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Playing with Purpose
Inside the Lives and Faith of Top NBA Starsâ"Including Jeremy Lin, Kevin Durant, Kyle Korver, and More!
By Mike Yorkey
Barbour Publishing, Inc. Copyright © 2011 Mike Yorkey
All rights reserved.
DR. JAMES NAISMITH: INVENTING WITH PURPOSE
The man who invented the game of basketball embraced Jesus Christ.
That's right. Dr. James Naismith, basketball's founder, was also a Christian theologian who invented the game more than a century ago as a way to reconcile his love of sports with Christian integrity.
Dr. Naismith had an amazing backstory that shows the hand of God directing his path. Born in 1861 near Almonte, Ontario, in Canada, James was the eldest son of Scottish immigrants John and Margaret Naismith. At the age of eight, James moved with his family to Grand-Calumet, Quebec, where his father began working as a sawhand at a lumber mill. The young boy would discover tragedy a year later when his parents both contracted typhoid fever. They died within three weeks of each other, leaving James and three younger brothers and sisters as orphans.
The reeling children were taken in by a godly grandmother who lived in the east Ontario village of Bennies Corners, but then she died two years later. A bachelor uncle, Peter Young, gave them a home, but he was an authoritarian type who kept James busy around the farm and working in the woods. Young taught the boy how to chop trees, saw logs, and drive horses. His stern uncle put great stock in reliability and self-reliance, and he raised James and his siblings in God's Word.
James attended grade school in a one-room schoolhouse. The walk from the farm to school was five miles—and yes, the Canadian lad walked through snowdrifts in winter. James wasn't a great student but showed excellent hand-eye coordination and athletic skill. During the winter, his favorite activities were snowshoeing, skating, ice hockey, and tobogganing.
After the snow melted, James loved playing a simple children's game known as "duck on a rock." Players formed a line at a distance of fifteen to twenty feet from a base stone. Atop the stone was placed a smaller drake stone—otherwise known as the "duck." Each player would toss a fist-sized stone toward the "duck," attempting to knock the rock from its perch. Players found that the best way to play "duck on a rock" was to lob a soft shot rather than making a straight, hard throw. That's because if they missed, they had to retrieve their rock to stay in the game. So players found it better to throw their stones in an arc, a discovery that later proved essential in James' invention of basketball.
James attended Ontario's Almonte High School for two years but dropped out to work as a logger in a lumber camp so he could help support his younger siblings. Life as a lumberjack meant hard—and dangerous—work. Then, at nineteen years of age, a random exchange altered the course of James' life. Here's the story:
James walked into a crowded bar and ordered a whiskey from the barkeep. A man standing at the bar, cap pulled low over his eyes, spoke to the young man without turning his head.
"Ye're Margaret Young's son, aren't ye?" he asked, using James' mother's maiden name.
"Aye," Naismith replied, reaching for his tumbler of whiskey.
"She'd turn over in her grave to see ye."
Naismith set the whiskey down—never to drink again. The story goes that he made a vow that night never again to do anything he knew would make his mother ashamed of him.
James realized that education was his only way out of a life of backbreaking, dangerous manual labor. He returned to high school, where a teacher named Thomas B. Caswell took an interest in his welfare and tutored him in reading, writing, arithmetic, Latin, and other subjects.
Naismith turned out to be a late bloomer academically, graduating from high school when he was twenty-one years old. After graduation, he immediately enrolled at McGill University in Montreal, where he was a rare four-sport athlete, competing in football, lacrosse, gymnastics, and rugby. James was a tough and durable athlete who rarely missed a game, match, or meet.
Naismith planned to go into the ministry, based upon his ideal for Christian service and honoring the memory of his mother. But many of his fellow students openly wondered how a future "man of the cloth" could justify his participation on football and rugby teams that attracted such bullies and brutes. Rugby and football—especially in those pre-Leatherheads days—were rough-and- tumble sports. Think Gladiator without the swords.
In the 1880s, many Christians believed that athletics were not only a waste of time but also a "tool of the devil." A group of James' friends—as well as his sister Annie—even met to pray for his soul. When Annie confronted her brother about his involvement in athletics, she cited Luke 9:62 ("Jesus replied, 'No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God'") as biblical proof that James should be in the pulpit, not the play yard.
Naismith didn't see things that way, though. In fact, this offspring of Scottish parents was a forerunner of Eric Liddell, the early twentieth-century Scottish athlete featured in the movie Chariots of Fire. Liddell said he could feel God's pleasure when he was sprinting because he was truly using the gifts God had given him. (By the way, Liddell also played the "brutish" game of rugby and later served as a Christian missionary to China.)
