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.