Did You Know How Basketball Was Born?

The Canadian physician who invented one of America’s favorite pastimes close to 130 years ago

On December 21, 1891, at the YMCA in Springfield, Massachusetts, Dr. Jaimes Naismith cleared the athletic equipment off the gymnasium’s wooden floor. He asked for a couple of wooden boxes, but the best the custodian could do was a pair of peach baskets. Naismith made do and mounted them to the lower rail of the gym’s balcony, about 10 feet off the ground.

What Dr. Naismith, a Canadian-American physical educator, professor, doctor and coach, was trying to achieve was an “athletic distraction” to occupy students suffering from cabin fever during the long, harsh winters.

The only rule Naismith gave to the students, just boys then, was to get a soccer ball into the bottom of the peach basket, from which it was retrieved by students in the balcony.

The boys were divided into teams of nine, Naismith recalled in a 1939 radio interview, the only such recording known. He blew the whistle, and the first game of basketball in history was underway. In spite of student suggestions that he call the game ‘Naismith Ball,’ he gave the sport a less narcissistic title.

The lack of rules was a problem as kicking, tackling, dislocating bones and punching all became par for the course. Many black eyes later, Naismith decided his new invention needed some order on the courts.

He sat down and devised 13 rules for his invention and gave them to his secretary to type up onto two pages, which he posted in the gym.

The most important rule was that there could be no running with the soccer ball. It could only be thrown or batted from the spot where it was caught.

The physical education instructor sat down and devised 13 rules for his invention and gave them to his secretary to type up onto two pages, which he posted in the gym.

The most important rule was that there could be no running with the soccer ball. It could only be thrown or hit from a stationary position.

Naismith’s new game caught on quickly at other YMCAs and went on to become the fastest-growing game in the history of sport, both among men and women.

In 1898, Naismith was hired as the first men’s basketball coach at the University of Kansas, and one would think he would have been mighty pleased at the cultural phenomenon the NBA went on to become.

And of course, what is life, if not full of cruel irony. Dr. Naismith, the inventor of basketball, was the only men’s coach in the Kansas program’s history to have a losing record.