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
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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.