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 foot 10 ½ and listed at 178 pounds, 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.
Springfield college: Invention of Basketball
The original 1891 "Basket Ball" court in Springfield College
. It used a peach basket attached to the wall.
At the Springfield YMCA, Naismith struggled with a rowdy class that was confined to indoor games throughout the harsh New England winter and thus was perpetually short-tempered. Under orders from Dr. Luther Gulick, head of Physical Education there, Naismith was given 14 days to create an indoor game that would provide an "athletic distraction": Gulick demanded that it would not take up much room, could help its track athletes to keep in shape and explicitly emphasized to "make it fair for all players and not too rough."
In his attempt to think up a new game, Naismith was guided by three main thoughts. Firstly, he analyzed the most popular games of those times (rugby, lacrosse, , , hockey, and baseball); Naismith noticed the hazards of a ball and concluded that the big soft soccer ball was safest. Secondly, he saw that most physical contact occurred while running with the ball, dribbling or hitting it, so he decided that passing was the only legal option. Finally, Naismith further reduced body contact by making the goal unguardable, namely placing it high above the player's heads. To score goals, he forced the players to throw a soft lobbing shot that had proven effective in his old favorite game duck on a rock. Naismith christened this new game "Basket Ball" and put his thoughts together in 13 basic rules.
The first game of "Basket Ball" was played in December 1891. In a handwritten report, Naismith described the circumstances of the inaugural match; in contrast to modern basketball, the players played nine versus nine, handled a ball, not a basketball, and instead of shooting at two hoops, the goals were a pair of peach baskets: "When Mr. Stubbins brot [sic] up the peach baskets to the gym I secured them on the inside of the railing of the gallery. This was about 10 feet from the floor, one at each end of the gymnasium. I then put the 13 rules on the bulletin board just behind the instructor's platform, secured a soccer ball and awaited the arrival of the class... The class did not show much enthusiasm but followed my lead... I then explained what they had to do to make goals, tossed the ball up between the two center men & tried to keep them somewhat near the rules. Most of the fouls were called for running with the ball, though tackling the man with the ball was not uncommon." In contrast to modern basketball, the original rules did not include what is known today as the dribble. Since the ball could only be moved up the court via a pass early players tossed the ball over their heads as they ran up court. Also following each "goal" a jump ball was taken in the middle of the court. Both practices are obsolete in the rules of modern basketball.
In a radio interview in January 1939, Naismith gave more details of the first game and the initial rules that were used:
I showed them two peach baskets I'd nailed up at each end of the gym, and I told them the idea was to throw the ball into the opposing team's peach basket. I blew a whistle, and the first game of basketball began. … The boys began tackling, kicking and punching in the clinches. They ended up in a free-for-all in the middle of the gym floor. [The injury toll: several black eyes, one separated shoulder and one player knocked unconscious.] "It certainly was murder." [Naismith changed some of the rules as part of his quest to develop a clean sport.] The most important one was that there should be no running with the ball. That stopped tackling and slugging. We tried out the game with those [new] rules (fouls), and we didn't have one casualty.
By 1892, basketball had grown so popular on campus that Dennis Horkenbach (editor-in-chief of The Triangle, the Springfield college newspaper) featured it in an article called "A New Game", and there were calls to call this new game "Naismith Ball", but Naismith refused. By 1893, basketball was introduced internationally by the YMCA movement. From Springfield, Naismith went to Denver where he acquired a medical degree and in 1898 he joined the University of Kansas faculty at Lawrence, Kansas.
The family of
Lambert G. Will has claimed that Dr. Naismith borrowed components for the game of basketball from Will to dispute Naismith's sole creation of the game, citing alleged photos and letters.