Naismith viewed athletics as a ministry and a way to impact others for Christ, a position that was strengthened after a telling incident involving a teammate on the rugby team. One time at practice, the teammate blurted a curse word in frustration. He looked up and noticed James had been within earshot. He knew of James' faith in Christ, and he immediately apologized to him.
"Sorry about that, Jim," said the offending player. "Forgot you were here."
Naismith had heard much worse language when he worked in the lumber camps, but on that day he realized that a righteous man could have an incredible impact on the athletic field, which, in those days, was mainly populated by ruffians.
After earning his bachelor's degree in physical education, Naismith stayed at McGill University and enrolled at Presbyterian College, McGill's theological school on the university campus, to earn his divinity degree. He kept playing on the football and rugby teams, which prompted more mumbling from Annie and from his theology professors. They must have really gotten their knickers in a knot after Naismith showed up in the student pulpit one Sunday morning sporting two black eyes earned in a particularly rough rugby match against Ottawa.
Naismith could not understand why so many people believed that his studying to be a minister disqualified him from playing and enjoying athletic competition. His belief was reinforced when a man from Yale University, an American named Amos Alonzo Stagg, appeared at McGill to deliver a lecture that said, in part, that it took many of the same qualities to become a good athlete as it did to become a good Christian, including enthusiasm, perseverance, and hard work.
It all came together for Naismith. He persevered and earned his divinity degree in 1890 from Presbyterian College and then moved to the United States, where he became both a graduate student and a PE instructor at the International YMCA Training School in Springfield, Massachusetts. The YMCA, as in the Young Men's Christian Association.
The "Gay Nineties" of the late nineteenth century was a time when the C in YMCA meant something more than just another letter in a Village People song. The Young Men's Christian Association was founded in 1844 in London, England, by a twenty-three-year-old fellow named George Williams.
Williams was concerned about the lack of healthy activities in major cities for young men like himself, many of whom were drawn from rural areas to factory work in London during the height of the Industrial Revolution. They worked ten to twelve hours a day, six days a week in a bleak landscape of noisy factories, overcrowded tenement housing, and dangerous influences. Taverns and brothels were their only entertainment options.
Williams and eleven friends organized the first YMCA meeting as a refuge of Bible study and fellowship for young men seeking escape from the hazards of life on the London streets. The YMCA offered something unique for its time, and its openness to anyone and everyone dissipated the rigid lines separating English social classes. The goal of putting Christian principles into practice, Williams said, was achieved through developing "a healthy spirit, mind, and body." The YMCA system became known as "muscular Christianity" because it promoted the idea that a healthy body leads to a healthy Christian mind.
The YCMA concept quickly traveled across the Atlantic Ocean to North America, and the first YMCAs were established in the United States prior to the Civil War. The local Ys broke down social barriers and brought together different church denominations in the United States. It's noteworthy that in the patriarchal society of the nineteenth century, women and children were also invited to take part in the YMCA's popular programs as well as their physical fitness classes.
It was this milieu that James Naismith became part of when he first arrived at the YMCA Training School, where he continued his athletic career by playing on the school's first football team, which was under the direction of none other than Amos Alonzo Stagg.
As a graduate student teacher, Naismith was given a group of restless college students who were taking a regular PE class during the winter quarter—presumably to burn off some energy and stay in shape until the spring lacrosse season. All students at the YMCA Training School were required to exercise for one hour a day—in keeping with the YMCA ideal—but there wasn't much for them to do during the winter other than march around the gym, perform jumping jacks, count off pushups, and do more monotonous calisthenics. These unpopular calorie-burning activities were pale substitutes for intramural football in the fall and lacrosse games in the spring.
Naismith did the best he could to keep enthusiasm high inside the school's gym that first winter. The following fall, he returned for his second year of graduate school, studying under Dr. Luther Halsey Gulick, the superintendent of physical education at the college. In one class called the Psychology of Play, Gulick stressed the need for a new indoor game that could be played during the winter months—a game that would be interesting to play and easy to learn.
As the fall semester came to a close, no one in Naismith's class had followed up on Gulick's challenge to invent such a game. Dr. Gulick pulled Naismith off to the side. He reminded James that football season was ending soon and that the young men at the YMCA Training School faced another dull winter of boring jumping jacks, uninspiring push-ups, and silly lines of leapfrog inside the gym.
"Naismith, I want you to see what you can do with those students," the superintendent said. "They need something that will appeal to their play instincts."
With those marching orders, Naismith went to work and came up with a checklist. Since the new game would be played in the winter, it had to be designed for the indoors. It also had to involve a large number of players and provide plenty of lung-burning exercise. Finally, since the game would be played in a confined space on a hardwood floor, it would have to forgo the roughness found in football, soccer, and rugby.
