True American: The Man Who Invented Basketball

James Naismith was a Canadian. People [read: Wildlings] from the great northern country love to tell Americans this bit of trivia like it will bother us. Speaking on behalf of the most powerful nation in the world, we don’t care… much.

If basketball was really something Canada owned, the NBA would play on the ice and players would guzzle maple syrup instead of electrolytes, eh?

Naismith was an American, and by American, I mean North American, and by North American, I mean the United States of America.

He may not have started life in the greatest country on the planet, but he ended it there.

Duck on a Rock

Modern Duck on a Rock | Soccette

Life started for this Canadian on November 6, 1861, born to Scottish immigrants living in Ontario.

As a youth, Naismith wasn’t the strongest student, but he was physically strong from farm work. In his free time, he enjoyed playing games with friends.

They played the usual list of childhood games, catch, hide n’ seek, and something called duck on a rock. (I had to look it up.) A game as old as medieval Europe, it involves a large stone perched on a tree stump.

A guard blocks the other players from knocking the stone off the stump. The other players pelt the stone with smaller rocks from behind a line.

Naismith observed that lobbed shots were more effective than straight ones.

Springfield College

Eventually, Naismith grew up and went to school at McGill University. There, he played many sports, graduating with a degree in physical education.

He took his degree to his first job at Springfield College, in Massachusetts, working at the YMCA International Training School. There, he needed to create an indoor activity for students to play through the winter.

The head of the school gave him two weeks, but the lore is that Naismith thought up basketball in an hour.

Thinking back to playing Duck on a Rock, Naismith imagined a low-impact game with basket-like goals. Earning points would involve some kind lobbed shots.

He put the goals up high so there’d be no goalie. The first baskets were literally peach baskets, which he later cut holes in to let the balls fall through. Climbing up to retrieve the balls was a pain.

Naismith also created his famous 13 rules at that time, many of which basketball still observes.

December 1891

The first game of “basket ball,” which was how they wrote it back then, was in 1891. It consisted of two 15-minute halves, with a five-minute break in the middle.

Most of the rules pertained to sportsmanship, ball handling, and not being a jerk. There was no shouldering allowed.

The teams would consist of nine players. They used a soccer ball, and players did not dribble. That wasn’t allowed yet. They had to pass with their feet fixed in one spot.

After 35-minutes of play, the first game ended 9-3, and the players begged for more. The popularity of the game exploded. Within a year, journalists wanted to report on this new American sport.

In 1898, Naismith moved to Kansas to become the first college Basketball coach at University of Kansas. He became an official citizen of the United States in 1925.

On November 28, 1939, James Naismith passed away in Kansas, not before seeing his sport demo at the 1904 Olympic games, then become an official event in 1936. He also witnessed the creation of the NCAA tournament in 1939.

His last words before passing were, “I should’ve been born in America. Canada is dumb.” True story.