DR. JAMES NAISMITH, 1899-1907  

                              KU Record:    55-60, .478, 9 Seasons

Link to his Basketball Hall of Fame site




DR. JAMES A. NAISMITH  (Coach: 1898-1907)

The “Father of Basketball”, Dr. James Naismith invented the game in Springfield, Massachusetts, in December of 1891. As a physical education instructor at Springfield College, a training school of the Springfield YMCA, Naismith was asked by Dr. Luther Gulick, head of Springfield YMCA Physical Education, to come up with a game that would occupy students’ time and give them exercise during the winter, in between football and baseball seasons. 

Naismith Picture

Inventing the Game

His aim was to develop an indoor sport that required finesse and skill, rather than strength.  First, he analyzed the most popular games of those times (rugby, lacrosse, soccer, football, hockey and baseball), and was guided by three main ideas. Naismith noticed the hazards of a small fast ball and concluded that the big soft soccer ball was safest. Secondly, he saw that most physical contact occurred while running with the ball, dribbling or hitting it, so he decided that passing was a better option. Finally, Naismith further reduced body contact by making the goal unguardable, namely placing peach baskets high above the player's heads. To score goals, he forced the players to throw a soft lobbing shot that had proven effective in his old favorite game duck on a rock, which involved throwing balls into empty boxes. Naismith christened this new game "Basket Ball" and put his thoughts together in 13 basic rules. Miss Lyons, the school stenographer, typed them on two sheets of paper.

Nine players on a side handled a soccer ball and the goals were a pair of peach baskets. "When Mr. Stubbins, the Superintendent of Buildings, brought up the peach baskets to the gym, I secured them on the inside of the railing of the gallery. This was about 10 feet from the floor, one at each end of the gymnasium. I then put the 13 rules on the bulletin board just behind the instructor's platform, secured a soccer ball and awaited the arrival of the class. The class did not show much enthusiasm but followed my lead. I then explained what they had to do to make goals, tossed the ball up between the two center men and tried to keep them somewhat near the rules. Most of the fouls were called for running with the ball, though tackling the man with the ball was not uncommon." 

In contrast to modern basketball, the original rules did not include the dribble. Since the ball could only be moved up the court via a pass, early players tossed the ball over their heads as they ran up court. Also, following each "goal" a jump ball was taken in the middle of the court.


Basketball Game

Personal Life
Naismith was the oldest child of Scottish immagrants,John and Margaret Naismith. He was born in 1861 on a small family farm in rural Canada.  Unfortunately, the couple contracted typhoid fever and both died when he was nine years old. James and his brother and sister spent the next two years living with their maternal grandmother. When their grandmother also died in 1873, the Naismith children were left under the care of their uncle.   At the age of ten, he went to work in the lumber camps and surrounding farms to help support the family. At 15, he saw no need to stay in school and dropped out of Almonte High School in Ontario for four years, but returned to graduate in 1883. Shortly thereafter, he was accepted at McGill University where he studied to become a Presbyterian minister.  While at McGill, he developed a passion for sports that lasted the rest of his life.  He was a talented and versatile athlete and was excellent at many sports.  After graduation he enrolled in Presbyterian College, a theological school affiliated with McGill University.

Early Professional Life
After graduating, James accepted a position at the YMCA in Springfield, Massachusetts, where he stayed for five years. In June 20, 1894, Naismith married Maude Sherman from Springfield. The next year, he accepted a similar position at the YMCA in Denver, Colorado.  While there, he worked and attended Gross Medical School at the University of Colorado. Naismith was an intense student, collecting four degrees in the diverse fields of Philosophy, Religion, Physical Education and Medicine.

Coming to Kansas
It wasn’t basketball that brought Naismith to Lawrence in 1898.  KU Chancellor Francis Snow needed somebody to lead prayer in the chapel where daily attendance was required.  Snow contacted University of Chicago football coach, Amos Alonzo Stagg.  Naismith and Stagg played football together for the Stubby Christians of Springfield College and Stagg quickly fired back, “James is a medical doctor, Presbyterian minister, Tee-totaler, all-around athlete, nonsmoker, and owner of a vocabulary without cuss words.” Snow hired Naismith as Director of Physical Education, at $1,300 per year, thus beginning a 39 year career at the University of Kansas where he retired in 1937.

