Basketball
Chapter II - The Need of a New Game


DURING the summer of 1891, the need for some new game became imperative. From many different states the young men had gathered for the summer term of the Springfield training school. No matter where they came from, these directors complained that the members of the gymnasium classes were losing interest in the type of work that had been introduced by R. J. Roberts, at one time a circus performer. Tired of the spectacular stunts, Roberts had inaugurated a system of exercise that he had termed body-building work, intended largely to develop physique, health, and vigor, with little thought for the interest of the participant. Body-building work consisted of light and heavy apparatus exercise based on the German system, but excluded many of the stunts that were performed by the expert gymnast. Those directors who had been trained under Roberts’ leadership found it difficult to attract young men to their classes.

In the late seventies, college students had begun to take an interest in intercollegiate sports, especially track and football. These games had become firmly established, and many of the more active students took part in them. When the men who engaged in these sports went to the city to enter business and found that they had leisure time, it was only natural that they should look for some kind of athletic diversion. In an effort to find it, they joined the athletic clubs, the bicycle clubs, the Y.M.C.A., and other organizations of this type. During the winter season these clubs had nothing to offer in the way of athletics, but tried to interest the men in gymnastics.

The former college men were natural leaders in their communities. When they compared the thrills of football with those of mass and squad gymnastics, they were frankly discontented. The expert gymnast got all the excitement from a perfect performance of a daring stunt and the football player from winning an intercollegiate contest. What this new generation wanted was pleasure and thrill rather than physical benefits. The summer school students freely discussed these conditions. No one, however, seemed to be able to offer a solution to the problem.

Doctor Gulick was working desperately on the problem that seemed to threaten the whole subject of physical training, especially in the Y.M.C.A. He recognized the fact that something new had to be introduced, but he saw only the mountaintops, forgetting the valleys that lay between. He was impatient with those who would not fly to the summit.

It seemed to me that Gulick and I made a good team, for he was always an inspiration to me. In one discussion, he saw a vision of some project, and I suggested that the thing to do was to begin in a remote way to reach the point.

Gulick said, “Naismith, you are nothing but an obstructionist.”

I understood his attitude and answered, “I am not an obstructionist, but a pathfinder.”

At this remark, we both laughed.

Doctor Gulick looked to other countries for a solution. I was sent to Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, to study the principles of the Swedish system, then being taught by Baron Nils Posse.

On my arrival, I explained to Posse what I was seeking. He at once became interested. Even though it was contrary to the principles of Swedish gymnastics, he recognized the need of some form of recreation for the Y.M.C.A. Baron Posse told me which courses in his school would best suit my purpose. The work in the school was new to me, and I enjoyed the change. I admired the results in the posture, poise, and alertness that were developed in the students and displayed by the instructors.

The summer school at Martha’s Vineyard finished, I returned to Springfield to report my findings to Dr. Gulick. I told him that there were many valuable factors in the Swedish system— some of which we afterward adopted—but that it did not solve our problem.

This was the third time that Dr. Gulick had received a like report about foreign systems. The German system had been thoroughly tried; the French system had failed to help us; and now the Swedish system offered no relief. It became evident that we would be forced to solve our own problem rather than fall back on any system that was then in use.

At the opening of the regular school session in the fall of 1891, Dr. Gulick introduced a new course, a seminar in psychology. Among the members of this class were Dr. F. N. Seerley, Dr. Robert A. Clark, Dr. A. T. Halstead, A. A. Stagg, and myself.

At our meetings, many questions of physical education were discussed. Among these was the need for some game that would be interesting, easy to learn, and easy to play in the winter and by artificial light.

During the discussion of inventions, Dr. Gulick made the statement: “There is nothing new under the sun. All so-called new things are simply recombinations of the factors of things that are now in existence.” The doctor used as an illustration the recombining of elements to make new chemical substances, such as synthetic drugs and dyes.

