Archive for Tuesday, January 3, 1995

DESPITE CONTRARY CLAIMS, NAISMITH EARNED TITLE OF MRBASKETBALL

January 3, 1995

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Baseball's origin is mired in controversy. Who really invented the game? Was it Abner Doubleday? Or was it Alexander Cartwright? Take your pick.

Historians agree, though, about the inventor of basketball. No one disputes it was Dr. James A. Naismith.

Such wasn't always the case, however.

Ever heard of William Morgan? How about Lambert Will?

Not too many years ago, a few folks in Holyoke, Mass., conjured up a notion that a physical education instructor at the Holyoke YMCA actually invented the game and introduced it to Naismith for use as a winter training sport for his football team.

William Morgan, or so the good people of Holyoke said, actually invented the game in 1888, not 1891 -- the year Naismith had peach baskets hung on the balcony of the Springfield YMCA.

Earlier, folks in Herkimer, N.Y., also claimed their YMCA director, one Lambert Will, staged the first game in February of 1891, several months before Naismith's inaugural contest.

Neither claim was ever substantiated, of course, although each caused a slight tremor at the time.

Naismith, who spent his last 41 years in Lawrence -- he died in 1939 at the age of 78 -- apparently never acknowledged allegations, either in his writings or to friends or relatives. Or so says Steve Jansen, director of the Elizabeth M. Watkins Community Museum.

Jansen is an authority on Naismith's life. He has written an afterward to Bernice Larson Webb's biography "The Basketball Man," and he has produced a fascinating museum exhibit on the man who spent nearly four decades on the Kansas University faculty.

"There is a legitimate controversy over the origin of baseball," Jansen said. "But if others did invent basketball, they sure gave up on it."

Naismith often talked about basketball, as one would expect, explaining how he incorporated a game called "Duck on the Rock" with the idea of placing a box or basket on a wall above the particpants' heads so they would have to toss the ball in an arc instead of on a straight line.

"By talking about his childhood game," Jansen said, "to me he was attempting to make the point that nothing is totally original, but that he had variations in his mind."

Naismith was hardly a horn-tooter. In fact, his game spread throughout the country via the YMCA grapevine, not because he promoted it.

For example, while it's generally believed Naismith introduced basketball here, newspaper stories confirm people were playing basket ball -- it was two words then -- at the Lawrence YMCA in December of 1894. Naismith did not arrive until 1898.

Interestingly, Jansen believes Naismith never would have invented basketball if he hadn't been born in a small town in rural Ontario.

"If he'd have grown up as an American, he would have been familiar with baseball," Jansen noted. "But he was in an isolated area where he was mainly familiar with rugby football. So he had less baggage, so to speak, in terms of inventing a new sport."

Indeed, it's abundantly clear Naismith invented basketball as a kinder and gentler alternative to football and not, as some suggested, as a competitive way for football players to stay in shape during the winter.

Football was a brutal sport in those days -- a push-and-shove, dog-pile, scrum-like, body-bashing free-for-all that often resulted in deaths. None but the brave carried the football in the late 19th century.

Obviously, a game in which it was illegal to carry the ball would be much, much safer. Safety wasn't first among Naismith's original rules, but it was third.

Rule No. 1: The ball may be thrown in any direction.

Rule No. 2: The ball may be batted in any direction, but never with the fist.

Rule No. 3: A player cannot run with the ball. The player must throw it from the spot on which he catches it.

Further, check out Rule No. 5 and its anti-football connotation: No shouldering, holding, pushing, tripping or striking in any way the person of an opponent shall be allowed.

What Naismith seemed to be saying was that physical exertion transcended physical destruction in competitive sport.

But were basketball players regarded as sissies in those days, men without the courage to play football? Perhaps. If so, though, the derision probably was dropped as dribbling was introduced and a metal hoop replaced the basket.

Surely the skills required to dribble a ball and shoot it through a horizontal hoop 10 feet off the ground overcame the perception basketball was a game for fops, dandies and Little Lord Fauntleroys.

As a matter of fact, basketball wasn't Naismith's first attempt at devising something to reduce or prevent injury. Boxed ears suffered while playing football in the 1880s prompted Naismith to design and wear a cloth headgear, an innovation then but a necessity now.

Thus Dr. James A. Naismith is recognized as the inventor of the football helmet as well as the game of basketball -- neither of which, incidentally, he ever patented.

"Today he would have sent it to the copyright office and hired a marketer," Jansen said with a smile.

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