene. One evening in such a locale and your man will understand why basketball, the youngest of all major sports, today is participated in by uncountable millions throughout the world and annually attracts the largest number of spectators of any major American sport, some 95 million.
No sport ever had a more dramatic genesis or a finer father. He was Dr. James Naismith, a Canadian who grew up in a country town in northern Ontario. Orphaned at 8, Naismith early gave a memorable indication of his native inventiveness: too proud to ask his uncle to buy him a pair of skates like the other boys had, he hied himself to his uncle's machine shop and made himself a pair by setting two old files firmly into strips of hickory. In the autumn of 1883 he enrolled at McGill University to study for the ministry. Although contact sports were then frowned on as a wayward pursuit for a theology student, Naismith played center on the college Rugby team for seven years. "Much to my amusement," he later wrote, "I learned that some of my comrades gathered in one of the rooms one evening to pray for my soul." The rough-and-tumble life on the Rugby field, requiring selfcontrol as well as ardor and developing many valuable traits among any team of players, was one of the main influences that led Naismith to decide, after much reflection, that "there might be other ways of doing good besides preaching." He dropped the ministry in favor of spreading the gospel of health through sports and entered the YMCA's International Training School in Springfield, Mass. It was at Springfield in 1891 that James Naismith invented basketball.
MAKING A NEW GAME
How he did it is a marvelous chronicle for, under the stress of circumstances, Naismith deliberately set out to make up a new game. It all started with the realization by the faculty at Springfield that American boys, attuned to flexible, competitive sports like baseball and football, were bored and impatient with the gymnasium classes that conventionally filled in the hiatus between the close of the football season and the first game of scrub when the snow was gone. Late in 1891, after several other young instructors had tried unsuccessfully to devise some indoor recreation that would please the very discontented members of the young men's class, the head of the athletic department, Dr. Luther Gulick, asked Naismith to take a crack at it for a couple of weeks. Knowing that what was needed was a new game, Naismith first tried modifying Rugby, eliminating the tackling. The class thought it was awful. He next tried an indoor variation of soccer. Even the few men who could still walk in their sneakers after the melee were enthusiastically against it. He got the same reaction when he tried to modify lacrosse for the small 65-foot-by-45-foot gym. "The day before my two weeks ended I met the class," Naismith recalled years afterwards. "I will always remember that meeting. I had nothing new to try and no idea of what I was going to do...With weary footsteps I mounted the flight of narrow steps that led to my office directly over the locker room, I slumped down in my chair, my head in my hands and my elbows on the desk. I was a thoroughly disheartened and discouraged young instructor. Below me, I could hear the boys in the locker room having a good time; they were giving expression to the very spirit I had tried so hard to evoke."
As he sat there at his desk, Naismith decided to take a new tack. Previously he had been trying to adapt old games and that had failed. Now he began to ponder the nature of games in general from the philosophical side. Well, first, nearly all games used a ball. Some also used sticks but they demanded more proficiency and lots of space. As he mulled over the kind of game that was needed, he concluded that a soccer ball would probably be the best ball. It was sufficiently large so that it couldn't be hidden from sight by a player. Moreover, it was easier to handle than an oval football. All right, then, say you wanted your game to have some of the same patterns as American football without the tackling and other strenuous contact, how then would the players advance the ball? As he visualized the action in his mind, Naismith hit on the first of his original devices: the player in possession of the ball could not run with it after getting it but would be required to stop or pass the ball immediately. How about the goals then? If you took a lacrosse goal and—no, that wouldn't work out; a group of defending players could block off any scoring simply by massing in front of it. Why not place them off the ground above the heads of the players? Then it would be useless for players to mass in front of a goal to block scoring throws. Additionally, vaguely like a good shot in the backyard game of duck-on-the-rock, the shot that would put the ball into such an overhead goal would call much more for accuracy than for sheer power. That was certainly a step in the right direction.
The next morning as he was walking down the hall near the gym, about an hour and a half before the class was due to meet, Naismith met the building superintendent and asked him if he had two boxes 18 inches square. The superintendent said he hadn't but he had two old peach baskets in the storeroom. He brought them up and Naismith nailed a basket to the lower rail of the balcony at both ends of the gym. He went back to his office, quickly wrote out 13 rules for the game and had them typed. "The game was a success from the time the first ball was tossed up," Dr. Naismith later wrote."... When the first game had ended, I felt that I could now go to Dr. Gulick and tell him that I had accomplished the two seemingly impossible tasks he had set for me: namely, to interest the class in physical exercise and to invent a new game."
HOOPS ALL OVER THE WORLD
No sport in history caught on like Dr. Naismith's baby. Within a month of the historic first game, girls were playing basketball. ( Naismith, by the way, married a member of the first girls' team.) By 1892 the game was being played at the University of Iowa, a year later at Stanford. By the turn of the century, with YMCA men carrying the ball wherever they went, there were hundreds of hoops in South America, China, Japan—all over the world. As it grew, the game changed. Players with a gift for it came up with all kinds of new maneuvers. For example, the dribble, first conceived as a defensive aid to help a man stuck with the ball to keep free until he could get off a pass, swiftly was turned by talented dribblers into an element of the attack. And as the game changed, rules had to be added and changed—a rule here to make official some unarguable improvement the players had hit on, such as the rule that the team which did not touch the ball last before it went out of bounds throws it back into play; a rule there to curb certain unanticipated excesses which were hurting the game, like the one limiting the number of fouls a player could commit before being disqualified for the rest of the game. Today, 64 years old, basketball is still in the process of evolution, a game that has not yet found its best expression as has baseball or golf or tennis. It has changed tremendously just over the past 20 years, when the abolition of the center jump and the ten-second backcourt rule and the advent of the fast break so greatly speeded up the game.
But it hasn't all been progress in a neat straight line. Bad trends have been recognized and rules instituted to prevent them, and as often as not the new rules have fostered greater ills than the ones they proposed to cure. There have been periods, many of them, in fact, when the game got itself so fouled up that the elements which had made for its appeal had all but disappeared and what had arisen in their place wasn't basketball at all. A good deal of the trouble, to be sure, has resulted from the unavoidable proposition that in a game where the goals are set 10 feet above the ground, a big man will always have a valuable advantage, and you cannot legislate against height in basketball any more honestly than you can restrict the bulk of the linemen in football. You must deal with it within the spirit of the game.
Up to now, whenever basketball has found itself all snarled up in a jungle of unforeseen developments and unnatural rules, someone has always appeared to lead the game out of the wilderness. Sometimes it has been a wonderful team like the Original Celtics, sometimes a rules committee cleaving to the heart of the matter, and sometimes a single player. In recent years, when the game was coming very close to developing into a race-horse shooting match between men who had developed unstoppable shots and who could do very little else, Bob Cousy, above and beyond anyone else, has blazed the trail back to good basketball. Cousy has, in truth, gone much further: he has opened the road to better basketball. Perhaps no player or coach in the game's history has understood the true breath of basketball as well as he. He has shown, in what has amounted to an enlightened revolution, that basketball offers a hundred and one possibilities of maneuvers no one ever dreamed of before. Reversing your dribble or passing behind your back and so on—those stunts had been done for years, but if you combine those moves with a sense of basketball, then you are going some place. Increase your repertoire of moves, and the man playing you, by guarding against one, gives you the opening you need to move into another. It is not unlike learning to speak a new language. The larger your vocabulary, the better you will speak it, as long as you are building on a sound foundation.