Dr. James Naismith is best known world wide as the inventor of basketball. He also led an exemplary life, following the values he held dear. He was an educator and leader, dedicated to developing character through sport, and devoted to serving society. His gift of basketball is played in over 200 countries around the world.
In the hard times of the 1820's, the government of Britain arranged for the settlement of its constituents in particular areas of Canada. Specifying that the emigrants pay their own ship passage, the British government agreed to provide tools, blankets, seed grain and small sums of money to tide the settlers over until harvest next fall.
James Naismith's ancestors were among the multitudes of Scottish immigrants to settle in Lanark County, Ontario, near the junction of the Mississippi and Indian Rivers.
James' grandparents, Robert and Annie Young, arrived in Canada in 1852. Annie reared eleven children. The fourth of these eleven children was Margaret Young, James' mother, born in Scotland in 1833. A year after the Young's arrived, eighteen year old John Naismith, James' father, left his parents and migrated from Scotland to the Lanark District of Upper Canada. He soon moved to live and work with his Uncle Peter who had arrived in Ramsay Township in 1832.
The community in which the Young farm was located was the most densely populated part of the township and was the place where the first schools and churches were built. The eighth line had two thriving settlements in the early days a few miles apart: Leckies Corners and Bennie's Corners. In 1847 Bennie's Corners (named for the pioneer postmaster in the village) had facilities more than adequate for its population of 75 people: a school, a church, a blacksmith shop, a shoemaker shop, a cooperage, a carriage shop, a general merchandise store and a post office. Within reasonable distance were a tannery, a carding mill, a weaving shop, a timber slide and sawmill, and several gristmills.
Unfortunately, a fire in 1851 destroyed the village of Bennie's Corners and it was never fully rebuilt. Bennie's Corners in the 1870's, the time of James Naismith's adolescence, was no longer an important crossroad. It consisted of a few residences, a store, and a blacksmith shop and one very important institution--the schoolhouse. Here James received his grade school education.
With the decline of Bennie's Corners from a thriving village to a minor cross-roads, the settlement now known as Almonte became the economic, social and cultural centre for the area. Named by the Scottish-Irish Canadian group of settlers to honour General Juan Nepomuceno Almonte, the Mexican ambassador to the United States in 1856, Almonte was one of the first villages in the Ottawa Valley. This textile-manufacturing centre of the country formed where the Mississippi River showed a sixty-two foot drop in three stages, making a tremendous supply of water available to generate power. This town is the town where James would attend high school and church.
Before and after school hours, Jim was assigned chores around the farm and worked in the woods. Jim learned to chop trees, saw logs, and drive horses. The walk from the farm to school was 5 miles.
Jim learned early many lessons in honesty, initiative, independence, and ruggedness. Uncle Peter put great stock in reliability and self-reliance. When Jim was sent into the field or the woods with a team of horses, he was expected to do the assigned job without asking for help. If trouble arose, he was depended upon to take care of it himself.
In the fields, creeks and rivers beyond the blacksmith shop Jim and his friends found more space to play. With each season came a different opportunity for recreation.
In the fall, James was involved in hunting. In the surrounding forests the local boys hunted squirrels, partridge and snowshoe hare with bows and arrows. As they grew and matured they were given guns to hunt deer and Canadian lynx.
During the winter, snowshoeing, ice hockey, skating, and tobogganing were favorite activities. Not willing to ask his uncle for a pair of skates, James fashioned a pair for himself by setting metal files into pieces of wood.
In the spring, "sugaring-off" occurred in the Ontario maple groves. The making of maple sugar provided a fun time for Jim and his friends.
With summer came swimming. Jim used to lead boys across the fields and through the woods to favorite swimming spots in the Indian and Mississippi Rivers where they frolicked, swam and balanced on floating logs.
In all outdoor activities Jim was a leader. He was one of the strongest and most skilful boys in the neighborhood.
This stone sat in the blacksmith's yard adjacent to the Bennie's Corners school in Ramsay Township where James attended. They played a game on this stone called "Duck on a Rock" which was a game that combined tag with throwing. Players formed a line from a distance of 15-20 feet from the base stone. Each player used a fist-sized stone. The object was to dislodge the "guards" stone from the top of the base stone, by throwing, taking turns. The guard would be positioned in a neutral area away from the thrower. If one succeeded, they would go to the back of the line. If you missed the guards' stone, the "chase" would be on and if tagged before the stone was recovered, the players would trade places.
Over time, they discovered that if the stone was hurled like a baseball it would bound far away and increase the likelihood of being caught by the guard. The players developed a lobbed arcing shot that proved to be more controllable, more accurate, and less likely to bounce away, thus increasing their chance of retrieval.