Mentally applying this principle to our need for a new game, I made the remark: “Doctor, if that is so, we can invent a new game that will meet our needs. All that we have to do is to take the factors of our known games and recombine them, and we will have the game we are looking for.”

With his characteristic quickness, Dr. Gulick asked the class to try out my idea and to bring a plan for a new game to the next session. Little did I think at that time what effect my suggestion would have in the field of sports and on my own life. Each one of us went his way with the firm conviction that at the next meeting he would have solved the problem and given to the world a new game. The following week, when the group met, none of us had anything to offer. We had all been so busy in trying to get results from our regular work that we had found little time to plan for something new.

The fact that this was assigned to us as a problem has led to the statement sometimes made that basketball was invented in one night. It was many weeks later that basketball actually came into existence.

When the fall sports were ended, our attention was again called to the conditions which had previously caused us so much worry. The school at that time was training two classes of leaders, one as physical directors and the other as secretaries.

During the football season, both of these groups worked together. The two guards, an end, and a halfback were from the secretarial department; the rest of the team was from the physical directors’ group. At the close of the outdoor sports, all the students went to the gymnasium for their exercise. The physical directors and the secretaries did their work in separate classes. The first were interested in getting as much as possible out of their regular class work, because it trained them for their profession. It was comparatively easy to teach this group. The secretaries, however, had a different attitude toward physical activities; they had all the physical development they needed and were not interested. They were, nevertheless, required to spend an hour each day in what was to most of them distasteful work.

The instructor assigned to the secretaries’ class was Dr. A. T. Halstead, an expert in marching and mass calisthenics, and it was only natural that he should stress these activities. Try as he might, he could arouse little enthusiasm for this kind of work, and he realized that the men were even developing an antipathy toward exercise of all kinds. At the next meeting of the faculty, Dr. Halstead requested that he be given some other class. Dr. R. A. Clark was then assigned to the class.

Clark was the best gymnast and athlete in the faculty, a Phi Beta Kappa of Williams College, and a Doctor of Medicine. He was thoroughly prepared to teach any class in the school. He began his work with a great deal of enthusiasm. His first step was to drop all marching and calisthenics and to take up apparatus work, mixing in such athletic events as could be carried on in a space sixty-five by forty-five feet. Here again the men were given exercise in which they had no interest. Try as hard as he could, Clark failed to arouse any enthusiasm for the work that had been intensely interesting to the classes he had taught before.

It soon became evident that the antagonism of the class toward physical work was increasing; at the next meeting of the faculty, Dr. Clark said that no one could do anything with that group. While we were discussing this condition, I again spoke my mind, saying: “The trouble is not with the men but with the system that we are using. The kind of work for this particular class should be of a recreative nature, something that would appeal to their play instincts.”

While this statement was true, it did not help, as once more we were faced with the same old question. What could we give them? There was no indoor game that would invoke the enthusiasm of football or baseball. The only indoor games that we had at that time were three-deep, prisoners’ base, long-ball, and games of this type. It is easy to see now why it was impossible to interest grown men in the games that even the youngsters today fail to enjoy.

The group in the faculty meeting was quiet; each was trying to think of a solution. It was like a bolt of lightning from a clear sky when Dr. Gulick turned to me and said, “Naismith, I want you to take that class and see what you can do with it.” Knowing the difficulty of the task that was being assigned to me, I immediately began to make excuses and to show why I should be left with the classes that I was teaching at that time. I had been instructing in boxing, wrestling, swimming, and canoeing, all sports that I felt proficient in and liked. Gymnastics did not appeal to me as the sports did, and I tried my best to dissuade Dr. Gulick from changing my work. His mind was made up, however; it mattered little how much I talked: my fate was sealed, and I was to take the class. I had little sympathy for the class that had disposed of two instructors and was waiting for another.

As we left the meeting, Dr. Gulick noticed my attitude, and falling into step beside me, walked down the hall. We had almost reached his office when he turned to me and said, “Naismith, now would be a good time for you to work on that new game that you said could be invented.”

