Naismith was born on November 6, 1861, in Almonte, Canada West (now part of Mississippi Mills, Ontario, Canada) to Scottish immigrants. He never had a middle name and never signed his name with the "A" initial. The "A" was added by someone in the administration at the University of Kansas.[nb 1]
Struggling in school but gifted in farm labour, Naismith spent his days outside playing catch, hide-and-seek, or duck on a rock, a medieval game in which a person guards a large drake stone from opposing players, who try to knock it down by throwing smaller stones at it. To play duck on a rock most effectively, Naismith soon found that a soft lobbing shot was far more effective than a straight hard throw, a thought that later proved essential for the invention of basketball. Orphaned early in his life, Naismith lived with his aunt and uncle for many years and attended grade school at Bennies Corners near Almonte. Then, he enrolled in Almonte High School, in Almonte, Ontario, from which he graduated in 1883.
In the same year, Naismith entered McGill University in Montreal. Although described as a slight figure, standing 5 ft 10 ½ in and listed at 178 lb, he was a talented and versatile athlete, representing McGill in , lacrosse, rugby, soccer, and gymnastics. He played centre on the football team, and made himself some padding to protect his ears. It was for personal use, not team use. He won multiple Wicksteed medals for outstanding gymnastics performances. Naismith earned a BA in physical education (1888) and a diploma at the Presbyterian College in Montreal (1890). From 1891 on, Naismith taught physical education and became the first McGill director of athletics, but then left Montreal to become a physical education teacher at the YMCA International Training School in Springfield, Massachusetts.