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James Naismith

James Naismith
The Man Who Invented Basketball

Rob Rains with Hellen Carpenter
Foreword by Roy Williams

In this Q&A Temple University Press authors Rob Rains and Hellen Carpenter reflect on James Naismith: The Man Who Invented Basketball

Q: You had “unprecedented access” to the Naismith archives. Can you describe all the different documents, photographs, and memorabilia? How old was the collection and how long did it take you to sift through it? What did you discover about Naismith in writing/researching this book?
HC: Because my mother, Hellen Naismith Dodd, was the executor of his estate and told me about my grandfather at great length, I had heard a great deal about his life. Many of the things in the boxes dated back as far as his childhood. I have letters and pictures from his family in Canada. It took me about 4 months sitting in a bank vault to read every word that was in those boxes. What I discovered was that my grandfather was a true renaissance man. He wanted to leave the world a little better than it was and he did the best he could to make that happen. What people think of when they hear his name is basketball. He was so much more!
RR: I never knew about his devotion to education or the ministry, and I never knew how progressive a thinker he was ... coming up with many ideas which were well ahead of his time, such as his letter home from Paris near the end of World War I when he basically drafted the GI Bill.

Q: Hellen, what do you remember about your grandfather? How well did you get to know him before his death?
HC: I remember how patient and kind he was. When I was a small girl, I lived with him and my aunt Maude for about six weeks. (My grandmother had died and my aunt and uncle had come to live with him and keep house) He also visited us and when he came he always brought me something. I still have a doll he gave me.

Q: James Naismith, who wanted to be a minister, was almost more interested in the moral exercise of playing sport rather than the physicality it provided. In addition, he was less interested in money than helping people. Can you describe how basketball was able to fuse Naismith’s beliefs/interests as he imparted life lessons about teamwork, winning and losing?
RR: I believe he did try to educate his players about the value of teamwork and the other skills they could learn from playing the game. It is true he never worried about whether his team won or lost, as evidenced by the fact he is still the only coach at the University of Kansas with a career losing record.
HC: He chose to get involved with young people through sports as opposed to the ministry. He thought that he could reach more young people through sports and he then set out to learn all he could about how sports affected the mind and body – thus his MD. His sister Annie and his uncle Peter never really forgave him for the decision to follow sports. Annie never saw a game of basketball. With all of this, he was never estranged from his family and visited as often as possible.
RR: Perhaps because of the era in which he lived, before professional sports really came into existence, Naismith never viewed sports as anything more than a form of physical activity and recreation which he thought was important to a person's overall well-being. He did not view sports as being more important than education or religion. He did not create the game of basketball for any reason other than to keep a class of rowdy students busy during the cold winter months when they could not go outside to play football or baseball. He knew immediately his invention was a good game, and would be successful, but that was not the intent of his inventing the game.

Q: How do you think Naismith would react to the way basketball is played today and to the athletes like Dennis Rodman, Kobe Bryant, and Shaquille O’Neill who are as popular for their antics on and off the court?
RR: I think he would be pleased that basketball has opened the doors to a successful life for many people, people of all races and gender, and people of all nationalities. One of the key elements that he was most proud of about the invention of basketball was that it did not require a lot of expensive equipment and was a sport which could be played by everybody. He would not appreciate the changes in the game which have made players more showmen, and he would no doubt be upset by their antics.
HC: As Rob said, he would have been pleased that it opened doors for many people. However, he did prefer high school, college and backyard basketball. I think he would be awed by what it has become!

Q: What kind of athlete was Naismith as a young man? What games did he play before he invented basketball?
HC: When he was a boy in Canada, he lived in a remote area where there were few hours for any kind of games. Since there was nowhere to go, movies, ballparks, zoos, science centers, etc., when they did have time for play, they made up their own games. Some of these games were very challenging and some almost dangerous.
RR: Naismith was a very good athlete. He played all forms of recreation sports as a young boy growing up in Canada and liked to go ice skating in the winter. One of the favorite games of his youth was called “Duck on a Rock” which is said to have been his primary inspiration for the game of basketball. He also played football (rugby) in college and at the Springfield YMCA Training School and loved sports such as fencing and lacrosse.

Q: His reasons for inventing basketball was in part to find a game that could be played indoors in the winter. What other criteria did he have for the game/it’s rules, or influence his decisions to use a round ball and two hoops?
RR: To me one of the most interesting aspects to the invention of the game was pure luck. The only reasons the goals are 10 feet high, a fact which has never changed since that first game in 1891, was that was how high the railing was around the gym. Even though his original 13 rules have expanded into hundreds of pages in the official rule book, the biggest change that was not in the original rules was to allow players to dribble the ball as a way to advance it down the court. 
HC: His boss, Luther Halsey Qulick, wanted a game that could be played indoors in winter, took little equipment, took as much energy as football, and little physical contact. He decided on a ball big enough to be seen and the hoops came later when the baskets and boxes were demolished.  

