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The basketball man.

A short, stocky old man with a bristling mustache and a thick, powerful neck that belied his age wandered into a gymnasium some years ago. He was asked by one young chap to referee an impromptu basketball game.

Another youth interrupted and said in a semi-whisper, "Oh, you're wasting your breath. That old guy can't know anything about basketball."

James Naismith, the man who invented the game, told me that one about himself. When I repeat it, people think I'm so old I must have been the official scorer when Naismith came up with the greatest invention since indoor plumbing.

Truth is, though basketball now ranks internationally behind only soccer as a team sport, the great American game--invented by a Canadian with a Scottish accent--really isn't that old, but neither was Doc Naismith when he devised it nor was I when he talked to me about it two years before he died.

As a sophomore at the University of Missouri, I visited the University of Kansas at Lawrence on Thanksgiving 1937 for the annual football game between the oldest rivals west of the Mississippi. At my social fraternity's KU chapter house, I met with delight the professor emeritus. A widower, Dr. James Naismith was wooing the chapter housemother, who would become his wife a few months before his death two years later at 78.

With a twinkle in blue eyes framed by severe gold-rimmed glasses, Naismith told about meeting the kid who hadn't thought "that old guy" knew enough about basketball to referee a game. Naismith told me he'd been the featured speaker that night on the young man's campus. The "old guy" noticed the younger man in the audience and gave the red-faced kid a good-natured ribbing.

I found the inventor grumpy about the only two changes made in the 13 rules he had set down for the game in 1891. Five years earlier, in 1932, the rules committee had instituted the rule giving the defensive team ten seconds to move the ball beyond midcourt. Now, in 1937, they were eliminating the center jump after each score.

"They've spoiled it," Naismith said, a bit peevishly, yet with a pretty soung argument. Naismith recognized that the 1932 ten-second rule had been installed primarily to keep a team from playing patty-cake with a ball in its half of the court. But elimination of the center jump, he felt, created a disadvantage to the team that had scored.

But, Doc, weren't they trying to speed up the game, increase the scoring, and make basketball more interesting?

"But have they?" Naismith asked rhetorically. "They've cut the court in half, requiring ten men to play in it, but they still haven't eliminated the stall, which they tried to do. A player scored against now has five seconds to throw the ball in and ten seconds more to take it over the center line. With the center jump after each basket, it took only an average of four seconds to take the ball to midcourt and toss it up.

"Spectators don't like the stall, I don't, and I believe most coaches don't. I saw one gam where one side passed the ball 343 times, and a great referee, Ernie Quigley, stood there 12 minutes watching them. I still say that eliminating the center jump penalizes the team that has scored."

Naismith talked about time, i.e., the modern shot clock, and about bonus points for outside shooting, both of which came long after he was gone. "Scoring is important," he said, "but not all-consuming. I think speed is. Speed, passing, and the unexpected. To curb the stall, I'd put in a time limit on the team with the ball. To make the defense come out, I'd penalize the defense after, say, 30 seconds, or to draw the defense to the ball, I'd give the scoring team four points rather than two for a basket scored from 30 feet out."

Naismith's suggestion become pro basketball's 24-second clock nearly a quarter-century later and more recently the 45-second-shot requirement in college ball. Even more prescient was his proposal to double the point value for a shot from nearly ten feet farther out than the current distance for three-point shots.

* * *

Born in Almonte, Ontario, in 1861, James Naismith was a son of Scot immigrants. Orphaned at 9, he was reared by an uncle and an older sister. Rugged both physically and in spirit, James was interested in hunting and the outdoors. He was a high-school dropout. To envision his becoming an honorary doctor of divinity, a medical doctor, and an honorary master of physical education would have been difficult--as difficult as suggesting that a person who reveled in Rugby, soccer, lacrosse, and wrestling would devise the scientific poetry of motion that is basketball.

The young Jim Naismith suddenly saw the spiritual light. He went back to school and graduated in theology from McGill University at 26 in 1887. He didn't smoke or drink, and he rarely swore. In fact, he had a purity of heart that made him the counterpart of college football's Amos Alonzo Stagg.

The divinity graduate with muscles turned his interest to youth, recalled his daughter Mrs. Hellen Dodd when visiting her own family 20 years ago in St. Louis. Mrs. Dodd, one of Doc's five children, was named Hellen "with to l's," she equipped, so her father could say, "'Hellen blazes,' his only curse word."

Naismith began teaching at the YMCA's training school at Springfield, Massachusetts. The head of the physical-training department, Dr. Luther H. Gulick, told Naismith he wanted a winter activity that would keep budding young physical culturists in shape for spring. Something that could be played on the gym floor, Jim.

Naismith studied and borrowed from various games. Duck on a rock suggested the use of a ball tossed in an arc rather than hurled. Lacrosse contributed the arrangement of players. Rugby furnished a hint of putting the ball in play, and soccer--well, association football, as they called soccer then, offered a ready-made ball.

A goal on the floor, as in hockey, wouldn't do because it would be too easy to defend, especially if Naismith were trying to accommodate Dr. Gulick's 18 students. So, h'm, Jim got himself a peach basket and a ladder. He installed the peach basket at a height the Y's gymnasium floor would permit--nine feet from the floor. He began the game with nine players on a side.

The players wore woolen sweaters and turnverein trousers. A referee tossed up the ball, and--as prescribed by Naismith to keep the game from becoming indoor football--a player was required to dribble the ball and to take only a stride before passing the ball to a teammate.

Because the court was only 35 feet by 45 feet, Naismith reduced the number of players from nine to seven, and then to the current five. Where permitted, he elevated the basket to 10 feet, still the current height (even though Naismith's prized product at Kansas, the coaching legend Forrest C. ["Phog"] Allen, later urged an increase that today would negate dunking--12 feet!). I wish I'd asked Doc Naismith about that one in our meeting 51 years ago.