James also decided the sport could not be fundamentally elitist, like golf and tennis were at the time, nor could it require money for joining a country club or the purchase of expensive equipment. At its very heart, it must be a simple game—one for the masses, not just for the well-to-do.
Over the course of a couple weeks, Naismith took a little bit of this and a little bit of that from games already in existence:
passing—from American rugby
the jump ball—from English rugby
the use of a goal—from lacrosse
the size and shape of the ball—from soccer
and the "shooting" of the ball toward a target—from his childhood game "duck on a rock"
Naismith approached the school janitor to ask if he could provide two eighteen-inch- square boxes to use as goals in the new game. The janitor rummaged around the storage room and found two peach baskets instead. Naismith nailed the half-bushel baskets to the lower rail of the gymnasium balcony, one at each end. The height of that lower balcony happened to be ten feet, which is where we get our ten-foot basket today. (Good thing the lower balcony wasn't twelve feet off the ground, or we wouldn't have the NBA Slam Dunk Contest every year.)
A man was stationed at each end of the balcony to pick the ball from the basket and put it back into play after a score. (It wasn't until a few years later that someone came up with the idea of cutting off the bottom of the peach baskets.) Naismith used a soccer ball for the game, and play involved running and passing to teammates—including the "bounce pass"—but no tackling. Dribbling was not part of the original game, but leather balls at that time weren't very symmetrical anyway, so they probably wouldn't have bounced consistently. The game's objective was for players to get the ball close enough to their elevated goal to toss it into the peach basket—and to prevent their opponents from doing the same to their goal.
Dr. Gulick was impressed with Naismith's new game, and he underlined the game's noble origins of fair play and no hard contact, lest a "foul" be called. He told Naismith, "The game must be kept clean. It is a perfect outrage for an institution that stands for Christian work in the community to tolerate not merely ungentlemanly treatment of guests, but slugging and that which violates the elementary principles of morals ... therefore excuse for the rest of the year any player who is not clean in his play."
Naismith drew up thirteen original rules (see sidebar, next page) and published them on January 14, 1892, in the YMCA Training School newspaper, The Triangle.
THE 13 RULES OF BASKETBALL
by James Naismith
Author's note: This list of rules is the sturdy foundation that the game of basketball was laid upon 120 years ago. Of course, dozens of rules have been added to the game since then:
1. The ball may be thrown in any direction with one or both hands.
2. The ball may be batted in any direction with one or both hands, but never with the fist.
3. A player cannot run with the ball. The player must throw it from the spot on which he catches it, allowance to be made for a man running at good speed.
4. The ball must be held by the hands. The arms or body must not be used for holding it.
5. No shouldering, holding, pushing, striking or tripping in any way of an opponent. The first infringement of this rule by any person shall count as a foul; the second shall disqualify him until the next goal is made or, if there was evident intent to injure the person, for the whole of the game. No substitution shall be allowed.
6. A foul is striking at the ball with the fist, violations of Rules 3 and 4 and such as described in Rule 5.
7. If either side makes three consecutive fouls, it shall count as a goal for the opponents (consecutive means without the opponents in the meantime making a foul).
8. A goal shall be made when the ball is thrown or batted from the grounds into the basket and stays there, providing those defending the goal do not touch or disturb the goal.
If the ball rests on the edges, and the opponent moves the basket, it shall count as a goal.
9. When the ball goes out of bounds, it shall be thrown into the field and played by the first person touching it. In case of dispute, the umpire shall throw it straight into the field. The thrower-in is allowed five seconds. If he holds it longer, it shall go to the opponent. If any side persists in delaying the game, the umpire shall call a foul on them.
10. The umpire shall be the judge of the men and shall note the fouls and notify the referee when three consecutive fouls have been made. He shall have power to disqualify men according to Rule 5.
11. The referee shall be the judge of the ball and shall decide when the ball is in play, in bounds, to which side it belongs, and shall keep the time. He shall decide when a goal has been made and keep account of the goals, with any other duties that are usually performed by a referee.
12. The time shall be two fifteen-minute halves, with five minutes rest between.
13. The side making the most goals in that time shall be declared the winner.
And that's how Dr. James Naismith invented basketball.
The first game was played on January 20, 1892, at the YMCA Training School between two nine-player teams. The final score was 1–0; only one goal was made, a 25-foot shot that nestled inside the peach basket. You could say the players hadn't honed their shooting touch yet.
Excerpted from Playing with Purpose by Mike Yorkey. Copyright © 2011 Mike Yorkey. Excerpted by permission of Barbour Publishing, Inc..
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