Celebrating the inventor of Basketball

Rob Rains, co-author with Hellen Carpenter of James Naismith: The Man Who Invented Basketball describes Naismith’s accomplishments on and off the basketball court.

The image that most sports fans have of James Naismith is that of an old man, standing next to a peach basket, holding a basketball. Naismith did invent the game of basketball, something he was very proud of, but reducing his life to that one accomplishment does the man a giant disservice.

Even the title of a new biography, in a way, is guilty of this same mistake. The book’s title calls Naismith “the inventor of basketball” as if everything else he accomplished in his life was not worthy of mention.

Hopefully, the contents of the book are not as confining, and have more opportunity to reward Naismith for what he personally considered were his accomplishments and contributions to society greater than the invention of basketball.

Naismith was a young instructor at the YMCA Training School in Springfield, Mass., when he invented basketball in 1891, responding to a challenge and direction from his boss to create a new game which would keep a class of rowdy students busy during the cold winter months between the football and baseball seasons.

Really, Naismith had no other goal in mind. He was not thinking beyond his assignment … and the fact that basketball caught on as quickly and spread as rapidly as it did was a big surprise. Make no mistake, Naismith was very proud and honored to be recognized for his invention because he did believe it fulfilled a need for society, but it was not as if that encaptured his entire life’s work.

Naismith trained to be a minister, then went to medical school … not really wanting to become a doctor but so he would know more about how the human body worked. He became a beloved teacher at the University of Kansas, mentoring students who never even picked up a basketball in their life. He was much more interested in the role physical education played in a young man and woman’s development than whether or not they were star athletes. He considered athletics a part of a student’s overall education, just as important as their educational and moral development, but not more important. To this day he remains the only coach in the school’s fabled history in the sport with a losing career record, maybe because in many of the games when he was supposed to be coaching, he also was working as the referee.

 At age 56, when the U.S. became involved in World War I, Naismith enlisted in the Army as a chaplain. He went to France and worked on the front lines of battle, counseling young soldiers far away from home. A lesser man would never have taken on that challenge, but Naismith thought it was his duty, something he had trained to do, and was a contribution he wanted to make.

It was near the end of that war that Naismith wrote a letter home to his wife Maude, expressing concern and worrying about what was going to happen to all of those young men when they returned home. He had an idea, he wrote, about what the U.S. government could do to help those men who had risked their lives for their country, and in a few simple handwritten pages, drafted a very similar plan to what would become the GI Bill – at the end of the next world war.

That was just one example of how progressive and ahead of his time Naismith was. Even in his sport of basketball, he suggested that if a goal was made from outside a certain distance it should count for more points than a goal closer to the basket … more than 40 years before the three-point shot came into existence.

Naismith often said he really only had one goal in life … “to leave the world a little better than he found it.” There is no doubt he did exactly that.

A Q&A with Nancy Heinzen, about Philadelphia’s Rittenhouse Square

Nancy Heinzen, author of The Perfect Square: A History of Rittenhouse Square discusses the history of Rittenhouse Square in this new video clip.

And, in this Q&A, Heinzen explains why she loves where she lives.

Why did you title your book The Perfect Square?

The title comes from an account of Rittenhouse Square from The American Scene written by Henry James. When he was in Philadelphia to lecture, James was standing in one of the “ample, tranquil” bay windows of what had been James Harper’s house [now the Rittenhouse Club] located on the north side of the Square, when he made the observation about the residential square being “perfect.”

What is the significance of the reflecting pool and the guard house on the cover?

These easily recognizable symbols lie in the heart of the Square. The mosaic on the reflecting pool represents Neptune and his sea garden. It was designed by Paul Cret and executed by Enfield Tile Co in 1913. The mural was removed in 1914 and restored in 1999 by Friends of Rittenhouse Square.

Can you reveal the story about the statue of the Duck Girl in the reflecting pool? 

The Duck Girl was created in 1911 by Paul Manship for another site. Manship would gain fame when he created another statue in the classical style–the Prometheus in Rockefeller Center. The Duck Girl was first exhibited in 1914 at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and was soon after recommended for purchase by the Fairmount Park Art Association’s Committee of Works of Art.  In 1916, it was placed in Cloverly Park in Germantown. Years later, in the 1940s, it made its first appearance in the square, where it was vandalized and moved into a Fairmount Park warehouse. In 1960 the statue was placed in the reflecting pool in the Square until a more suitable site could be found.

The Perfect Square traces the growth and development of Rittenhouse Square through the ages. How do you think the square has evolved over time?

The era that gave the Square its cachet even today, was the Post Civil War period. This was when Philadelphia was the most important city in the U.S. thanks to coal, iron, and most importantly, the Pennsylvania Railroad. Great fortunes were made at that time—and where better to live than on Rittenhouse Square?

There are grand mansions and tony apartment buildings that line the perimeter of Rittenhouse Square. Do you have a favorite building, or a place  that particularly fascinates you?

I have always been fond of 1804 South Rittenhouse Square. This charming little house squeezed in between two high rises was the home of John  D. Lankenau, a renowned philanthropist. I like the house because it retains it architectural details, such as the iron railing at the entrance.

How did you come to research and write this book? How long have you been documenting the history of the square?

I have always been interested in the history of the area, and over the years I have read and collected stories of the people and happenings, I guess I began this about 15 years ago, by collecting photographs.

What has been your greatest pleasure about living on the square?

The change of seasons each with its own special magic and promise that one never grows tired of.

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