When he was given the task of introducing a new indoor game in
1891, he was given two main objectives - "make it fair for
all players, and free of rough play".
The next observation was that there was much jostling and rough play in the defense of the goal, net or goal line in the other games. He chose to place the goal over head where it couldn't be guarded.
This posed a new problem, since this was the first game with the goal above the plane of the playing area. How would they shoot to score?
Remembering back to "Duck on a Rock" and how successful the lobbed arcing shot proved, he incorporated it into the shooting method for his new game Basket Ball.
At McGill University in Montreal, Quebec, Jim Naismith began a four year Bachelor of Arts program. Jim studied as he had never studied before. He made the decision to put sports aside and spend all his time on assignments. That was, until one day when two fellow students convinced him of the need to join the athletic program at the university for the sake of keeping fit.
Jim headed for McGill University's gymnasium where he soon began participating in the gymnastic and rugby program. By his junior year, he was winning the university's highest honours for his athletic involvement. Jim had time for extracurricular interests, joining the student government and Literary Society for which he debated. He was also a member of the Society choir.
In 1887, after four successful university years, he was cited on the Prize and Honour List for having passed the Bachelor of Arts in Honours in philosophy and Hebrew. He graduated as one of the top ten in his class on April 30, 1887.
After graduation Jim enrolled in the largest theological school affiliated with McGill University, the Presbyterian College. To finance his education he accepted an appointment as instructor of physical education in the gymnasium at McGill. As a student in a theological program, he studied hard and became involved in extracurricular religious activities. He was a member of staff of the Presbyterian College Journal, active in the Literary and Philosophical Society, and in the Missionary Society.
Although James won theological scholarships, he dismayed colleagues and professors by continuing his involvement in athletics. He played lacrosse - a sport occasionally referred to at the time as "legalized murder", and rugby - a hard hitting sport, which some considered a tool of the devil. Jim was advised to leave the evils of the athletic life and devote himself to books and Christian duties. James' views of athletics differed from those of his instructors. He continued his involvement with sports.
During a rugby game in his senior year in seminary, a player on Jim's team uttered some profanity, then apologized to Jim explaining " I forgot you were there." These words changed the course of James' life. From this remark he began to play with the idea of helping men through athletics and the ministry.
The Young Men's Christian Association (founded in London nearly a half century before) had been established in Boston and Montreal in 1851. Jim often visited the YMCA in Montreal and had become acquainted with the general secretary D.A. Budge. Jim explained to Budge his idea of helping young athletes. It was through Budge that Naismith learned of the Y.M.C.A International Training School in Massachusetts for the education of laymen-leaders of youth. Shortly thereafter, Jim left the Presbyterian College as an non-ordained minister to pursue a career with an emphasis on physical education.
In the late summer of 1890, after spending some time learning about the YMCAs in Canada and the U.S., Jim bid farewell to Bennie's Corners and Almonte and traveled to Springfield to enroll at the YMCA Training school. Here he would take courses that emphasized spiritual and physical development.
While at the YMCA training school, James took and taught various courses, and played rugby for the YMCA
At this stage in its development, indoor physical education in the U.S. consisted of calisthenics, gymnastics, and drills. The late 1870's and 80's saw a rise in interest in outdoor intercollegiate sports, especially track and field and football, and participation in these games at the YMCA increased. But between the close of the football season in the fall and the opening of the baseball season in the spring there was emptiness.
Recognizing the danger of overemphasis on exercises that demanded excessive routine and wanting to bring recreational sports into the gymnasium the superintendent, Luther Gulick, assigned James and the other students the task of inventing new games.
The needs to revamp the indoor physical education program grew quickly, as one group of students, primarily mature men, were losing interest in the existing program. After two instructors of this group of students asked for relief from instructing this class, Gulick assigned Naismith as the instructor, asking him to see what he could do with the class and the program.
He embarked on a career in Physical Education through the YMCA, took time out to earn his Medical Degree while operating the Denver YMCA. This led him to accept the positions of Physical Education Director, Campus Chaplain and Basketball Coach at the University of Kansas. He remained there from 1898 until his retirement in 1938. In between, he served twice in military conflict, including WWI in France, and saw his gift of basketball admitted into the Olympic Family of sports at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. To see the youth of the world united to play his game, his gift to mankind, basketball. It remains the highlight of his career in his words.
He succumbed to heart trouble on November 29th, 1939. His legacy is reflected in the games played around the world, the basketball nets that adorn garages, walls and barns in communities' abroad. And finally, in schools and YMCA's around the world, the first game requiring a high ceiling space for a gymnasium.
He is remembered in the communities that he has most closely been associated. Streets and building in Almonte, Springfield and Lawrence are named in tribute. He is a member of the following Halls of Fame