When James Naismith invented basketball, he never could have imagined the way it would spread around the world and take the gospel with it.
Naismith, a Canadian, had studied theology at Presbyterian College in Montreal before taking a job as a physical-education teacher at the International YMCA Training School in Springfield, Massachusetts, later known as Springfield College.
“It says on his application that he was applying to develop Christian principles in young people’s lives,” Jim Naismith, his grandson, told Investor’s Business Daily. “He had this strange idea that competitive sports would be more helpful to young people than talking or preaching to them.”
James Naismith believed in a “muscular Christianity” that emphasized the religious and character-building value of sports. He got an opportunity to put his beliefs into practice in 1891.
The first basketball game
“We had a real New England blizzard,” he told New York radio station WOR in 1939. “For days the students couldn’t go outdoors, so they began roughhousing in the halls. We tried everything to keep them quiet. We tried playing a modified form of football in the gymnasium, but they got bored with that.
“Something had to be done. One day I had an idea. I called the boys to the gym and divided them into two teams of nine and gave them an old soccer ball. I showed them two peach baskets I had nailed at each end of the gym, and I told them the idea was to throw the ball into the other team’s peach basket.”
His students played the first game on December 21, 1891. Baskets counted for only one point, and the final score was 1–0.
How basketball was different
“In baseball or football, no one really knows who invented the game, wrote down the rules, where the first game was played,” said John Doleva, CEO of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. “With Naismith and basketball, there is a unique and singular point in history where one of the major global sports can pinpoint who, when, where and why the game was invented.”
As you might imagine, the first version of the game was very different than the one played today. The peach baskets attached to balcony rails just so happened to be ten feet above the gym floor, and men in the balcony retrieved the ball and threw it back into play after a player made a shot. Someone had the bright idea of cutting the bottoms out of the baskets a few years later.
With few rules, that first game was rough.
“The boys began tackling, kicking and punching in the clinches,” Naismith said. “Before I could pull them apart, one boy was knocked out, several of them had black eyes and one had a dislocated shoulder.”
So he sat down and wrote thirteen rules that serve as the foundation of the modern game.
The global influence of “basket ball”
“Basket ball,” as it was first called, spread rapidly to YMCAs and colleges, and then to other countries, including China.
“Graduates of the YMCA Training School got on boats with peach baskets and a soccer ball and took the game around the world,” Doleva said.
It proved to be an effective tool for evangelism. Before Naismith died in 1939, he had an inkling of the influence basketball would have.
“Whenever I witness games in a church league, I feel that my vision, almost half a century ago, of the time when the Christian people would recognize the true value of athletics, has become a reality,” he wrote.