The Birth Of Basketball

May 1, 1997 by Roy MacGregor

On a brilliant Indian summer day in 1995, a slim, nattily-dressed black man from the United States headed out into a stiff wind to make his way across a rolling field outside Almonte, Ont. John B. McLendon Jr., then 80 years of age, did not even notice the wind as it tried to push him back toward the vehicle that had carried him from the airport to this spot in the Ottawa Valley. He had, after all, just travelled 1,700 kilometres to keep a promise he had made to himself 56 years earlier and never expected to break.

McLendon’s own name, he liked to say, rhymed with “de-pend on,” just as the name of the man he had come to Canada to honor, James Naismith, always went with “basketball.” McLendon had come here to see the rock that had inspired the game that had shaped his career; he had come, as well, to visit the birthplace of the man who had shaped his life.

McLendon approached the massive, round piece of granite in the centre of this barren field and then came to a stop. More than a century earlier, this large rock had stood in the schoolyard of a village named Bennie’s Corners that can today be found only on old Eastern Ontario maps. Once, tens of thousands of years ago, the rock had been ground round by shifting glaciers. Once, 120 years ago, it had been surrounded by farm children–Jimmy Naismith among them–who would play a game called Duck On A Rock, in which they would place one stone on this larger rock, stand back at a baseline, and lob rocks through the air in an attempt to knock off the sitting stone. It was the inspiration for a game that is today played in more than 180 countries and may soon challenge soccer for the title of the world’s No. 1 sport.

“That,” says McLendon, leaning over to place his hands on the rock, “makes this the oldest artifact in basketball.”

Some might argue that he himself is second oldest. Now 82, McLendon was once one of college basketball’s most-respected coaches. He led Tennessee State University to three straight national championships in the late 1950s. He became mentor to Isiah Thomas, who went on to star in the National Basketball Association and is today general manager of the Toronto Raptors. McLendon’s entire life had been basketball, all because of a big Canadian he met named Jim Naismith. Little wonder then that when McLendon placed his hands on the rock to complete his 56-year pilgrimage, his eyes briefly filled with tears. Perhaps from the wind.

It would be wrong to think that life was all play for the young Jimmy Naismith who once stood around the ball of granite tossing stones. Born in 1861, he was only eight years old when a stunning series of tragedies struck. His grandmother died. His family moved to Grand Calumet Island up the Ottawa River where his father opened a sawmill that was soon lost to fire. His parents came down with typhoid fever, first his father, Jack, and then his mother, Margaret. An uncle came to retrieve the children and take them back to his farm outside Almonte. The last time Jimmy Naismith saw his mother she had dragged herself to the cabin door to wave goodbye; his father was too ill even to come to the door. They were both dead within days.

It’s hard to see how a youngster born to such circumstance would one day end up with 11 university degrees, would be a medical doctor as well as a Presbyterian minister, and would shape a formidable career as an educator. Naismith dropped out of high school early and, like most young men in the Ottawa Valley, took to the bush camps where they spent the winter felling white pine and the spring running timber down the rivers. He fit in well, as hard-drinking and cursing as the best of them, but changed his ways instantly one evening after being told his mother would “turn over in her grave” if she could see what he had become. He never swore nor touched a drink again.

He went back to school, graduated, and applied for admission to McGill University in Montreal. His uncle was bitterly disappointed, feeling the youngster was more needed on the farm, but finally relented when James agreed to study for the Presbyterian ministry. The young man had already found God before leaving the farm; at university he would find sports.

Tall, rugged and astonishingly strong, Naismith soon excelled at sports he had never even heard of in Almonte. He played lacrosse–”the best game of all games,” he always said–and practised gymnastics and played rugby and football. He was capable, American football legend Amos Alonzo Stagg would later write, of doing “the meanest things in the most gentlemanly manner.” Naismith’s success in sports brought him pleasure, but little commendation. A Presbyterian engaged in ruffian sports was hardly to be admired by other Presbyterians. He shocked a congregation by standing up in the pulpit and staring down at them through two black shiners from a football match. His own sister, Annie, believed, as so many others did, that sport was played under the auspices of the devil, and would never in his life forgive her brother his athletic transgressions.

It was, however, the time of the “muscular Christianity” movement, particularly in England. Naismith believed, absolutely, that the two worlds were compatible. Sport was healthy. It was social. It had an ability to draw people together that not even the church had. “Clean living through athletics,” he declared, “was the answer.”

Naismith’s prowess at sport soon got in the way of the ministry. He never did accept a church position, instead opting to become athletic director at McGill. From McGill he left Canada for the U.S. and joined the YMCA, determined to use athletics to develop a code of clean living that he believed would, in the end, do as much for the human soul as prayer itself.

History has proven that the greatest discoveries–electricity, penicillin–happen largely by chance, and basketball was to be no different. Naismith went to Springfield, Mass., where the School for Christian Workers was located and where he would be working with future YMCA instructors. In early December 1891 he was given what appeared to be an impossible teaching assignment. Come up with a new game, he was told, something that would appease the students who were complaining loudly about having to stay inside during bad weather and do nothing but endlessly boring callisthenics. He was given a two-week deadline.

