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Brother James Naismith

By February 22, 2024No Comments
Portrait photograph of Dr. James Naismith.
Dr. James Naismith, inventor of basketball and Freemason. c. 1920

I am sure that no man can derive more pleasure from money or power than I do from seeing a pair of basketball goals in some out of the way place.” – Dr. James Naismith

In the annals of sports history, Dr. James Naismith inadvertently carved out a prominent place for himself as the visionary educator and inventor credited with birthing the game of basketball. A member of our venerable fraternity, Naismith’s legacy extends far beyond the hardwood courts, where his creation has become a global phenomenon. We’re proud to say Brother Naismith became a Freemason when he joined Russell Lee Lodge in Springfield, Massachusetts, in 1894 and later affiliated with Lawrence Lodge No. 6 in Kansas, where he served as Worshipful Master from 1927 until 1928.

As a Freemason, Worshipful Brother Naismith found inspiration and guidance within the principles of the craft, and it is through this lens that we can gain a deeper understanding of the man behind the game. His journey, marked by intellect, discipline, inclusivity, and a commitment to community, reflects the very essence of Masonic ideals. 

Sports and Theology

James Naismith was born on November 6, 1861, near Almonte, Ontario, Canada, to a Scottish couple, John Naismith and Margaret Young. He attended grade school at Bennie’s Corners near Almonte while spending much of his time playing games outside. One game he frequently played was called Duck on a Rock and is thought to have later served as his inspiration for basketball. In this game, a large stone (the “duck”) is placed upon a larger stone or a tree stump. One player protects the stone while opposing players throw stones at the “duck” to knock it off the platform. Naismith discovered that a soft lobbing shot was far more effective than a straight hard throw, and thus, he unintentionally sowed the seed of basketball. 

In 1873, young James was orphaned following the death of his parents and maternal grandmother, sending him to live with his uncle Peter Young. After high school, Naismith attended McGill University in Montreal, where he earned a BA in Physical Education and took up football, rugby, lacrosse, and gymnastics. James then entered the Presbyterian College of Theology in Montreal and graduated in 1890. He then departed for America to work at Springfield College in Massachusetts to work in physical education under Luther Halsey Gulick, the father of physical education in the United States.

The world’s first basketball court in Springfield College
The first basketball court at Springfield College in Springfield, Massachusetts, USA.

The Birth of Basketball

The following year, Gulick had stressed to his faculty that the school needed a new indoor game, “that would be interesting, easy to learn, and easy to play in the winter and by artificial light.” One rainy day in December, Naismith delivered upon Gulick’s request in an attempt to keep his gym class active. He pulled together different aspects of popular sports (as well as his childhood game “duck on a rock”), such as the passing of American rugby, the use of a goal in lacrosse, and the size and shape of a soccer ball.

Naismith wanted, “a goal with a horizontal opening high enough so that the ball would have to be tossed into it, rather than being thrown.” He requisitioned two peach baskets from the college janitor, nailed them to the gymnasium balcony, and drew up the 13 original rules. After several years of using a long dowel after each scored basket to retrieve the ball, they cut the bottoms from the peach baskets to simplify the process. The first game was played with a soccer ball and consisted of two 15-minute halves with a five-minute intermission. The teams comprised three centers, three forwards, and three guards per side.

Years later in January 1939, Naismith gave more details of the first game and the initial rules that were used:

“I showed them two peach baskets I’d nailed up at each end of the gym, and I told them the idea was to throw the ball into the opposing team’s peach basket. I blew a whistle, and the first game of basketball began. … The boys began tackling, kicking, and punching in the clinches. They ended up in a free-for-all in the middle of the gym floor. [The injury toll: several black eyes, one separated shoulder, and one player knocked unconscious.] “It certainly was murder.” [Naismith changed some of the rules as part of his quest to develop a clean sport.] The most important one was that there should be no running with the ball. That stopped tackling and slugging. We tried out the game with those [new] rules (fouls), and we didn’t have one casualty.”

Typewritten first draft of the Rules of Basketball 
Typewritten first draft of the Rules of Basketball by James Naismith, December 1891.

Meet Coach Naismith

Over time, soccer balls were phased out of the game and eventually replaced today by the modern basketball. The school hosted the first public basketball game on March 12, 1892, and saw over 200 spectators in the crowd. Within two years, basketball had grown so popular that the YMCA spread it internationally. Soon, dribbling was introduced, and the game evolved to resemble more closely what we know today as basketball. Whereas passing was the original way to advance the ball, dribbling was part of the game by 1896.

During this period, James married Maude E. Sherman and started a family that would include five children: Margaret, Helen, John, Maude, and James. With the true mind of a Freemason, Naismith continued his pursuit of greater learning. He soon left Springfield for Denver to obtain his medical degree before joining the University of Kansas faculty in 1898. Naismith served as the gymnasium director and campus chaplain in his new role. He also introduced basketball and served as the school’s coach.

A True Freemason

By 1906, the peach baskets had been replaced by metal hoops with backboards, and enough college teams had formed to establish the first intercollegiate competitions. Basketball continued to gain popularity, but Naismith preferred gymnastics and wrestling to his creation. He served as the athletic director at Kansas for much of the early 20th century and became an American citizen on May 4, 1925.

When we consider basketball’s influence on the world, it’s no surprise that it is considered Naismith’s crowning achievement. But during his time in Kansas, he fought for something more important: equality. He detested segregation and fought for progress in race relations in his small corner of the world. Throughout the 1930s, he strove to get black students onto Kansas’ varsity Jayhawks but was unsuccessful. However, he did help end the segregation of the university’s swimming pool.

James Naismith with a soccer ball and a basket.
Basketball was originally played with a soccer ball.

Legacy and Awards

We’re glad to say that when Worshipful Brother Naismith was 74, he witnessed the introduction of basketball into the official Olympic sports program of the 1936 Summer Olympic Games in Berlin. It was a tremendous and well-deserved honor. He passed away in 1939 at 78, eight months after the NCAA Basketball Championship was established. Today, it is one of the biggest sports events in North America.

If Dr. Naismith’s goal was to help people develop character and improve society through sport, he certainly succeeded. Over a century after it was created, basketball is now played in over 200 countries by more than 300 million people. It is among the most popular team sports in the world and has given rise to some of the most well-known and admired athletes, including Ohio’s own LeBron James, John Havlicek, Stephen Curry, Nate Thurmond, and Jerry Lucas.

For his invention, Brother Naismith has been inducted into the following institutions: 

·       FIBA Hall of Fame

·       Canadian Basketball Hall of Fame

·       Canadian Olympic Hall of Fame

·       Canadian Sports Hall of Fame

·       Ontario Sports Hall of Fame

·       Ottawa Sports Hall of Fame

·       McGill University Sports Hall of Fame

·       Oklahoma State Sports Hall of Fame

Naismith’s ingenuity, a force that birthed the game of basketball, reflects the spirit of Freemasonry – a spirit rooted in creativity, enlightenment, and the pursuit of a higher purpose. Through his dedication to sport, equality, and fraternity, Naismith has left a timeless legacy that extends far beyond the confines of the basketball court, resonating with those who strive to build bridges in the pursuit of a better world. In the spirit of Freemasonry, may we carry forward the lessons of James Naismith, ensuring that the echoes of his contributions continue to inspire for generations.

Want to learn about other Freemasons who left incredible impacts on the world of sports? Read our feature articles on John Elway, Cy Young, and Arnold Palmer