Even though Rugby still bore the name of where the sport began at a British school in 1823--a guy named Ellis picked up a soccer ball in frustration and ran with it--Naismith declined to have his new game named for him. So, heck, since they were using peach baskets, why not call it "basket" ball?

Peach baskets weren't always easy to find and, after a score, using a rod to poke the ball out--or, even worse, a stepladder--was troublesome too. So a carpenter's aid made the game more sophisticated and, at least temporarily, seemed to make rule No. 8 laughable. In part, the rule stated: "If the ball rests on the edge of the basket and an opponent moves the basket, it shall count as a goal."

Even in our own era of height matched only by agility, or vice-versa, it's still a two-point no-no to goaltend against a ball in downward flight in the basket's perimeter and, just as Doc wrote it in '91, two points if a defensive hand disturbs the basket.

By 1893, at which time Yale had already become one of the first colleges to adopt the game, a carpenter devised a wire cylinder to replace the original peach basket. At first, chicken-wire netting under the cylinder kept the ball from swishing through the nets as it does now.

By '94, also, the first basketball had replaced the soccer ball's size and weight; a 30-inch circumference limited the size of the ball to 20 to 22 ounces. Over the years, smart-alecs like me have called the game "roundball" because in early days of rubberized inflation the ball often became a tad lopsided. Yet it wasn't until 1938, the year after I met Naismith and shortly before his death, that the rules were amended to state that a spherical basketball not vary more than a quarter of an inch in diameter.

To Oklahoma State's "Iron Duke," Henry Iba, like Phog Allen an early-day legend, "true bounce" has always been the gentle synonym for the game he loves dearly (in effect, if you will, a dig at what Iba calls "bad bounce," i.e., the crazy caprice of a football).

Over the years, added safeguards made Naismith's game as good as Doc wanted. To keep spectators in shoebox gyms from deflecting shots, backboards were devised--wood, at first, then glass. Ultimately, played on stage auditorium floors, basketball required a net to keep the ball from bouncing away--which generated the term still seen in an occasional newspaper headline: "cagers."

Jim Naismith next left for the foothills of the Rockies. There, at the present-day University of Colorado, he studied to become an M.D. because, as his daughter Hellen Dodd explained, he felt he could better direct young men's physical activities if he knew as much about the body as . . . well, yes, a physician.

Over the years, as an intellectual roughneck, an academician with muscles, Naismith lived with a head-in-the-sky attitude toward such mundane things as money. For instance, he twice lost houses to a foreclosure gavel. Even though he might have earned much from the game he invented, the royalties he received belatedly from a basketball named for him didn't cover what he had spent.

Naismith was interested in body and soul; ergo, what better job than to serve as the director of chapel and physical education? Naismith moved to the University of Kansas in 1898. He was 36 then, already burning the candle at both ends, in the nicest sense, Hellen recalled. Not only was he supporting a family, but he was studying and teaching, as well as working.

One night he din't come home. The family was alarmed, as were the faculty and the university kids. An alarm was sounded. Finally, searchers found him, asleep on a park bench. "Like Rip Van Winkle, utterly exhausted, he'd sat down and fallen fast asleep," his daughter remembered fondly.

Kind, soft-hearted, and considerate--that's the way they remembered him at Kansas, where he lived out his last 41 years. Loosely coaching KU's first eight basketball teams through 1908, he was barely a breakeven coach, yet he helped establish a tradition. the defending NCAA champion Jayhawks have more basketball victories than all universities except Kentucky, North Carolina, and St. John's. KU became NCAA champions in the tournament's 50th year, 1988. Kentucky's long-time coach, Adolph Rupp, was a Kansas man, and North Carolina's famed current coach, Dean Smith, also played under Phog Allen.

Allen, an osteopath who played under Naismith, coached Kansas 38 years through 1956 and achieved a .729 record (590-219). The university's field house is named for him, but it also contains a handsome painted portrait of that stocky, thick-necked little man who began it all, James Naismith.

Allen maintained constant affection for Naismith. When basketball first became on Olympic sport in 1936--imagine how far, fast, and strongly it has come in the quadrennial games since then--Phog Allen practically horsewhipped the NCAA to send Naismith to Berlin for the ceremonies.

Doc come back as exhilarated as when he had been stationed on the Mexican border with the U.S. Army in 1916 or served as a Y representative in Europe in World War I, as happy as when he worked on a road gang with one of his sons "just for the fun of it."

He'd seen basketball go from narrow, low-ceilinged gyms and parish basements to dance halls and haylofts, then ultimately to giant field houses and arenas. The year he died, 1939, the NCAA began its annual postseason tournament that now, through its Final Four, rivals the Super Bowl and the World Series.

Naismith said on his return from Berlin that basketball had "grown tremendously [overseas], and I think it will continue to grow, perhaps not in this country, but in foreign countries."

Jim Naismith was both right and wrong. The roundball, not the snowball, is the symbol of winter now, and really, winter hasn't been the same since 1891. But then, the master of the game always thought there was too much ado about his sport. Like the time early in the century when Baker University near Lawrence wrote him to inquire about hiring a young KU athlete as part-time basketball coach. Naismith called in young Phog Allen to announce the news.

"I've got a joke on you, you bloddy beggar," Doc Naismith said with a laugh. "They want you to coach Basketball down at Baker."

Phog bristled. "What's so funny about that?"

"Why, Forrest," explained the man who invented the game to one of the greatest who would ever coach it, "you don't 'coach' basketball. You just play it!"
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Title Annotation:basketball inventor James Naismith
Author:Broeg, Bob
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Article Type:Biography
Date:Apr 1, 1989
Words:2295
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