Ian Naismith, grandson of basketball inventor, dies at 73

There was no such thing as a casual conversation with Ian Naismith, at least in volume.

When the grandson of basketball inventor James Naismith wanted to discuss something about the game that bothered him, usually sportsmanship related, Ian would dig in his heels, his voice rising as he spoke.

“I’m no wallflower,” Naismith would say. “I’m going to tell you what I think.”

Last week, the most vocal link to basketball’s origin died while riding a train from Massachusetts to New York. Ian Naismith was found unconscious as the train pulled into Penn Station, according to The Republican of Springfield, Mass., which first reported his death. He was 73.

Naismith maintained a connection to Kansas that his grandfather started when he was hired by KU in 1898.

Proof of the bond could one day reside in Lawrence.

Naismith had been the family caretaker of his grandfather’s 13 original rules, a two-page typewritten document that had been in the possession of the Naismiths or the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield.

In a December 2010 auction, the rules were sold to Kansas alumnus David Booth for $4.3 million, and his desire is to have structure built at Allen Fieldhouse to house the documents. Associate athletic director Jim Marchiony said the school is developing plans for such a building.

In August, Marchiony conducted a taped interview with Naismith for posterity.

“We wanted to record his thoughts about his grandfather,” Marchiony said. “What I remember about it was he was fierce in his loyalty to his grandfather’s ideals.”

Sportsmanship was Ian Naismith’s crusade. He operated the Naismith International Basketball Foundation from his Chicago-area home, a charity to promote basketball and sportsmanship to underprivileged children and mostly operated out of the spotlight.

Until Dennis Rodman brought his game and antics, like head-butting a referee, to the Chicago Bulls. Naismith started to sound the alarm about the game’s image.

“It’s the reverse of what my grandfather stood for,” Naismith said in a 2002 interview in The Star. “He’s rolling over in his grave, and we’re fighting it the best we can.”

Naismith did that by taking the rules on tour. He rigged up a touring van and took the rules to schools, where he lectured about how his grandfather never commercially profited from his from his invention.

The rules and a display of James Naismith hit the Final Four, the NBA All-Star game, banquets and other functions.

About a decade ago, Naismith started putting out feelers for the rules’ values, and was told they could be worth as much as $10 million. He once believed he had a deal to have them displayed in the Smithsonian, but it never materialized.

The rules had never left Naismith’s sight, and when they weren’t on display, Naismith carried them in a gold metal brief case.

He received a scare about a decade ago when he thought he had left the briefcase in the Hooters near 103rd Street and Metcalf in Overland Park. He left after lunch and returned in a panic only to be assured by a waitress that he had indeed walked out with the rules.

It turned out that the rules had slid to the back of the van as Naismith swerved to avoid hitting a truck while merging onto Interstate 435.

Naismith also started a series of sportsmanship awards. He presented the first one to basketball icon Michael Jordan, and a later gave an award to Steve Nash.

In one of his final public celebrations of basketball, Naismith honored Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, former North Carolina coach Dean Smith and former North Carolina State women’s coach Kay Yow at a sportsmanship ceremony last June in Raleigh, N.C.

Naismith could be a bull in a china shop. He battled the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass., to gain possession of the rules, which had been loaned there, in 1994.

At times, he quarreled with the NCAA, the NBA, the Naismith Award, or any group that he believed wasn’t being true to his grandfather’s ideals.

But Naismith was happy when the rules ended up with Booth.

“It’s in good hands,” Naismith said in 2010. “It’s where they need to be.”