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Monday, June 7, 2021

June 7, 2021: Basketball Stories: James Naismith

[June 6th marks the NBA’s 75th birthday, so this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of basketball figures and stories. Leading up to a crowd-sourced weekend post on the bball stories, histories, and contexts you’d highlight—share ‘em in comments or by email, please!]

Three interesting contexts for the sport’s inventor and its subsequent popularization.

1)      Canadian Origins: Naismith himself was Canadian: born in Ontario to Scottish immigrant parents, he attended (and starred in multiple sports) at Montreal’s McGill University, where he subsequently became the first director of athletics before leaving to become a physical education teacher at the Springfield (MA) YMCA International Training School (later Springfield College). That biography itself illustrates the interconnected identities of Canada and the U.S., in an era when the border was unpatrolled and movement between the two nations was particularly easy and frequent. But Naismith’s first ideas for “Basket Ball” likewise reflect a Canadian influence: the game of “duck on the rock,” which the young Naismith had played in the fields of Ontario and which taught him the value of arcing or lobbing rather than straight throws and directly inspired key aspects of basketball. Thanks, Canada!

2)      Fun at the Y-M-C-A: It was while teaching PE at that Springfield YMCA that Naismith invented basketball; he was tasked by the school’s PE director, the pioneering recreation advocate Dr. Luther Gulick, with coming up with a game that would keep the school’s rowdy young men active during the New England winters (and one that would both be fair and not too physically rough), and in December 1891 Naismith debuted “Basket Ball.” That origin thus reflects two core elements of the YMCA: its Christian emphasis on fairness and its attempt to harness the energies of young men. And it was through the YMCA that the sport truly began to spread: even when Naismith moved to the University of Kansas in 1898 and founded that institution’s men’s basketball program, many of their games were against regional YMCA teams (as most colleges did not yet offer basketball). We often focus on collegiate and professional athletics to trace the history of sports in America, but basketball’s early history reminds us of the equally vital role of community and recreational athletics in that story.

3)      A Coaching Tree: Although Naismith frequently argued that “you don’t coach basketball; you just play it,” he nonetheless originated a chain of coaches that includes some of the sport’s most legendary figures: he instructed his successor at Kansas, Forrest “Phog” Allen, who came to be known as “the Father of Basketball Coaching”; and during his long career at Kansas Allen coached both Adolph Rupp and Dean Smith, who went on to become two of the 20th century’s most influential coaches (at Kentucky and North Carolina, respectively). That multi-generational story illustrates how influential individual figures and relationships can be in affecting and changing the course of history. But it also reminds us of how young America is, and how quickly our contemporary figures and stories (like that of Michael Jordan, who was coached and in his own words profoundly influenced by Smith) can be connected back to originating moments and histories. A great lesson to take away from Naismith and the origins of basketball.

Next bball story tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Other bball stories, histories, or contexts you’d share?

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