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Naismith was a curious hybrid of a man. Canadian by birth, he had been raised by relatives following his parents' deaths from typhoid and had spent his childhood among lumberjacks and farmers in rural Ontario. Yet he devoted his late adolescence and young adulthood to the study of theology, philosophy and ancient languages (he would become a doctor of medicine and divinity) and resolved to enter the ministry. Teaching at the YMCA Training School before ordination seemed perfectly suited to this man's dual nature: physically robust on the one hand, piously Christian on the other. He was also a modest man, untroubled by working for Gulick, who was younger than he. Indeed, Naismith took to heart something his superior had told him. "Dr. Gulick had reminded me on one occasion that there is nothing new under the sun," Naismith once noted. "What appears new is just a combination of older things."
Gulick was correct in the broadest of senses. Elements of what Naismith would invent existed as long ago as 1200 B.C., when the Olmec Indians of Mexico played a ball-and-hoop game of religious significance. Variations persisted through the heydays of the Mayans and the Aztecs and up until the Spanish conquest in the 1500s. More recently the Argentines have played a game similar to basketball, called pato, on horseback. And in parts of Indonesia, a game is played by placing a basket in the middle of a village and tossing into it a "ball" resembling a badminton shuttlecock.
Naismith said he did not know any of this as he sat in his office sketching out some of the conditions a new game must meet. It had to be vigorous, so the wintering ruggers and footballers wouldn't feel like pantywaists. It had to be simple, so anyone could play it, but it had to have a degree of difficulty, to attract players of a scientific bent and to keep a challenge alive through the winter. And it had to be safe enough to be played in a cramped gymnasium measuring 50 feet by 30 feet.
Like any good inventor, Naismith was a problem solver. As he fashioned basketball out of fragments of other games, he sought to eliminate the flaws he saw in the popular sports of the day. The scourge of rugby and football was their roughness, which stemmed largely from tackling. Who got tackled? Runners. So Naismith decided that, in his game, the ball could be passed in any direction but not carried.
Yet if passing were permitted willy-nilly, the game might degenerate into little more than keep-away. Thus, this new game needed an objective, a literal goal—but not a goal on which violent rushes would be mounted, as in football, rugby and lacrosse. This, after all, would be played on a hard surface, and violent collisions would be too dangerous.
Here Naismith reached back to a pastime of his childhood in the hamlet of Bennies Corners, Ont. He and his friends had played a game called duck-on-a-rock. It involved trying to knock a good-sized rock off the top of a boulder by pelting it from a distance with other, smaller rocks. Duck-on-a-rock players, Naismith remembered, soon learned that accuracy was more important than force and that there was an optimal arc to a toss. Station the goal aloft, out of reach, he thought, and the game would become scientific. But what kind of goal? Here Naismith thought back again, to his days as a philosophy student at McGill University in Montreal, where rugby players stayed loose in the winter by tossing a ball into a box in the gym. And here, more or less, Naismith had his game—none too soon, for Gulick's 14 days were running out.
It took about an hour for Naismith to draft his original 13 rules, most of which can be found in some form in the game today. Then, on Dec. 21, 1891, he posted them shortly before the class was to meet.
"Hmmmph!" said one student when he showed up for phys ed. "A new game."
But the new game would bring the class to heel. Naismith divided his students into two teams of nine, and the first scrimmage ended with YMCA-executive-secretary-to-be William Chase having scored basketball's first—and the first game's only—basket, a toss from about 25 feet away.
Christmas vacation followed shortly thereafter, and a number of the players in the first game took "basket ball" back to their hometown YMCAs. The game grew astonishingly quickly thereafter, thanks largely to the farflung travels of Training School graduates and to Naismith's genial willingness to share his rules with anyone who showed interest. In addition, in spite of all of Naismith's precautions, many Y's considered the sport to be too rough, and teams that were turned out of Y's found new homes in Masonic temples, in dance halls, and on gym floors bounded by chicken wire—to keep the ball inbounds—which came to be known as cages. This introduced the game to even more people. Fundamentally, however, basketball grew because there was a need for a simple indoor wintertime game.