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Archive for Wednesday, January 23, 1991

LAWRENCE SHOULD HONOR NAISMITH

January 23, 1991

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Goodness knows drivers on the Kansas Turnpike are bombarded with enough informational road signs near the Lawrence exits. Yet I believe city officials should consider another one.

Here's how the sign should read: HOME OF JAMES NAISMITH INVENTOR OF BASKETBALL

Wait a minute. Was Naismith from Lawrence? No. . .but Lawrence was definitely his home.

Every school boy and school girl knows Naismith invented the game while a physical education teacher at Springfield College in Massachusetts. Some know, too, I'm sure, that Dr. Naismith was Kansas University's first basketball coach.

What few people realize, however, is that Naismith spent the last 41 years of his life right here in River City.

NAISMITH DID not pack his bags and leave after he turned the KU basketball team over to Phog Allen following the 1906-1907 season. He remained in Lawrence. . .for as long as he lived. Naismith died on Nov. 28, 1939, at the age of 78 and was buried in Memorial Park Cemetery.

Without a doubt, Lawrence was Naismith's home, and our city fathers have every right to claim it as such. What better time to do so, too, than during the centennial of the winter game.

Actually, the official basketball centennial will be observed during the 1991-92 season because Naismith dug out those famous peach baskets and hung them in the Springfield College gym following the 1891 football season. It wasn't until January of 1892 that he issued printed rules.

Only one city, of course, has a right to erect a sign boasting it is the birthplace of the man who invented basketball. That distinction belongs to a tiny Canadian farming community Bennie's Corner, Ontario. But after Naismith left there at the age of 22, Bennie's Corner was never his home again.

NAISMITH WENT to McGill Unviersity in Montreal, to a Presbyterian Theological Seminary, to Springfield College and finally to the Colorado University Medical School in Denver before he arrived in Lawrence in 1898.

I've always wondered how Naismith and Kansas University connected, and I was surprised to learn that Amos Alonzo Stagg, a legendary name in college football, was the linchpin.

Stagg had been a Naismith contemporary at Springfield College. He was also acquainted with KU chancellor F.H. Snow. It happened Snow was looking for someone to hold the dual job of school chaplain and director of physical education.

When Snow asked Stagg for possible applicants, here's the telegram Stagg sent to Strong Hall: "Recommend James Naismith, inventor of basketball, medical doctor, Presbyterian minister, tee-totaler, all-around athlete, non-smoker and owner of a vocabulary without cuss words."

Snow had to be impressed, enough so that I suspect he made Naismith an offer he couldn't refuse. Anyway, the only man who can truly be called Mr. Basketball came to town with Maude, his wife of four years, in 1898.

WHEN HE died, Naismith resided at 1708 Mississippi near the KU campus. The house still stands. Ben and Kay Boydston he's a Lawrence High social studies teacher; she first grade teacher at Hillcrest School have lived there since 1969.

"I knew Naismith lived in the house. . .I think he had it built when he retired," Ben Boydston told me. "You know, I once found an old physiology book in the attic. I don't know what happened to it, though."

The missing book isn't as big a mystery, though, as why Lawrence has done little more than name a street after Naismith.

If Abilene can claim Dwight D. Eisenhower, a native Texan, then Lawrence can surely claim the inventor of basketball.

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