Stark, Douglas, ed. The James Naismith Reader. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2021. Pp. 251. $29.95. hardback and ebook.
Reviewed by Łukasz Muniowski
Basketball’s initial function was to correct and contain the seemingly endless energy of young students, who found themselves in need of physical and intellectual occupation during long and dark winter months in snow-covered New England. As identified by Douglas Stark, who composed The James Naismith Reader after carefully reviewing a selection of the father of basketball’s letters, articles, and other works, “purity” was at the center of the sport from its inception. Basketball was not created for monetary gain, but to organize young bodies, promote physical activity, and keep young people out of trouble. Considering how basketball basically saved the lives of future NBA superstars like Allen Iverson or Steve Francis, the sport perfectly has served its purpose.
One of the things that distinguishes basketball from other American sports is its global appeal. With players from different parts of the world leaving their imprint on today’s NBA, it is only right that the game spread so rapidly since it first was played on December 21, 1891 in a New England gymnasium. When students departed to their homes for the winter holiday, they took it upon themselves to introduce this curious new game to their peers. This led to variations of the sport growing in different parts of the country, unbeknownst to its creator.
At age 32, James Naismith, a member of the faculty of the International Young Men’s Christian Association Training School in Springfield, Massachusetts, was tasked with finding an alternative to gymnastics, which had filled physical education curriculums up until that time. Granted, gymnastics is a captivating sport, one that allows an individual to showcase their physical gifts. But while one person is performing, the others are reduced to the role of bystanders. Naismith was to create a team sport that would keep all the participants occupied and focused on a given goal.
For Naismith, sport was connected to morality. Being a part of the team required one to often sacrifice for the greater good, while approaching triumph with modesty. Although Naismith studied at McGill University in Montreal to become a minister, he became more interested in physical education after graduation. Merging Christian values and physical activity became his lifelong obsession. That is why, in 1890, the Canadian moved south of the border to Springfield, where he began studying in the only Northern American school that educated physical education instructors.
Coming back to the uneasy task of inventing a new discipline, Naismith started with a soccer ball and two peach baskets, which were brought in by the superintendent to serve as goals. Originally Naismith wanted boxes, but there were none. So the hoop, which is now proudly erected on driveways by parents desiring to connect with their children over a shared game of H-O-R-S-E, came to be by accident. Naismith himself allowed for boxes to be used as well.
The rules of the game were archaic, at least by today’s standards. Seeing streetball legends breaking ankles with their handles would probably bewilder the sport’s inventor, not only due to these actions being clear examples of individualism––as well as individual genius––but also due to the actual dribbling of the ball. Early players were not allowed to run with the ball. Hitting the ball with a fist was also a foul, as a fist was a symbol of aggression. And aggression was forbidden, as basketball was to be played in a gentlemanly manner. Any infringement of the rules was also a foul. It did not make for an entertaining contest, as the first basketball game ended with the score 1–0.
Still, the game was an instant success with the participants. Naismith’s letters show a man proud of his invention and willing to try out its different variations, as long as the games served as proof that “science is superior to brute force” (p. 29). Going through the writings one can see how thoughtful, deep, and generous Naismith was. By blessing the world with the gift of basketball, he more than reached his goal. And while people sometimes tend to complain about the unmoral aspects of professional basketball, the professionalization of the sport should be seen as an extension of Naismith’s influence and part of his lasting legacy. The dream of being a professional basketball player instills discipline in numerous kids, who focus solely on the sport in order to first earn a living and then inspire change in their communities by serving as an example for others to follow. That would undoubtedly make Dr. Naismith proud.
Łukasz Muniowski recieved his Ph.D. in American Literature from the University of Warsaw. He is the author of Three-Pointer! A 40-Year NBA History (McFarland, 2020), Narrating the NBA: Representations of Leading Players after the Michael Jordan Era (Lexington, 2021), and The Sixth Man: A History of the NBA Off the Bench (McFarland, 2021).