This Week in History


Slam Dunk!

This story was initially published in 1999

On December 21, 1891 James Naismith invented the game of basketball in hopes of generating enthusiasm in his gym class.

James Naismith - ca.1910

James Naismith - ca.1910
© LAC / C-7994

Naismith grew up on a farm near Almonte, Ontario, where he developed a love for sports. He played everything from rugby to lacrosse, baseball, cricket, curling, gymnastics and track and field. After receiving theology and physical education degrees at McGill University, Naismith became a training instructor at the Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA) Training School (now Springfield College) in Massachusetts. He believed that a healthy body made for a healthy mind.

Because his class lacked enthusiasm, Naismith had to develop new ways of motivating his students. They did not mind football and baseball when the weather was warm, but winter classes were held indoors which called for tamer activities. Naismith wanted to reduce the violence in games so he searched for a non-contact sport. Combining ideas from several games, including one he played as a child called Duck-on-a-Rock, Naismith envisioned players scoring with a soccer ball into an elevated goal. This would demand primarily skill and precision, not strength, and eliminate the need for body checking. Peach baskets were nailed to the gym balcony which established the net height of 10 feet. He listed 13 rules on the gym door and since his class held 18 boys, basketball was first played with two teams of 9 players. Naismith's game was an instant hit attracting on-lookers the very first time.

Basketball has undergone many changes since then, but Naismith's original 13 rules are still the foundation. Women were also eager to play the sport which quickly adopted metal hoops, backboards and a real basketball. In the 1930s, rules were introduced to speed up the play of the game, and the "jump shot" became popular.

Naismith with ball and baskets... basketball!!!

Naismith with ball and baskets... basketball!!!
© LAC / C-80002

After working at the YMCA, Naismith went through medical school in Denver and then became the physical education and religious director at the University of Kansas. He is also credited with inventing the football helmet after cutting a ball lengthwise and putting it over his head for protection. In 1936, Naismith went to see the first Olympic basketball games in Berlin. Springfield remembers the inventor with their Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, as does Almonte's Naismith Museum and Hall of Fame.

For his invention of basketball, Dr. James Naismith is considered of national historic importance to Canadians.

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