Working nights under a coal oil lamp in a small office over the gymnasium, Naismith failed, and failed again. Frustrated and desperate, he scrambled the final night of his deadline to construct something based loosely around the silly old game of Duck On A Rock that he had played as a child back at Bennie’s Corners. It had to be simple–something that could be played easily in the gymnasium–and it had to be cheap, for there was no budget. The lob shot made sense. Aim would need to count for much. Interference would not be tolerated. A ball, a large ball, would be best, for all the best games were played with balls. A large, round ball–not unlike that rock at Bennie’s Corners–that could be shot toward something. Into something. A box…yes, a box. But where to find a box? And how would he stop the players from simply blocking the box off from the thrower? Simple–hang it from the balcony….

Working fast, Naismith drew up 13 rules and went looking for two suitable boxes. When he couldn’t find any boxes, the school janitor suggested a couple of peach baskets, and Naismith agreed, asking the man to please nail them up at opposite ends of the gymnasium, both 10 feet off the ground. And they would need a ladder to get the ball down out of the baskets.

On Dec. 21, 1891, Naismith explained the game to 17 students, five of whom were also Canadian, and, with him joining in on one side, they played the world’s first game of “basketball.” A volunteer was stationed on the sidelines with a step ladder, ready to retrieve the “baskets.” Only one was scored that first game. It was not until 1912–21 years later–that anyone thought to cut the bottoms out of the baskets so the balls could drop back into play.

More than a century later, it is astonishing to see how the game has grown. Within five years, players were being paid to play. Competition became so fierce in some leagues that games had to be played within fenced enclosures–the reason players came to be called “cagers”–in order to prevent fans from assaulting visiting teams with burning cigarettes and hat pins. By 1904 basketball was a demonstration sport at the Olympics in St. Louis, and in 1936 it became a full Olympic event. Today it is a blue-chip sport, its star athletes among the most recognizable celebrities in the world.

John B. McLendon Jr., leaning into the prevailing wind in a field not far from where the inventor of this game was born, would not want his friend to be remembered only for this one remarkable achievement. Curiously, basketball was not even Naismith’s greatest love. He played but twice, fouling out because of his deeply competitive nature and his early training in wrestling and football. He never believed it was a game that required coaches, yet coaching soon became a large element in the game. He despised the development of such matters as the zone defence. Time magazine ridiculed him: “Shrewd enough to invent the game, James A. Naismith was not shrewd enough to exploit it.” And yet Naismith refused to profit from the game, once turning down a huge endorsement offer from a tobacco company on the grounds that, as a physician, he knew smoking was harmful to the health. Less than a year before he died of a cerebral hemorrhage on Nov. 28, 1939, he told an interviewer, “I feel at times, I’d rather not see basketball.”

From Springfield he had gone to Denver with the YMCA, completed his medical degree and he and his young wife, Maude, began to raise a family. Here the first of their five children was born. From Colorado they went to Kansas, where he would join the University of Kansas as the physical education director. He would be connected with the school for 39 years, the longest break away being when he enlisted, at the age of 55, to serve as a chaplain in WW I, ministering to the shattered and wounded on the European front. Once back in Lawrence, Kan., he would stay for good, and one day meet a young black student named John B. McLendon, Jr.

McLendon had been a fine athlete and a brilliant student and in 1933 he was given admission to the university, where he wanted to study physical education. His father, a railway clerk, had sent him off with only two pieces of advice. One: “Anybody puts his hands on you I’ll be there with my .44.” And two: Look up Dr. Naismith and, “tell him he’s going to be your adviser.”

“Who told you this?” a startled Naismith had asked when the young student presented himself in the director’s office.

“My father.”

Naismith smiled widely. “Fathers,” he said, “are always right.”

McLendon found in Naismith both a mentor and a friend–a special friend, without prejudice. It was, McLendon says, “the Age of Un-Enlightenment” and it was only because of Naismith’s continuing intervention that McLendon was even able to complete such course requirements as teaching practice at schools in the area, many of which were segregated.

“He deplored any form of discrimination, segregation or prejudice,” McLendon wrote in The New York Times more than 60 years later. “There’s no question that my life would not have been anywhere near what it has become if I had not had Dr. Naismith as my adviser. He never looked at life as black and white. One thing he taught me in the adjustment to adversity is that no matter what kind of problem you had, never let it defeat you. Even though you may not think something is fair or just, you can’t let that stop you. You just try to get around it.”

Naismith had learned that lesson in life himself more than a half century earlier when first fire, then typhoid, had destroyed his family’s dreams and then their lives. You just try to get around it. It is the same message McLendon would pass on to the players he coached at Tennessee and later, at the Olympics. It is the same attitude he took with him to Chicago, where he gave a poor inner-city kid named Isiah Thomas his first pair of sneakers.

McLendon doesn’t think James Naismith would think too much of all that became of the game he invented. “I know he wouldn’t care for the pro game very much,” he says. Naismith would deplore the slam dunking and trash talk of today as much as he shook his head over the zone defence of the 1930s.

“What would please him,” says McLendon as he stops in the wind and points off toward the town of Almonte, “would be the kids playing his game over at the James Naismith Elementary School.”

Kids, perhaps the great-great-great-great-great grandchildren of those Naismith once played Duck On A Rock with in this very field, with a wind, hard enough to bring tears to an old man’s eyes, blowing out of the northwest.

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