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Basketball, 'the invention of a Canadian'

In 1891 at a YMCA Training School in Springfield, Mass., a Canadian athletic instructor invented a simple game involving a ball tossed into a peach basket. It would take nearly a century for basketball to gain worldwide prominence and develop its own culture, fashion and vibe. Along the way, Canadians have played a huge role in popularizing the sport, on the street, in gyms and in the professional ranks.

Basketball came to be because an inventive physical education student named James Naismith was in the right place at the right time. As sports historian Percy Lesueur explains in this CBC Radio clip, the head of the physical education department at the YMCA Training School in Springfield, Mass. was looking for a new game in 1891. That man (Luther Gulick) put Naismith in charge of the other students and asked them to suggest activities "which could be played by groups indoors, free from rough play and bodily contact, but at the same time requiring plenty of teamwork and individual effort." Naismith submitted the basic components of his sport and after a trial game it was accepted. Some 30 years later, a girls' team from Edmonton were becoming perhaps basketball's first legendary team. They were called the Edmonton Grads (short for Edmonton Commercial Graduates) and they beat just about everyone in their path.
• Naismith dreamed up the game based on another game he played in childhood, called "duck on the rock," according to the Naismith Museum. The idea was to knock a rock - the duck - off a large base stone by throwing another rock at it. The museum's website notes that when Naismith was given the task of introducing a new game, he was asked to achieve two primary objectives: "make it fair for all players and free of rough play." Due to the harsh Massachusetts winters, the game needed to be an indoor one. Naismith preferred a sport that relied on skill development over strength.
  • The first game was played with two peach baskets for goals and a soccer ball. Originally there was no running or dribbling, because Naismith observed that contact occurred in other sports (football, baseball, rugby, lacrosse, hockey) when the object of play was carried, stick handled, etc. To further remove the possibility of jostling or rough play, he placed the basket up high where it couldn't be guarded. He then referred back to "Duck on a Rock" for the shooting of the ball. In that game, the most successful plays were executed using a lobbed arcing shot, instead of a straight throw.

• Naismith, the eldest son of Scottish immigrants, was born Nov. 6, 1861 in Almonte, Ont. He, his two brothers and a sister were orphaned in 1869 after their parents contracted typhoid fever. James was known in his neighbourhood as a strong and skilful boy who showed signs of becoming a top athlete. Naismith attended McGill University in Montreal and obtained a bachelor of arts degree in Physical Education. He was active in football, rugby, lacrosse and gymnastics. In 1897 he entered the Presbyterian College of Theology in Montreal and earned a diploma in 1890. He soon moved on to the YMCA Training School in Springfield, Mass., where his famous invention was born.

• In 1894, Naismith married Maude E. Sherman from Springfield. The couple would have five children. That same year he and Gulick collaborated to publish the rule of basketball in the "American Sports Publishing Company".

• In 1895 Naismith and his family moved to Denver, where he was director of physical education at the YMCA. At the same time he attended the University of Colorado Medical School, graduating in 1898. From 1898 until his retirement in 1938, he was the physical education director, campus chaplain and basketball coach as the University of Kansas.

• Naismith published two books: "A Modern College" (1911) and "Essence of a Healthy Life" (1918).

• Naismith died in 1939, three years after seeing basketball inaugurated as an Olympic sport at the 1936 Summer Games in Berlin. As a tribute from the Olympic organizational committee, Naismith threw the ball for the Games' first basketball match.

• Professional basketball's Hall of Fame is named after Naismith. It is called the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, and is located in Springfield, Mass., the place where the game was invented.

• The first basketball game, played Dec. 21, 1891, consisted of 18 players, nine to a side. The score was 1-0. Its participants included three young men from Nova Scotia, who were part of what would later become known as the "First Team".

• In this clip Lesueur says the Edmonton Commercial Graduates compiled a 409-12 win-loss record "from about 1924 to '35." In fact, from 1915 to 1940, the team amassed an otherworldly won-loss ledger of 502-20, a mark that remains unparalleled by any team in any sport.

• The Edmonton Grads also exhibited an unyielding dedicated to sportsmanship and leadership, which was not lost on Naismith. In 1936 he sent the team a letter that read, in part, "You are not only an inspiration to basketball players throughout the world, but a model of all girls' teams. Your attitude and success have been a source of gratification to me in illustrating the possibilities of the game in the development of the highest type of womanhood."

Medium: Radio
Program: Assignment
Broadcast Date: Sept. 30, 1957
Reporter: Percy Lesueur
Duration: 4:00

Last updated: January 30, 2013

Page consulted on September 24, 2013

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