Kansas’ First Basketball Coach
Naismith organized basketball at Kansas and interest grew rapidly.  A tournament was held to select the first team, and on February 3, 1899, Kansas played its first game against the Kansas City YMCA, losing 16-5.  Naismith, as he would for many Kansas games, served as the referee. The Jayhawks won six straight after that loss, including a rematch with the KC YMCA team in Lawrence, finishing the season 7-4.  There wouldn’t be another winning season until 1905-06, when a sophomore named Forrest C. Allen was the star player.

Naismith’s career mark of 55-60 makes him the only coach in KU’s history with a losing record. But Naismith didn’t consider himself a coach.  He officiated many of the games – that’s why he accompanied the team on the road.  He usually didn’t attend practices. “In a 1914 speech to the eighth annual NCAA convention, Naismith said that the ideal basketball player was primarily a gentleman, secondarily a college man, and incidentally a basket ball player. Naismith thought of himself as primarily a doctor, secondarily an educator and never as the Jayhawks’ basketball coach.

He preferred the term ‘teaching’. Like the time when Baker University wrote him to inquire  about hiring a young KU athlete to be their basketball coach. Naismith called in his student and successor, Phog Allen, to announce the news. “I’ve got a joke on you”, Naismith said with a laugh.  “They want you to coach basketball down at Baker.”  Phog bristled.  “What’s so funny about that?” “Why, Forrest, you don’t coach basketball, you just play it!”  Being a minister and doctor by training, Naismith was more an advocate of spiritual and mental fitness than a teacher of technique.  “So much stress is laid today on the winning of games,” he wrote in 1914, “that practically all else is lost sight of, and the fine elements of manliness and true sportsmanship are accorded a secondary place.” 

Naismith handed over the team to Allen in 1907.  He remained in the physical education department at Kansas for the next three decades and died in 1939, two years before the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame opened in Springfield.  He had the thrill of seeing basketball grow from his idea in 1891 to an international sport at the 1936 Berlin Olympics when the sport was included in the Olympic program for the first time.  In 1935, the National Association of Basketball Coaches collected money so that the 74-year old Naismith could witness the introduction of basketball into the official Olympic sports program of the 1936 Summer Olympic Games. Naismith tossed up the first ball in the opening game between France and Estonia. Among his observations: the Chinese were the best ball handlers, and Poland played the best game.  Fittingly, the United States played Canada for the gold medal, and Naismith watched his adopted nation defeat his homeland.

Coaching in Kansas

During his tenure at KU, James took two extended leaves of absence.  The first was in 1916, when at the age of 55, James volunteered to ride with General Pershing on the Mexican border of Texas during the war with the Mexican general, Pancho Villa, and his troops.  The second was in 1917, when he volunteered to fight in France as a Military Chaplin in World War I.  Upon the war's end, Naismith was nominated Y.M.C.A. Secretary, and served a nineteen-month post in France before returning to Kansas University in 1919.

 Naismith in Cavalry

Inventor, Not an Entrepreneur
Interestingly, basketball wasn’t Naismith’s first attempt at devising something to reduce or prevent injury.  Boxed ears suffered while playing football in the 1880’s prompted Naismith to design and wear a cut-up rugby ball fitted over his head with flaps covering his ears.  Thus, Naismith is recognized as the inventor of the football helmet as well as the game of basketball – neither of which he ever patented. 

Money was never his motivation. Time magazine once said that Dr. James Naismith was “shrewd enough to invent the game of basketball, but not shrewd enough to exploit it.” In other words, Naismith never made a cent on the sport that has made millions of dollars for so many others.  A cigarette company once offered him a lucrative contract to endorse smoking, but he didn’t approve of smoking and turned it down. He died with his house still mortgaged.

Today, Naismith is recognized in Lawrence in several ways.  Naismith Drive leads to Allen Fieldhouse.  Naismith Hall is where many Kansas athletes reside.  Naismith and his wife Maude are buried at Lawrence Memorial Park, and a large Naismith Memorial greets visitors at the entrance.  Appropriately, he’s depicted holding school textbooks in one arm and a basketball in the other. The university also named the court in Allen Fieldhouse, James Naismith Court in his honor.

He is a member of the Canadian Basketball Hall of Fame, the Canadian Olympic Hall of Fame, the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame, the Ontario Sports Legends Hall of Fame, the Ottawa Sports Hall of Fame, the McGill University Sports Hall of Fame, the Kansas State Sports Hall of Fame and the FIBA Hall of Fame. And of course, the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame carries his name.

Posthumously, his masterwork "Basketball - its Origins and Development" was published in 1941.  Other books he published are: “Rules for Basket Ball” and “Basketball’s Origins: Creative Problem Solving in the Gilded Age”.






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