A hoops heritage: As KU men’s basketball tips off its 120th season, a Naismith recalls the man who started it all
The woman inside the building wheeled the raggedy cart down the hallway, and the scene outside hearkened back to the late 1800s, when basketball was born and Allen Fieldhouse was decades away from being built.
“Parking for James Naismith,” read the large sign temporarily plastered behind KU’s Spencer Research Library.
And it wasn’t a prank.
It was the spring of 2016, a little more than five years after KU alumnus David Booth had secured the original rules of basketball by winning a gut-wrenching Sotheby’s auction in New York City — at a price tag of more than $4 million. And James Pomeroy Naismith had made his way to Lawrence to offer his input into what should come next.
This James Naismith, the grandson of the inventor of basketball, goes by “Jim,” and at age 81, lives near Corpus Christi, Texas, with his wife, Beverly. He had also grown up with the two pieces of paper coming down the hallway that spring in that raggedy cart.
So, to him, the moment was far less Smithsonian than it was to the folks at KU.
“My dad wound up with the rules, so I was aware of them and I had seen them,” Jim recalled to the Journal-World during a recent trip to Lawrence to visit his grandson, Daniel Jonker, a KU sophomore and Naismith’s great-great-grandson. “But the first time we saw them here, they knew we were coming, so the visit was orchestrated. I even had a parking spot and the woman who showed us the rules wore white gloves. It was like I was going in for surgery. When they opened up the case, I glanced in and thought, ‘Yep. Same ones I saw as a kid.'”
Although many of Jim’s memories of the rules originated with his father, James Sherman Naismith, playing a starring role, his younger brother Ian and his stepmother, Katharine, also were key in bringing those two pieces of paper to Lawrence.
Not long after Jim’s father, who was born in Lawrence, had passed away, Jim said his stepmom told him she felt like she lived in a museum because of all of the Naismith memorabilia in the home.
“It was a burden to her to have the rules,” Jim said. “Nobody was talking about the value because how in the world do you appraise something that doesn’t have an equal?”
Eventually, Katharine sold the rules. And, years later, Booth bought them, leading to the execution of something that neither Naismith nor any of his descendants had been able to pull off.
On the second floor of the DeBruce Center, north of Allen Fieldhouse, sit Naismith’s 13 type-written, original rules of “Basket Ball,” proudly displayed inside a thick glass case that lights up at the touch of a button, complete with audio of Naismith’s own voice explaining how he came to invent the game.
Jim pointed out that the handwritten note at the bottom of the second page was not added until 1931, when his father suggested that Naismith include the date — originally inscribed as Feb. 1892 and ultimately changed to Dec. 1891 — to document the birth of the sport and authenticate the documents.
The note reads: “First draft of Basket Ball rules. Hung in the gym that the boys might learn the rules.” It is signed “James Naismith,” with the date 6-28-31 scribbled below the signature.
Jim said such a display, though beyond anything anyone could have imagined, was exactly what his father and Naismith had dreamed up, with their main objective being to protect and display the rules for all to enjoy.
“Well, are they properly protected? Yeah. Are they available to the public? Yeah. And, by the way, Granddad, your voice is available, too,” laughed Jim. “I think they’ve done a beautiful job. I couldn’t be happier.”
One of six consecutive James Naismiths in the family’s lineage, including his own son, grandson and great-grandson, Jim has spent a large portion of his life seeking to learn more about his grandfather.
As Kansas basketball tips off its 120th season at 8 p.m. tonight against Tennessee State at Allen Fieldhouse — KU’s first game was played Feb. 3, 1899, with Naismith himself coaching on the sideline — Jim and Beverly plan to tune in from their home in Texas.
As they watch, a flood of memories and emotions about Jim’s grandfather figure to come roaring back, each one bringing a smile to his face, just as they always do.
Did you know that, despite some people continuing to reference Naismith as “Dr. James A. Naismith,” that moniker is actually wrong?
“You hear James A., but that’s never been correct,” Jim said. “My dad’s guess on that was he would occasionally sign his name “Jas,” as in James, and some people thought that was James A., or J.A. That’s probably true, but he had no middle name.”
All the proof Jim needed of this was on Naismith’s application to the School for Christian Workers in Springfield, Mass., which was affiliated with the YMCA. When instructed to provide his full name on the application, Naismith penned, “James Naismith.”
“I’ve always told people, ‘I think the man knew what his name was,'” Jim said matter-of-factly.
Then, there’s the recent revelation shared with Jim and Beverly by the daughter of Joe Fortenberry, a member of the 1936 U.S. Olympic team and the first player credited with the slam dunk.
During a conversation with Sally Fortenberry Nibbelink at the Hall of Fame induction ceremony this fall — an event Jim and Beverly try to attend each year — Sally shared with Jim details of an interaction between Naismith and her father at the Olympic Games in Berlin.
“Her dad was 6-foot-8 and she said when granddad looked at him, he said, ‘If I had known you boys were going to be so tall, I would’ve put the basket up higher,'” Jim recalled.
As Joe’s son, Oliver Fortenberry, later discovered, the reason Naismith put the basket 10 feet off the ground was simply because that was the height of the balcony in the gym in Springfield. Had that balcony sat at 10 feet 3 inches or 9 feet 6 inches instead, those heights likely would have been where Naismith nailed that first peach basket, making the game we know today quite different.
Those tidbits, and countless others like them, are just a couple of the interesting tales Jim has about his grandfather, who died when Jim was 3.
“I’ve seen a picture of me with him, so I know we met,” Jim recalled fondly. “But I have zero recollection. Most of my knowledge of him comes from my dad.”
As he continues to stockpile details, large and small, about Naismith, the basketball inventor, always hoping to learn and experience more, Jim has made a conscious effort to honor his grandfather’s character at every turn.
“The part of the story that we celebrate is the part where it’s very clear that granddad’s interest was always people,” Jim said. “It’s not about my connection to the game or me in any way. I knew, as a fact, that granddad invented basketball, like I knew other historical facts. But there was no application to me particularly. After all, it is unwise to have a child who thinks there’s something special about them because of something that somebody else did.”
As for his take on what his grandfather might think of today’s game, Jim was happy to tackle that question.
“It’s more than a suspicion, because I think I have begun to understand the man,” Jim began. “And I think he would immediately go to the positive things that are happening.
“My dad made a comment to me when I was in high school about his dad; and he didn’t talk about him a lot. He had seen a picture of a basketball goal, it was just an iron ring attached to a tree in rural China, and he said, ‘That’s a picture my dad would really appreciate,’ because of that outreach to young people on a worldwide basis. Are there things going wrong in the sports world that are of concern? Absolutely. You’d have to be living on top of a mountain not talking to anybody to figure it any other way. But the potential for positive in people’s lives is very real and it’s presently there, and our decision is, are we going to do anything with that or not? Well, granddad had to make that decision several times, and he always said, ‘I’m going to do it and, by golly, look out, because I’m coming at you.'”