James Naismith: The Man Who Invented Basketball

By Rob Rains

Temple University Press | October 2009 | 216 pages

Review By Ken Liebeskind

Here’s a hoop dream for you – a book that lets you envision the game’s invention

book cover

A basketball aficionado would like two questions answered by James Naismith: The Man Who Invented Basketball: how did Naismith exactly invent the game and how was it initially played?

Rob Rains, the sports writer who has written a series of baseball and one football book(s), answers the first question at the outset of his biography of Naismith by following the Scottish immigrant from his childhood home in the farming community of Almonte, Canada, to Springfield, MA, where he became a teacher at the School for Christian Workers, hoping to blend his Christian upbringing with his love of sports. Naismith gave up his pursuit of the ministry to teach at the school, where he thought he could “provide more service through athletics than through the traditional activities of the ministry.”

At the school, he was challenged to invent a new game that could be played indoors to offset the doldrums of winters spent in a gymnasium with little to do. It must be a game “requiring skill and sportsmanship, providing exercise for the whole body, which can be played without extreme roughness or damage to players and equipment,” Naismith wrote.

After attempts at modifying football, soccer and rugby for indoor play were unsuccessful because there was too much physical contact, he came up with a new idea. His game would involve a ball that players couldn’t run with and that would be thrown into a goal. “I thought if the goal were horizontal instead of vertical, the players would be compelled to throw the ball in an arc,” Naismith wrote. He envisioned a pair of boxes on each end of the gym floor that would be the goals. Then he realized that it would be impossible to score if players were standing in front of the goal guarding it, so he decided “the goals would have to be elevated above the defenders’ heads, so they could not all stand in front of the goal and block it.”

With the basic idea of the game in place, Naismith executed it by finding peach baskets for goals, which were nailed to the gallery, 10 feet above the floor. For the first game, which was played on Dec. 21, 1891, a soccer ball was used.

Naismith created 13 rules for the new game, including that the ball may be thrown in any direction with one or both hands; a player cannot run with the ball; the ball must be held in the hands, not the arms or body; and “a goal shall be made when the ball is thrown or batted from the grounds into the basket and stays there.”

A student suggested the game be called basket ball, which was originally written with two words and shortened to one by sports writers in 1921.

Only one goal was scored in the first game, because “no one knew just what to do,” Naismith wrote. “There was no team work at first. The forwards tried to make goals and the backs tried to keep the opponents from making goals. Any man on the floor was close enough to the basket to shoot, but we tried to have the guards pass the ball to the forwards.”

In Rains’ telling, the game was very rough at the outset, but he doesn’t provide many further details on how it was played. He offers snippets of information that help us understand how the game developed. The first basketball was made in 1894 by a bicycle manufacturer. It was lighter and larger than a soccer ball. A basket originally counted for one point, and was increased to two in 1896. There were nine players on a team until 1897, when it was reduced to five.

In 1896, players from Yale began dribbling the ball, which was rolled on the floor previously. Iron rims with nets were introduced to replace peach baskets in 1898. Backboards were also introduced to prohibit fans from knocking the ball away. The fact they could be used to more easily score baskets was an unintended consequence


Rains writes that a YMCA secretary, William Chase, scored the first basket on a 25 foot shot, but he offers virtually no information on how shooting the basketball developed. This reader yearns for more information about how goals were scored and how shooting styles arose, but it’s not in this book.

The book is a biography of Naismith’s life, so it goes beyond the game to provide details of his life including his service with the Kansas National Guard during World War I, when he was sent to France to assist in the care of soldiers. After leaving Springfield, he took a job at the YMCA in Denver, where he also attended medical school. Then it was on to Kansas, where he became the athletic director at the University of Kansas. He coached the basketball team there for nine seasons and refereed some of the games.

In 1936, Naismith traveled to Berlin to attend the Olympics, where he was honored for inventing basketball, which was played by 21 countries at the Games. It was the same year that the U.S. defeated Canada for the championship. The 1936 Olympics were renowned for Hitler’s role in the Games and his distress at seeing Jesse Owens win four gold medals, but there is no indication he viewed a basketball game. The closest Rains comes is to write that Naismith was invited to a party hosted by Hitler, but no details of the event are available in Naismith’s letters or diaries, which are the sources of Rains’ book.

Naismith comes across as a humble man who was devoted to basketball and proud that it enabled him “to leave the world a little better than he found it.”

Today’s game may bear little resemblance to the one Naismith invented in the late 19th century, but we are indebted to his original idea, which provided the backbone for what has become one of the world’s most popular sports. We could say he scored a slam dunk.

Ken Liebeskind is a freelance writer living in New Haven, Ct.

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