Q: How quickly was basketball accepted, and how did its reputation spread? Were their revisions to the 13 rules? The game has changed a bit since it was invented.
RR: One of the biggest reasons for the quick growth of the game, other than the simple beauty of the game, was the fact that since the invention came at the YMCA Training School, it was made available to every other YMCA through the school's magazine, and some of the players on that first team became missionaries who took the game with them when they began working in India, China, Japan and other countries.
HC: He was surprised that the game spread as rapidly as it did. Of course, when the YMCA people moved to various parts of the country, they could teach their people how to play but then they had to each other so there could be a game. There were no courts at that time, so people started building courts. In order to pay for the courts, they started charging admission. Then people said they didn’t mind paying but would like to see a good game. This called for the best players and that was sort of the very beginning of pro ball.

Q: Naismith eventually got a job at the University of Kansas coaching. There’s an exchange in the book where Naismith tells Forrest Allen, “You can’t coach basketball, you just play it.” How did he develop strategies of play and coaching the game?
RR: I think he adapted as he saw more and more games and saw the abilities of the players. He came up with the idea for a zone defense because of a game against the Haskell Indian Institute, because they had one very good player and no one player on the Kansas squad could defend him, so he devised the zone defense which allowed multiple players the chance to stop him. The game was different then, of course, because most players were not very tall, so there was more of a premium placed on being a good ballhandler, speed and a good outside shooter. He actually proposed a rule change late in his life which would have made baskets from beyond a certain distance worth four points instead of two.

Q: He entered the Army in 1916. How did his work as a minister and as a coach prepare him for his life in the military were he often counseled and cared for soldiers? Was this a difficult period in Naismith’s life?
RR: The most difficult part of his life during those years was being away from home and away from his wife and family. He was 56 years old when he enlisted, so he immediately became a father figure to all of the young soldiers who were away from home for the first time and were missing their families as well. He was able to tolerate the horrid living and working conditions because he thought the value of his work was so important necessary, not only for the task of winning the war but because of how much help he was able to provide to all of the young men. It was, in at least that aspect, much the same as the benefits of being acoach.
HC: My grandfather felt that all of the lessons he learned throughout his life, on the farm, at McGill, at Springfield College, his MD and his experiences on the border with Gen. Pershing all came together to make it possible to make his job valuable and successful. I believe that he felt that this job was what he had trained for all of his life.

Q: One of Naismith’s great interests was the development of the human body. Can you discuss this? Was medicine one of his unfulfilled dreams?
RR: Even though Naismith earned a medical degree, he never really intended to become a doctor, just as he decided not to become a minister even though he graduated from the seminary. The value to him of that degree came in the form of education, and the increased knowledge of how the human body works. That study fascinated him and he always was trying to conduct experiments with his students to learn more and expand his knowledge. He created a very crude breathalyzer in the 1920s, for example, to study the effects alcohol had on a person. He also conducted tests to see if it would be possible to stretch babies when they were young to make them grow taller as they aged.
HC: Rob is right. He never intended to have a practice. However, he did under some circumstances, step in as a doctor and perform some services to injured people. As I have said before, he was mainly interested in how the stress of sports affected the body.

Q: Naismith was also very much a mentor to and coach for black students. This point was recently mentioned on Jay Leno’s show. Can you describe his involvement in helping break barriers and combating adversity?
HC: He wanted all young people to be educated. This included the black students. He felt it was a shame to have any student denied an education.
RR: He thought segregation and racial barriers were wrong. Many of his beliefs came from his work in World War I, when he saw young black soldiers fighting and dying for their country just the same as young white soldiers. He wanted to do all he could to help black students when he returned to Kansas, just as he did white students, and it did not make any difference to him if they were basketball players or not. Until Naismith intervened, for example, the swimming pool at the university was restricted to whites only, even though students graduating with a degree in physical education were required to pass a swimming test. Before Naismith got involved and opened the pool to all students, that requirement had simply been waived for black students.

Q: Naismith was celebrated at the 1936 Olympics, but today his name isn’t as widely known. However, his game, which bridged the gap between races and brought joy to so many is more popular than ever. What do you attribute Naismith’s/basketball’s success to?
HC: Many people did not know that anyone had invented the game. Many people did not believe that the game was invented by one person. My mother always thought that he was never given credit for his accomplishment. I think the success of the game was largely due to the fact that it was taken by the YMCA instructors to various parts of the country so that many different areas took the game and played it.
RR: The simplicity of the game, one of the original goals he had wanted when he established the game. Unlike baseball or football, it doesn't take more than a couple of people to play. It does not require expensive equipment or a fancy gymnasium or arena. It is a sport people of all skill level and ages can play, women and girls as well as men and boys. It is an enjoyable game to watch and lets athletes show off their skills. Being played indoors allows for the game to be perfect for television, and that medium has carried the game's beauty across the world.


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