When he had assigned me the class of incorrigibles, I had felt that I was being imposed on; but when he told me to do what all the directors of the country had failed to accomplish, I felt it was the last straw. My fist closed, and I looked up into Gulick’s face. I saw there only a quizzical smile. There was little left for me to do but to accept the challenge.

I have never found out whether it was intentional on the part of Dr. Gulick to unite the two difficulties, or merely incidental, to get rid of two vexing problems, that he gave both of them to the same person; but it is certain that they worked together for ultimate good.

The class was led by two business men, Patton and Mahan, and whatever met with their approval would be accepted by the rest of the group. Had they been satisfied with my first attempt, basketball would not have been originated.

I learned to appreciate the attitude of the class that I had been given; they were older men, and I felt that if I were in their place, I would probably have done all I could to get rid of the obnoxious requirements. This fellow feeling may have been of assistance to me in my task.

Following out the suggestion that I had made in the faculty meeting, I began by laying aside all heavy work, using only the games that we had been accustomed to play for recreation after the regular class work. These games relieved the men of the drudgery of which they had complained; but fifteen minutes of a game like three deep became more monotonous than work on the parallel bars. Ten minutes of sailors’ tag gave them plenty of exercise—but what were we to do during the other thirty minutes?

All of the gymnastic games proved to be the same, and the games that had been worked out by others proved as ineffective. Doctor Sargent, of Harvard, had started a game called battle-ball, and Dr. Gulick originated two games, one a modification of ante-over with a medicine ball and the other a modification of cricket. I tried all these games but was forced to abandon them because they did not retain the interest of the class. I then determined to modify some of the outdoor sports.

Football was the first game that I modified. In eliminating the roughness, I tried to substitute the tackling of English Rugby for that of the American game. In Rugby, the tackle must be made above the hips, and the endeavor is to stop the runner rather than to throw him. The changing of the tackle did not appeal to the members of the class, who had been taught to throw the runner with as much force as possible, so that if he were able to get up at all, he would at least be in a dazed condition. To ask these men to handle their opponents gently was to make their favorite sport a laughing stock, and they would have none of it.

Soccer, or as it was then called, Association football, was the game that I next attempted to modify. On the gymnasium floor the men were accustomed to wearing soft soled shoes, and I thought, therefore, they would use caution in kicking the ball. Many of the class had played soccer outdoors, and when they saw an opening for a goal, they forgot all about their shoes and drove the ball with all their might. As a result of this, many of them went limping off the floor; instead of an indoor soccer game, we had a practical lesson in first aid.

Some of the former soccer players had learned to drive the ball with the inside of the foot; and if they missed their shots at the goal, they were likely to smash the windows, which were at that time unscreened. There were times when the game waxed so furious that it was necessary to call time out, in order that we could remove the clubs and the dumbbells that were knocked from the racks on the wall.

The reaction of the boys toward soccer was, to say the least, unfavorable, and we soon dropped the attempt to change soccer into an indoor game. I had pinned my hopes on these two games, and when they failed me, there seemed little chance of success. Each attempt was becoming more difficult.

There was still one more game that I was determined to try, and this was the Canadian game of lacrosse. I had played lacrosse as a boy, and to some extent in the university. Later I had been associated with the Shamrocks, a professional team in Montreal. I have always considered this the best of all games, but it seemed impossible to make an indoor sport of one that required so much space.

The only modification that I could think of was to eliminate or to modify the crosse. I thought of making a short, one-handed crosse, somewhat like a ping-pong racquet, but there was neither time nor money to manufacture it. As I was not willing to give up the game without a trial, I used the regular crosse.

In the group there were seven Canadians; and when these men put into practice some of the tricks they had been taught in the outdoor game, football and soccer appeared tame in comparison. No bones were broken in the game, but faces were scarred and hands were hacked. Those who had never played the game were unfortunate, for it was these men to whom the flying crosses did the most damage. The beginners were injured and the experts were disgusted; another game went into the discard.


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