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James Naismith found himself in a tough position. He was working with an unruly class of fourteen-year-old boys at the YMCA in Springfield, Massachusetts, during a particularly harsh New England winter in 1891. The YMCA director of physical education, Dr. Luther Gulick, gave Naismith an ultimatum: invent an indoor game that could keep the rowdy group of boys occupied for the winter. Gulick gave Naismith fourteen days to implement the game.
The Birth of Basketball
Naismith's original idea was to make a game in which the only way to advance the ball was to pass it. Furthermore, to score, players would have to lob the ball into a basket that was placed well above the players' heads. Naismith reasoned that these rules would reduce the violence and body contact endemic to games at the time such as soccer, lacrosse, rugby, hockey and football. In the first ever basketball game at the YMCA, the players used a soccer ball. Each team also had nine players on the court at a time. Peach baskets were used as "hoops." Before the game, Naismith etched his immortal "13 rules" on the blackboard. In the original rules, each half was fifteen minutes long and there was a five-minute break between the halves. The rules described the roles of the umpires and referees, fouls, and a description of what constituted "traveling," among others. According to Naismith, the rules governing fouls and traveling were most important as they prevented the boys from tackling, kicking mobbing, and punching each other. In the first basketball game, the concept of dribbling had not been established.
The First College Game
Naismith's game quickly became popular. The YMCA decided to spread the word about basketball beyond its walls. In 1893, Vanderbilt University, in Nashville, Tennessee, is thought to have fielded the first college basketball team. Two years later, the first intercollegiate game was played in Minnesota. In the meantime, Naismith earned a medical degree and joined the faculty at the University of Kansas, where he became the Kansas Jayhawks' first basketball coach. Naismith’s record as a coach was a subpar 55 wins to 60 losses, making him, ironically, the only coach with a losing record in the history of Kansas basketball.
Despite his status as the undisputed inventor of one of the world's most popular sports, Naismith was uninterested in the fame or glory that typically accompany such an invention. In fact, he was more interested in pursuing the science of physical education. By the time he died in 1939, basketball was played throughout the world and was an Olympic event. Naismith was the first inductee into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall-of-Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts, in 1959. In 2010, Naismith's document describing the original rules of basketball were auctioned for a record $4,338,000 dollars. It was the highest amount paid for an item of sports memorabilia in history. The rules were donated to the University of Kansas.
Today, over 300 million people are thought to participate in basketball, making it one of the world’s most popular team sports.